Blogs

AFRICA, APPALACHIA, AND ACCULTURATION: THE HISTORY OF BLUEGRASS MUSIC

AFRICA, APPALACHIA, AND ACCULTURATION: THE HISTORY OF BLUEGRASS MUSIC
by
Charles W. Perryman

D.M.A Research Project submitted to the College of Creative Arts at West Virginia University
in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of
Doctor of Musical Arts
in
Composition

On the surface, bluegrass music is a style of country music heavily influenced by Appalachian folk music. As with almost all Appalachian folk music, the typical ensemble is a four- to seven-piece band made up of non-electrified string instruments. Many bluegrass songs are taken directly from the Appalachian folk repertoire and those that are original compositions show many of the melodic and rhythmic trademarks of the tradition. Bluegrass musicians, perhaps more so than in any other style of country music, are in constant contact with the communities of Appalachia and most of the musicians are from the region and frequently play there. These musicians and their audience are almost exclusively white, and it is undeniable that bluegrass music owes a great deal to the musical traditions of white Appalachians. It is equally irrefutable that bluegrass music shares a great deal in common with black musical styles such as jazz and the blues. Group improvisation, alternating solos, and swing are just some of the musical features that jazz, the blues, and bluegrass share. The banjo, an instrument which is inextricably linked to the bluegrass sound, is African in origin. Bluegrass singing was influenced by the blues, black field hollers, and African-American Psalm singing. The African, particularly West African, influence on bluegrass is perhaps more surprising, but is just as essential as the European influence. This study explores these two distinct strains of influence throughout the history (and pre-history) of bluegrass music. An examination of the musical characteristics of the style, the history of the music, the instruments, the playing and singing style, will reveal that the style has 2 roots in both West African and European cultures. These various elements will be traced from their origins in their respective cultures through the development of Appalachian folk music in the late nineteenth century to the emergence of bluegrass in the 1940s. It is my intention to explore how Bluegrass developed out of a synthesis of musical traditions that have their roots in European and West African cultures.

Read More

OHR Offstage: Featuring Dom Flemons, Don Edwards & Jerron Paxton

OHR Offstage: Featuring Dom Flemons, Don Edwards & Jerron Paxton
 
Ozark Highlands Radio is a weekly radio program that features live music and interviews recorded at Ozark Folk Center State Park’s beautiful 1,000-seat auditorium in Mountain View, Arkansas.  In addition to the music, our “Feature Host” segments take listeners through the Ozark hills with historians, authors, and personalities who explore the people, stories, and history of the Ozark region.
 
This week, two Grammy Award winning old time musicians and an up and coming folk/blues sensation perform live at the Ozark Folk Center State Park Craft Village.  Featured on this special episode are Dom Flemons, Don Edwards, and Jerron Paxton.
 
One of the unique experiences for visitors to the Ozark Folk Center is the intimate matinee performances by our guest musicians.  The shows are a unique way for musicians and guests share a time and space much different than a traditional indoor performance venue.  There are often Q &A sessions, jokes, stories and of course, the occasional request from an audience member that make these sets so popular.
 
These performances take place in the backdrop of the Ozark Folk Center State Park Craft Village, a large outdoor area, home to over 20 artisans who demonstrate traditional and contemporary craftsmanship on site.  Nestled in the center of the Craft Village is an old wooden covered stage.  The area seats about 50 people but is always overflowing with people for the matinee sets by our guest artists.
 
Dom Flemons is a Grammy Award winning musician & singer-songwriter.  Carrying on the songster tradition, Flemons strives to mix traditional music forms with a contemporary approach, to create new sounds that will appeal to wider audiences.  Flemons co-found the Carolina Chocolate Drops, an African-American string band that won a Grammy for its 2010 album Genuine Negro Jig. Today, he tours throughout the United States and internationally as “The American Songster. 
 
One of America’s best loved and most enduring cowboy singers, Don Edwards is indeed an American treasure.  His love and passion for traditional cowboy songs is second to none and has earned him a fan base worldwide.  He knows the songs, the stories, and even some of the old trails that made the old West famous.  Accompanied by his trusty guitar, Don takes us on a trip back in time when cowboy singers and songs echoed through the trails, taverns, and cattle drive camps of yesterday.
 
