Content warning: This post discusses the history of racist country music and contains racist and sexually explicit language.
I won't be Reconstructed and I do not give a damn."
– from "Oh I'm a Good Old Rebel"
In 1959, Johnny Horton almost single-handedly created a national craze for newly composed historical folk songs when he topped the chart for 10 weeks with the French-English War tale "The Battle of New Orleans," which was closely followed by the Top 10 hit "Johnny Reb." Soon, artists of every stripe jumped on board with similar recordings that often were historical but sometimes were patterned after the patriotic and Southern pride themes of Horton's two hits. On the eve of the most tumultuous era of Civil Rights agitation, these celebrations of the South and their idealized portraits of the irrepressible Johnny Reb, set to the obligatory military snare-drum beat, struck such a chord with anxious whites that the formula was used for a host of racist country songs that appeared in the 1960s. Along the way, a number of explicitly racist recordings were attributed to Johnny Horton himself, and legend has it that he secretly recorded an entire album's worth of racist songs with titles such as "Some Niggers Never Die" and "Nigger-Hating Me."
Racist music before the Civil Rights era
The number of explicitly racist recordings increased dramatically in the 1960s, but racist music had been around much longer than that. Labels delved into the Ku Klux Klan songbook as early as the 1920s and 1930s, when Klan membership was at an all-time high and a printed Klan songbook reportedly sold a million copies. Indianapolis-based Edison Records (owned by none other than Thomas Edison) and Richmond, Indiana-based Gennett Records both issued Klan 78s alongside their pop and jazz discs. Some record labels, such as 100% and KKK (whose logo pictured a burning cross and the legend "Best in Klan Music") exclusively released racist titles such as "We Belong to the Ku Klux Klan" and "Why I Am a Clansman." And many early hillbilly performers, like J.E. Mainer and Uncle Dave Macon, recorded songs such as "Run, Nigger, Run" and "Nigger in the Woodpile," some of which were later cleaned up and given titles like "Run, Johnny, Run" and "Man in the Woodpile."
Nationalistic fervor and shellac shortages led to a lull in the production of racist recordings during World War II, or at least a lull in racist recordings that were directed at blacks. The Japanese became the new target of songs like Carson Robison's country hit "We're Gonna Have to Slap the Dirty Little Jap (And Uncle Sam's the Guy Who Can Do It)" and "A Hundred Years from Now," the latter of which imagines a future in which the only surviving Japanese people are kept in menageries. After the war ended, white teenagers became interested in R&B, and black-influenced rock and roll gained popularity, both of which riled the white supremacists, who soon began directing their ire toward blacks again in earnest.
"The Battle of New Orleans" and its aftereffects
Johnny Horton's "The Battle of New Orleans" was one of the biggest international hits of 1959, and one of the 30 biggest hits in the first 50 years that Billboard compiled sales and airplay charts. The song created a fad for so-called historical folk songs, which were not always factual but were highly formulaic. These fife-and-drum songs often incorporated banjo and had narrative lyrics about characters and events from history. The Civil War was a popular theme, but any historical or faux-historical subject would do. (Fess Parker recorded a great but historically inaccurate album of songs about Presidents and other figures from early American history.)
The Civil War-themed songs of the late 1950s and early-to-mid 1960s usually proclaimed that the South would rise again or waxed wistfully about past Southern victories. Given the social stresses of the day, these songs were not only nostalgic but also political statements, because the promised rise of the South implied a return to the antebellum status quo, or, in other words, to institutionalized white supremacy. Country music is not a genre that is known for explicit political protest, but in a not-too-subtle way, a substantial portion of white America expressed its displeasure with the Civil Rights movement, consciously or unconsciously, by buying these records.
The fact that these recordings were the front line in a political struggle is illustrated by the controversy that surrounded Claude King's 1964 Top 10 hit "The Burning of Atlanta," the chorus of which is "the South's gonna rise again." Claude King was a close friend of Johnny Horton, and after Horton's death in 1960, King was groomed by Columbia Records to be his replacement. "The Burning of Atlanta" was so politically provocative that it was blasted from sound trucks during the racial conflicts at the University of Mississippi in 1964 to intimidate black protesters and sympathizers. Claude King himself, disappointed that the record didn't chart higher, complained candidly, "I'm convinced the NAACP forced that record off the air."
Reb Rebel Records and the rise of underground racist country music
Southern hostility toward the NAACP was given voice on a series of 45s that were released by the Lousiana-based Reb Rebel Records label in the 1960s. J.D. "Jay" Miller, the composer of Kitty Wells' 1952 hit "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels," ran the label and produced the recordings. Miller was also an A&R man for Excello Records at the time, procuring material for black R&B and blues musicians even as he oversaw the recording of racist novelties for his own label. For Miller's Reb Rebel label, pseudonymous artists with names such as Johnny Rebel, Son of Mississippi (sometimes billed as the Multiple Voices of the Son of Mississippi), and James Crow performed topical songs and recitations, including "Flight NAACP 105," "NAACP Jig-A-Boo Gemini," and "NAACP Prayer." The Johnny Rebel song "Nigger-Hating Me" includes the line "the NAACP would sure like to get a hold of nigger-hating me." The label produced 20 singles between 1964-1972 as well as the compilation LP For Segregationists Only. Some of the records are said to have sold more than 100,000 copies.
