Legendary Bluesman Charley Patton and Jimmie Rodgers, America’s first country star, were both children of Mississippi. Born less than a hundred miles apart, their two lives later diverged—Patton pioneered the sounds of the Delta blues while Rodgers, the “Singin’ Brakeman,” carried his famed “blue yodel” east. He made his commercial debut as a part of the now famous Bristol Sessions, which are widely regarded as country music’s popular awakening. These two men, these two artists, are exemplars of their respective genres. The genres themselves are likewise representative of a certain American experience, an experience that is invariably delineated by race: white artists sang country ballads while black artists sang the blues. The Southern Sounds Project seeks to understand these two experiences by understanding the two genres.
The lyrical content of both genres provide a strong basis of analysis. Lyrics, themselves, are expressive. They denote both a state of mind and state of feeling and do so in a way that resonates with the individual artist as well as the intended audience. Therefore, Southern Sounds argues that by analyzing each genre’s most popular words, the frequencies of those words, their connotations, and, most importantly, their contexts, which some computer softwares are now able to find, one can capture the collective worldview of the men and women who constituted the two genres. Knowing these two worldviews, we suggest, could, on one hand, better explain the similarities and differences between the two genres as well as the presumed chasm dividing white artists from black artists.
The Southern Sounds Project is, at its core, a data-mining project. Two different text analysis softwares have been used to analyze close to 600 songs from roughly forty artists. To give the project a set of working parameters, however, only songs from artists born prior to 1900 have been chosen, with the idea being that these particular artists represented the pioneering generation for the two respective genres. Of course, selecting just who should be considered a musical “pioneer” is almost entirely subjective, but out of a need for songs, artists who left both an impressive musical legacy and robust collection of accessible lyrics were chosen.
The two softwares that were used, Voyent Tools and Antconc, provided complimentary strengths and weaknesses. Voyent offers a number of visualization capabilities, which made it much easier to grasp word frequencies. Therefore, it was used as a base line, indicating what the most popular words were and how often they were used. Antconc, in contrast, lacks the same visualization capabilities. But what it lacks in visualization it makes up for in analysis as it has a number of features that makes it very easy to discern word connotations and contexts. Thus, Southern Sounds’ methodology was two tiered as Antconc built on the foundation already set by Voyent Tools.