Jerron "Blind Boy" Paxton is an American musician from Los Angeles.  A vocalist and multi-instrumentalist, Paxton's style draws from blues and jazz music before World War II and was influenced by Fats Waller and "Blind" Lemon Jefferson.  According to Will Friedwald in the Wall Street Journal, Paxton is "virtually the only music-maker of his generation—playing guitar, banjo, piano and violin, among other implements—to fully assimilate the blues idiom of the 1920s and '30s, the blues of Bessie Smith and Lonnie Johnson."
 
In this week’s “From the Vault” segment, musician, educator, and country music legacy Mark Jones offers an archival recording of Ozark original Adrian Parks performing the classic song “Under the Double Eagle,” from the Ozark Folk Center State Park archives.
 
From his series entitled “Fine Fiddlers of the Ozarks,” old time and Ozark fiddle aesthete Roy Pilgrim profiles the legendary Ozark fiddler Uncle Dick Hutchinson.  This installment features archival recordings of the classic fiddle tunes “Christmas Eve, Judge Parker Take Your Shackles Off, Hell on the Nine Mile, and Sharecropper’s Blues.”
 
 
Musical Works
Title - Artist - Year
  1. Have I Stayed Away Too Long - Dom Flemons - 2016
  2. Hot Chicken - Dom Flemons - 2016
  3. Polly Put the Kettle On - Dom Flemons - 2016
  4. Going Down the Road Feeling Bad - Dom Flemons - 2016
  5. Lonesome Old River Blues - Dom Flemons - 2016
  6. Under the Double Eagle - Adrian Parks - 1973
  7. Blues Yodel #7 - Don Edwards - 2016
  8. The Cowboy’s Last Ride - Don Edwards - 2016
  9. When the Work’s All Done This Fall - Don Edwards - 2016
  10. My Blue Heaven - Don Edwards - 2016
  11. Hesitation Blues - Jerron Paxton - 2016
  12. Mississippi Bottom Blues - Jerron Paxton - 2016

Episode 8 (African-American string band, fiddle & banjo traditions)

Episode 8 (African-American string band, fiddle & banjo traditions)

This week we hear some powerful string band music from white Appalachian performers including the legendary Camp Creek Boys, Tommy Jarrell, and the Buckstankle Boys.  But that leaves us with the question of where African-Americans, who brought the idea of the banjo to America and learned tunes on the European fiddle, fit into the old time and bluegrass music story.  Music historian Bob Carlin joins host Paul Brown for an illuminating conversation supported by plenty of music. Hear 1940s field recordings of black string band musicians made in Tennessee – including on the streets of Nashville. Then follow the story to a more recent chapter, with the discovery by folklorists in the 1970s of the Thompson family of North Carolina, some of the last traditional African-American old time fiddle and banjo players carrying on a family tradition.  We hear a song from the Carolina Chocolate Drops too, a contemporary African-American band inspired in part by fiddler Joe Thompson and the music he shared with them before his death at age 93 in 2012.  The past comes alive, the present and future are on view and in our ears, on Across the Blue Ridge.

LISTEN

Episode 8 Playlist

  1. Paddy On The Turnpike – Esker Hutchins & The Surry County Ramblers
    Album – FRC Esker Hutchins
  2. Let Me Fall – Camp Creek Boys  
    Album – Camp Creek Boys
  3. Poor Ellen Smith – The Buckstankle Boys 
    Album – Round Peak Home
  4. Sally Ann – The Hillbillies  
    Album – The Hillbillies Vol. 2
  5. June Apple – Tommy Jarrell   
    Album – June Apple
  6. BREAK 1 Molly Put the Kettle On – Joe Thompson 
    Album – Family Tradition 
  7. Old Corn Liquor – Joe Thompson
    Album – Family Tradition
  8. Eighth of January – Frazier & Patterson
    Album – Altamont
  9. Altamont – Gribble, Lusk & York
    Album – Altamont 
  10. Po Black Sheep – Frazier & Patterson
    Album – Altamont
  11. Rolling River – Gribble, Lusk & York
    Album – Altamont
  12. Black Eyed Daisey – Joe & Odell Thompson
    Album – Family Tradition
  13. BREAK 2  Twin Sisters – Sidna Myers
    Album – Clawhammer Banjo Vol. 1
  14. Little Brown Jug – Joe & Odell Thompson
    Album – Black Banjo Songsters of North Carolina & Virginia
  15. Soldier’s Joy – Joe Thompson
    Album – Family Tradition 
  16. Sandy Boys – Carolina Chocolate Drops
    Album – Genuine Negro Jig
  17. Goin’ Downtown – Joe Thompson
    Album – Family Tradition

 

11 Important Black Folk Music Artists

 Carolina Chocolate Drops

Black artists have played an enormous part in moving forward the history of American folk music, from the slave spirituals to early field recordings, songs of the civil rights and feminist movements, story songs, gospel songs, protest songs, and beyond. These artists have influenced and inspired generations of folk music artists and songwriters. So, in the spirit of celebrating black history, here's a look at some of the most notable African-American artists in American folk music (listed in alphabetical order).

