Crackered Actors

But minstrelsy was a complicated institution. For one thing, "The Coon From Tennessee" turns out to be a chopped and channeled version of Shepard Edmonds's 1901 "I'm Going to Live Anyhow, 'Till I Die." Shepard Edmonds was black—but the Crackers keep their version a hell of a lot more "real." Just like black artists so often did with crappy white pop, they refined Edmonds's Tin Pan Alley jingle into a pure blast of underworld orneriness.

These white guys weren't just singing aboutcoons; they were pretending to bethem. If that gave their audience a way to feel superior, it gave the Cofers something more. When Paul and Leon Cofer—a semicripple and a blind man, nobodies—became the Georgia Crackers, for just a little while they could slip into the virtual skin of somebody almost unimaginably bigger and badder than they could ever be. I hear jubilation in their voices, not condescension; "Raw Power," not "Brown Sugar."

But there's a bigger irony here, besides white guys wanting to be the folks their whole society was set up to keep down. One of the reasons Paul and L.J. got to record at all was that Henry Ford had started fearing for the nation's moral fiber, what with everyone going out for that newfangled Negro jazz. So he started sponsoring good old-fashioned fiddling contests at Ford dealerships all around the country, building hillbilly music into something of a craze. He wanted the Cofer Brothers; he got the Georgia Crackers.

Georgia Stringbands, Vol. 1, is available from County Sales (www.countysales.com).

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