How Henry Ford Weaponized Country Music for White Supremacy

Image from New York Public Library (https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/ec78b760-3c74-0138-9644-08fcc93c9e74)

It’s no secret that country music has a race problem. From Beyonce’s 2016 performance with the Chicks at the CMA Awards, for which she received much backlash online for “not being country music” enough (despite being from Texas and performing a country song she wrote) to country singer Morgan Wallen’s continued success after being caught on video saying the “n-word”.

Singer Kelsea Ballerini took to Twitter to respond to Wallen’s controversy, tweeting:

But Ballerini is wrong. The history of country music which, much like the history of this country as a whole, is rife with racism and erasing the contributions of the Black community on its culture.

One of the most egregious instances of racism in country music comes early in its history. This story involves car magnate Henry Ford, square dancing, and a conspiracy theory about jazz.

Henry Ford was famously anti-semitic. His views were espoused in his hometown newspaper, The Dearborn Independent, which he bought in 1918. In a series of essays titled The International Jew, Ford wrote (or rather dictated to his personal secretary Ernest G. Liebold) “Jazz is a Jewish creation. The mush, slush, the sly suggestion, the abandoned sensuousness of sliding notes, are of Jewish origin.”

Ford conspired that Jazz was the invention of Jewish people to bring African music to America and replace the simpler, wholesome (white) culture of his youth.

Which, in the present, sounds absolutely crazy, but let us not forget that a recent mass shooter cited the Great Replacement Theory as a motive.

But that wasn’t all to Ford’s bigotry.

Despite paying his employees well above the national minimum wage and paying his Black employees the same rate as their white counterparts, Ford also sought to control his employees lives and keep them from the debaucherous urban lifestyle of drinking, smoking, and promiscuity that he associated with Jazz music.

Ford did not see the irony that he played a role in bringing about the culture of modern cities that he despised.

“The nostalgic, backward-looking Henry Ford repeatedly deplored the very conditions that Ford the revolutionary industrialist did so much to bring about,” wrote Roderick Nash in his 1970 book The Nervous Generation: American Thought, 1917–1930.

To keep his employees from listening to jazz on the radio, he set up mandatory square dances for them to attend.

Hiring square dance instructors and even publishing a manual for square dance teachers, Ford put more money and effort into reviving the square dancing of his youth during the 1920s than any one else. His thinking was that if square dancing and country music became the national standard, it would prevent jazz from taking hold.

Of course, square dancing has its roots in Black culture too. The call-and-response found in square dances derive from slave dances where a dance instructor was not present and the steps were worked into the music.

Some have argued that the connection linking Ford’s anti-semitism related to his hatred of jazz and his promotion of square dancing is thin. But even if Henry Ford never said his promotion of square dancing is because of racism, doesn’t mean it isn’t. A racist action is still racist even if there is no quote stating it as such.

As written by Pennacchia for QZ, “There’s nothing inherently wrong with square dancing — but there is something wrong with declaring it to be more valuable than any other form of dance.”

Pennachhia quotes Eric Zorn from the Chicago Tribune, who elaborates, “Legislatively recognizing one folk dance form, or any art form, and placing it above all others is wrong because it denies the diversity of cultural, ethnic and social traditions in America.”

Later on in the 20th century, as more states were declaring square dancing as their official state dance, there was a campaign to make it the official national dance. But, as Zorn points out, that would disenfranchise dances and dancers of other cultural and ethnic backgrounds.

Of the 31 states with an official dance, 24 currently list square dancing as the official state dance.

In response to Beyonce’s performance at the 2016 CMT Awards, country musician Travis Tritt took to Twitter to lament what he saw as country music losing its way.

In one tweet from a thread he posted, he wrote:

Country music has roots in Black music and culture and to deny that fact is not only racist, but fundamentally misunderstanding the genre.

Despite its roots and origins, attempts have been made to whitewash and weaponize country music for white supremacy and has pushed out acts that do not “fit” the white standard that has been set. But it’s not too late for modern country music to recognize and honor its origins and fully reckon with its racist past and present.

Sources consulted:

thehenryford.org/collections-and-research/digital-resources/popular-topics/henry-ford-and-anti-semitism-a-complex-story

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music writer | pittsburgh

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