The liner notes on the back cover of For Segregationists Only attempted to justify the music:
These selections express the feeling, anxiety, confusion, and problems during the political transformation of our way of life.... Transformations that have changed peace and tranquility into riots and demonstrations which have produced mass destruction, confusion, bloodshed, and even loss of life....Miller himself, in a queasy, conflicted attempt to express his motivations, resorted to the "some of my best friends are black" cliche:
Of course, we had a lot of fingers pointed at us, and by a lot of people less friendly to blacks than I am. I've always been friendly with blacks, and we never did hide the fact that we were recording these records. We had blacks sitting in on the sessions, and a lot of blacks agreed with what we said. We're not hypocritical about it. You'll find my address on there. I didn't try and hide it. There were others...but they wouldn't put their address on the labels like we did. I never had any black people object to our records. Though I did have some white people that were amazed at what we did. I met some white hypocrites that tried to stir up some trouble with it, but they wouldn't dare sit down and eat with a black. I just ignored them. I've been eating and drinking with blacks since 1946, as long as I've been making records. It was nothing new, but I didn't have anybody telling me I had to do it. That makes a big difference, and I choose my friends. And I don't choose them based on their skin color. The Reb Rebel Records were at the times of the Civil Rights disputes.... They even had a black radio station down in Port Arthur playing it.... Kind of like an Amos n' Andy skit....
Not all of the Reb Rebel Records singles were concerned with racial issues. Happy Fats' "Veteran's Plea" is a father's request that he be sent to fight in Vietnam instead of his son. Fats, whose real name was Leroy Leblanc, was a mainstream Cajun country artist who had recorded for RCA in the 1930s and 1940s. Other songs expressed discontent with government programs and policies, or lambasted war protesters and communists. These relatively mainstream right-wing political records had a fighting chance at reaching the country chart, considering that mainstream country star Jim Nesbitt enjoyed a handful of country hits in the 1960s with like-minded political comedy records like "Please Mr. Kennedy" and "Husband-In-Law," the latter of which is a bit of dialect humor that actually reached #74 on Billboard's country music chart in 1962. Johnny Seay's Day for Decision album, which was almost entirely concerned with right-wing political and patriotic themes, hit the Billboard album chart in 1966. And many mainstream country artists recorded songs that criticized the Civil Rights and anti-war movements, Communism, and the counterculture in the 1960s, including Marty Robbins' "Ain't I Right," Autry Inman and Bob Luman's "The Ballad of Two Brothers," and Sheb Wooley's "The Love-In."
Despite the relatively presentable protest records that Reb Rebel occasionally released, many of its other records were explicitly racist. Johnny Rebel's "Kajun Ku Klux Klan" begins with the advice, "You niggers listen now/I'm gonna tell you how/to keep from getting tortured when the Klan is on the prowl," but later says that "the Klan is gonna get you" no matter what. This song, like many of the recordings that have been mentioned, is based on the Johnny Horton model and features the omnipresent military-style snare-drum riffs.
Johnny Rebel was hands-down the performer with the most vitriolic material in Reb Rebel's catalog and was unique in that his white supremacist and right-wing messages were expressed in songs rather than recitations. Many of his recordings are competently crafted, well-played, and well-sung. Rebel, in real life a Louisianan named Clifford Trahan, attempted a career in mainstream country music, releasing straight country and rockabilly recordings under the names Tommy Todd, Jericho Jones, and Pee Wee Trahan before finding an underground niche with offensive material, some of which was sexually explicit rather than racist. (He recorded his sexually explicit songs under the name Filthy McNasty.) Trahan had brushes with mainstream success when Sammy Kershaw and Al Ferrier recorded his songs, and he had a bona fide hit when Jimmy C. Newman's recording of his song "Lache Pas Le Patate" earned a gold record in Canada.
The 1970s and David Allan Coe
The proliferation of racist country records declined in the 1970s, and Reb Rebel Records closed up shop in 1972. Mainstream country artist David Allan Coe took up the banner and released some explicitly racist recordings on a pair of underground albums that he cut in 1978 and 1982. Even before that, he inserted the n-word into one of his commercial recordings for Columbia Records: the 1977 song "If That Ain't Country."
Reb Rebel's racist recordings were largely underground efforts, as were these two "x-rated" Coe albums, Nothing Sacred and Underground Album, which he sold by mail order and at concerts. For me, Coe's song "Nigger Fucker" is even more disturbing than Johnny Rebel's recordings, because of the song's utter lack of humor. Johnny Rebel often came across as a smirky, juvenile bigot, but in "Nigger Fucker," Coe is as bitter and hateful as can be accomplished in a three-minute country song.