  1. Harry Belafonte
  2. Blind Boys Of Alabama
  3. Carolina Chocolate Drops
  4. Elizabeth Cotten
  5. Richie Havens
  6. Keb Mo
  7. Leadbelly
  8. Ma Rainey
  9. Odetta
  10. Toshi Reagon
  11. Sweet Honey in the Rock

 

 

James Allen Bland

James Alan Bland (October 22, 1854 – May 5, 1911), also known as Jimmy Bland, was an African-American musician and song writer.

Bland was one of 8 children born in Flushing, New York to a free family. His father was one of the first U. S. Negro college graduates (Oberlin College, 1845). Beginning with an eight-dollar banjo purchased by his father, he was performing professionally by age 14.

Bland was educated in Washington, DC and graduated from Howard University in 1873. He wrote over 700 songs, including "In the Morning in the Bright Light" (1879), "In the Evening by the Moonlight" (1879), "Oh! Dem Golden Slippers" (1879) (the theme song for the long-running Philadelphia Mummers Parade), "Hand Me Down My Walking Cane" (1880) and "De Golden Wedding" (1880). His best-known song is "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny" (1878), which, in a slightly modified form, was the official State Song of Virginia from 1940 to 1997. It was retired and designated "state song emeritus" in the latter year, because of controversy over its racial nature.

Often called "The World's Greatest Minstrel Man", Bland toured the United States, as well as Europe. Bland's earliest recorded minstrel performance was with the Original Black Diamonds of Boston in 1875. Beginning in 1881, he spent 20 years in London before returning to the United States. Bland toured Europe in the early 1880s with Haverly's Genuine Colored Minstrels and remained in England to perform as a singer/banjo player without blackface. Appearing as "The Prince of Negro Songwriters," he was invited to give command performances for Queen Victoria and the Prince of Wales. Music historian Alec Wilder calls Bland the black writer who "broke down the barriers to white music publishers' offices." Bland was one of the most prolific minstrel composers of all time; he is reputed to have written over six hundred songs, though only about fifty were published under his name.

Read More

The Banjo: African Echoes

To the average American, maybe not a musician, maybe just a regular person like you or like me the musical instrument called the banjo brings up certain images to mind.

It might be seen as a primarily “white” instrument or snickers and uncomfortable grins flash as someone intones that musical phrase from the movie Deliverance. Hicks, hillbillies, bluegrass and country music perhaps.

banjo-player

The History of the Banjo

However, the banjo is actually a descendant of African musical instruments, and was created in the American and Caribbean colonies by African slaves and occupied a central place in African American traditional music. It made its way into white music when slaves interacted with white sharecroppers and their music melded.

English Zither-Banjo, c. 1895

“…and their music melded”. That is a very polite phrase. Institutionalized slavery in America “melded” Africans and colonial whites in particularly violent ways. That phrase is also polite. When you have a literal master/slave relationship you must be aware of the dynamics present in any “cultural exchange”. Africans brought their knowledge of their own musical instruments to America and the Caribbean and modified them and created unique versions of them with the different materials at hand. Which were then co-opted by their white masters. Politely speaking.

Read More

Bringing The Banjo From 'Africa To Appalachia'

While typically associated with traditional bluegrass, country and even jazz, the banjo has roots that stretch all the way back to West Africa. Musician Jayme Stone made that journey in search of the ancestors of his own banjo. Along the way, he met kora player Mansa Sissoko. The two have collaborated on a new album called Africa to Appalachia, and recently spoke about their musical partnership from the studios of Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul.

Originally, the banjo traveled across the ocean on slave ships coming from West Africa in the 1600s and 1700s. The instrument was "later passed off to curious 'white folk' like me," Stone says. "Although a few people play some of the crossover styles that happened early on in the new world, [it] didn't seem like there was much knowledge of the music that it came from."

