Collaboration exposes theater students to black hillbilly music

Students in Oral Interpretation class interview Kay Wilder to analyze her music. 
Photo credit: Earnest Jones


Throughout the course of three weeks students in a theater oral interpretation course were introduced to song lyrics by singer, songwriter and FAMU graphics professor Kay Wilder. Students analyzed lyrics and texts, understood the history of black hillbilly string bands from the 1920s, expressed their interpretation of text and finally delivered their interpretation in a stage meeting in late March. 

Evelyn Tyler, as assistant professor of theater, wants to introduce new material to her classes. She described this as a unique, independent project for her oral interpretation course.

 The material they sampled, Wilder's music, allows students to deliver their interpretation of her lyrics.

"It's a unique project. The students are taking her songs after we have gone through the process of analyzing the lyrics, talking one-on-one sessions with Ms. Wilder, exploring what the song means, extracting themes and sharing individual interpretations on what the songs mean to the class," Tyler said.  

The 27 students in the class received the assignment to read songs from Wilder’s CDs back in January. Analyzing and interpreting the words while turning them into a theater production was the task. Over the course of three weeks students prepared for the final production individually and in pairs.

Wilder, interim director of graphic communication at FAMU's School of Journalism & Graphic Communication, often collaborates with other colleges and schools at FAMU to produce interdisciplinary projects in the classroom.

Wilder writes, produces and performs country songs and has shared what's unique about her music.

"It was never written to be on the country stage,” she said. “As a country artist it was always written as theater-esque. I saw it on the theatre-stage.

“Most of my songs are stories that have a natural affinity to theater. Theater reflects life and life points to theater. The songs I have written are from life but now they are going to become theater," Wilder added.

Wilder researched black string bands’ connection to black hillbilly music from the late 1920s to early 1930s before race records impeded history. DeFord Bailey, who died in 1982 at age 82,  was the only influential African American country music and blues star featured on the Grand Ole Opry from the 1920s into the 1940s.

This black hillbilly style of music started to fade in the 1920s when the record companies came south to record traditional music. For marketing purposes, the record companies segregated music into white and black series. They believed white people would buy only country music performed by white musicians and that black people would buy only blues and gospel music performed by black musicians.

 Today the, nationally acclaimed,  African American Carolina Chocolate Drops continue the tradition of black hillbilly mountain music.

For students, it allowed them to collaborate with another professor from another school,  allowing them to exercise their talents in another area. It shows them that their gift and talents are needed, Tyler said. Students expressed through lyrical dancing, spoken word and acting.

"Country music is so simple because it tells a simple story, but the story has a dynamic to it, so it wasn’t hard to put it on the stage.  I enjoyed this project I was able to add what I know but keep the country flavor to the performance," said Genard Barr, a senior theater student. 

"This of course will allow the university to increase awareness that different departments can be successful in working together in producing products that can serve across a curriculum. It can be educational, entertaining and promote several different issues and concerns that we all can relate to,” Tyler said. “Kay's genre of music is something that we all can relate to it. I believe FAMU will benefit greatly when other schools collaborate well and advance."