A New York Times article reported that Coe is embarrassed by his racist recordings now that they circulate freely on the web, and he dismisses them as "biker humor." Nonetheless, his embarrassment was not great enough to prevent him from reissuing the albums on CD and selling them through his website and at his shows. I saw David Allan Coe perform a few years ago, and he was still selling his racist albums at his merchandise table.
Anthologies of racist country music on CD
A German bootleg CD, You Can Wear Your 'X' I'll Wear Mine, purportedly contains nearly an album's worth of racist Johnny Horton recordings. The title of the compilation pits the "X" in Malcolm X against the "X" in the Confederate stars and bars. The anthology's subtitle, "A Tribute to Johnny Rebel," refers to the mythic Johnny Rebel and not the Reb Rebel Records artist of the same name. The disc itself lists no artists whatsoever and is cheaply made with no label address or other information, but merchants who sell it online have listed Horton as one of the artists in their descriptive blurbs.
The first track, "Johnny Rebel," is a rousing Johnny Horton-esque number with "hup-two-three-four" background vocals and the obligatory martial snare drum, but it's not Johnny Horton. A few songs from the 1991 Columbia album Songs of the Civil War follow. Johnny Horton, who died in 1960, is nowhere to be heard on these tracks. Next is Marty Robbins' "Ain't I Right" followed by a vintage rockabilly track ("N-gger"), a cheerleading song for the KKK ("Stand Up and Be Counted"), and an invitation to join the "Segregation Wagon." None of these recordings are Johnny Horton.
Many of the recordings that are attributed to Horton also surfaced on a compilation that was put out by the white supremacist record label and distributor MSR Productions. The disc, The Good Old South—Country Style: Documents of American History, also gives no artist information and is jam-packed with some of the most in-your-face racist music that the 1960s had to offer. As usual, the recordings that are so often attributed to Johnny Horton are actually Johnny Rebel recordings.
Some of these recordings have surprising connections to mainstream pop. For example, in Johnny Rebel's "Lookin' for a Handout," he slips in a musical reference to "Boll Weevil" by Brook Benton—a black artist—at the end, and the song "She Died a Nigger" (widely and erroneously attributed to Johnny Rebel) is the teen-tragedy song "The Pickup" by Mark Dinning—the white teen idol who had a big hit with "Teen Angel"—with new lyrics.
Another one of these compilations of racist recordings is Rebel Yells: Songs & Humor of the American Racialist Struggle, also released by MSR Productions. The 22-track anthology contains an assortment of political, racist, and religious songs, including tracks by mainstream country artists Marty Robbins ("Ain't I Right") and Jimmy Martin ("I Like to Hear 'Em Preach It" and "Voice of My Savior"). It also has a number of Reb Rebel recordings, several recordings by the Jigs, and a couple of songs that express support for George Wallace's presidential run. This collection actually lists the names of the artists for a change, and Johnny Horton is nowhere in sight.
Finally, the early 1970s Reb Rebel album For Segregationists Only was reissued on CD in 1994. From the 1980s onward, it seems like most of the white-supremacist music came from skinhead punk and hardcore bands, not country artists.
Why was Johnny Horton wrongly credited with all these racist recordings?
Johnny Horton achieved tremendous success as a mainstream artist, and some of his historical songs celebrated the American South, so white supremacists might have seen him as an ally. Horton sometimes performed historical songs from the Northern perspective too, such as "The Battle of Bull Run," but even in that song, the Rebels kick Yankee butt.
When I first saw MP3s of "Nigger-Hating Me" and "Some Niggers Never Die" circulating on the web as Johnny Horton recordings in the 1990s, I was horrified. "Not Johnny Horton!" I thought. But then I noticed that the same recording of "Nigger-Hating Me" was sometimes identified as an early home recording of Buddy Holly and his brothers. It quickly became clear that Johnny Rebel was the artist behind almost all of the recordings that are credited to Horton. And Rebel himself is frequently credited with racist songs that he didn't record. In fact, any racist country record from the '60s stands a good chance of being credited to Horton or Rebel, no matter who actually recorded it. The source of the confusion is probably that Horton, with "The Battle of New Orleans," popularized the "historical" sound and style that pervade these recordings.
Bear Family Records in Germany is releasing a 9-CD box set of Horton's complete recordings. It contains every released and unreleased recording that Horton ever made, including demos. If you're willing to shell out over $200 and buy this exhaustively researched set, then you can hear for yourself that Horton never recorded any of these racist songs.
Horton and Buddy Holly aren't the only mainstream artists who have been wrongly identified with racist material. Johnny Cash has been erroneously credited as the singer of Odis Cochran's "Ship Those Niggers Back," even though Cochran sounds nothing like Cash.
The desire to attribute these fringe recordings to well-loved mainstream artists probably says something about people's desire to believe that their fringe views are more widely held than they really are.