The Banjo's Evolution

Naturally, at that time, the instrument was not the modern-day banjo that most people recognize. Instead, it was more of an early incarnation that evolved over time.

"It's hard to say exactly what it was," Stone says. "More than anything, it was the blueprint of the banjo that traveled over in musicians' minds, and then they built a similar thing with what they had here: dried-out gourds, goat skin, whatever they could find. The instrument changed, and with the advent of metal, it became an African instrument that went through the Industrial Revolution."

The banjo in its current form has frets and employs a short droning string — what banjo players call the fifth string. But in Africa, these early predecessors sometimes used only one string and as many as 21. They have all kinds of names, depending on the region and dialect the people are speaking. Most common are the ngoni, which can have anywhere from three to nine strings; the two-stringed konou; and the one-stringed juru keleni, all found in various parts of Mali. Stone says that Senegal has instruments that are even closer in relation to the modern banjo — especially the akonting.

Sissoko specializes in the kora, a 21-string West African harp made from a calabash — a dried-out gourd also used to play percussion, as well as carry fruits and vegetables from the markets. Stemming out from the calabash, the kora has a long pole with leather straps tied to it that hold the 21 strings, which are made from fishing line. Despite the evolution of the instrument's physical aspects, when played side by side, the banjo and the kora have a very similar sonic quality.

Read More

Listen

 

Blind Blake

Arthur "Blind" Blake (1896 – December 1, 1934) was an American blues and ragtime singer and guitarist. He is known for numerous recordings he made for Paramount Records between 1926 and 1932. Little else is known about his life.

Biography

Little is known of Blake's life. Promotional materials from Paramount Records indicate he was born blind and give his birthplace as Jacksonville, Florida, and it seems that he lived there during various periods. He seems to have had relatives in Patterson, Georgia. Some authors have written that in one recording he slipped into a Geechee or Gullah dialect, suggesting a connection with the Sea Islands. Blind Willie McTell indicated that Blake's real name was Arthur Phelps, but later research has shown this is unlikely to be correct. In 2011 a group of researchers led by Alex van der Tuuk published various documents regarding Blake's life and death in the journal Blues & Rhythm. One of these documents is his 1934 death certificate, which states he was born in 1896 in Newport News, Virginia, to Winter and Alice Blake (his mother's name is followed by a question mark). Nothing else is known of Blake until the 1920s, when he emerged as a recording musician.

Read More

Videos

Charley Patton

Charley Patton (died April 28, 1934), also known as Charlie Patton, was an American Delta blues musician. He is considered by many to be the "Father of the Delta Blues" and is credited with creating an enduring body of American music and personally inspiring just about every Delta bluesman (Palmer, 1995). The musicologist Robert Palmer considered him one of the most important American musicians of the twentieth century.

Patton (who was illiterate) spelled his name "Charlie", but many sources, including record labels and his gravestone, spell it "Charley".

Biography

Patton was born in Hinds County, Mississippi, near the town of Edwards, and lived most of his life in Sunflower County, in the Mississippi Delta. Most sources say he was born in April 1891, but the years 1881, 1885 and 1887 have also been suggested.

Patton's parentage and race also are uncertain. His parents were Bill and Annie Patton, but locally he was regarded as having been fathered by former slave Henderson Chatmon, several of whose children became popular Delta musicians, as solo performers and as members of groups such as the Mississippi Sheiks. Biographer John Fahey described Patton as having "light skin and Caucasian features." Patton was considered African-American, but because of his light complexion there has been speculation that he was Mexican or Cherokee (a theory endorsed by Howlin' Wolf). It is now generally agreed that Patton was of mixed heritage, with white, black, and Cherokee ancestors (one of his grandmothers was Cherokee). In "Down the Dirt Road Blues", Patton sang of having gone to "the Nation" and "the Territo'", referring to the Cherokee Nation's portion of the Indian Territory (which became part of the state of Oklahoma in 1907), where a number of Black Indians tried unsuccessfully to claim a place on the tribal rolls and thereby obtain land.

Read More

Video

 

Gus Cannon

Gus Cannon (September 12, 1883 – October 15, 1979) was an American blues musician who helped to popularize jug bands (such as his own Cannon's Jug Stompers) in the 1920s and 1930s. There is uncertainty about his birth year; his tombstone gives the date as 1874.

Career

Born on a plantation in Red Banks, Mississippi, