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Joseph M. Thompson

Joseph M. Thompson is a doctoral candidate in the University of Virginia’s Corcoran Department of History, where he specializes in the culture and politics of the U.S. South. His dissertation analyzes the cultural impact of the South’s economic dependence on defense spending after World War II. Prior to attending graduate school, he worked as a musician and most recently scored the ITVS/PBS film Eating Alabama, which won the 2014 James Beard Foundation Award for best documentary.

“Black Speck: The Confounding Country Voice of O.B. McClinton”
This paper uses the career of African American country music singer and songwriter O.B. McClinton to consider his Southern accent as a tool of protest against white supremacy in the post-soul South. Hailing from Senatobia, Mississippi, McClinton worked as a staff songwriter for Stax in the 1960s and began recording his own material in 1971 for Enterprise Records, a Stax subsidiary. He scored a minor country hit with his honky tonk cover of Wilson Pickett’s “Don’t Let the Green Grass Fool You” and filling his first releases with a standard country sound. He stuck to a mainstream country sound while on Enterprise, struggling to increase black representation in country music beyond the tokenism of Charley Pride. However, McClinton’s release of “Black Speck” in 1976 on Mercury Records signaled a diversion out of straight-laced country into the sonic landscape of swamp rock. The song’s lyrics detail the story McClinton’s live debut in a white Southern bar. In the course of the song’s two verses, the discontinuity between McClinton’s optics as a black man and the countrified voice coming out of his body causes a white man to suffer a near heart attack, while a white female breaks down in tears at the cognitive dissonance represented in McClinton’s performance. I argue that, when placed within the context of McClinton’s larger catalogue and biography, “Black Speck” reveals an eviscerating critique of music industry racism writ large. Importantly, McClinton’s strategic use of his Southern accent and humorous tone allow him to veil his protest in “cornpone” comedic relief. By analyzing McClinton’s lyrics and sound over the course of his career, this paper demonstrates the way “Black Speck” functioned as the most vocal, but not an isolated example of the ways the singer challenged the conflation of Southern identity and whiteness in the 1970s. 

“Southern Accents”
This panel explores the ways in which singers’ Southern accents complicate traditional understandings of race, region, class, and belief at different points across the 20th century. Whether its iteration is intentional or not, a Southern accent aligns its performer with both the historical South—a region marked by the ongoing ramifications of slavery, Jim Crow, and a dominant political culture grounded in white supremacist conservatism—and the imagined South, a culturally constructed fantastical landscape immortalized in music from “Dixie” to “Proud Mary” to “ATLiens.” Popular culture trains audiences to hear Southern voices as part of that fantasy, turning their accents into evidence of the South’s atavistic exceptionalism in which the “grain” of the voice reflects both regional and racial distinctions. Yet to hear the Southern accent as a simple outgrowth of a singer’s unreflexive cultural or biological essence belies the artistic choice to perform that marker of regional character. Regardless of an artist’s regional roots, using a Southern accent signals a political choice to position one’s self in juxtaposition to the South and all its cultural legacies. Singers as diverse as Elvis Presley, Michael Stipe, and O.B. McClinton have performed versions of the Southern accent, rooting their art in a region heralded for its role in the construction of American music and derided for its place in the making of American racism. The singers analyzed within this panel have used their Southern voices to praise, protest, and ultimately transcend expectations about the South and the combination of race and region represented in the performance of a Southern voice.

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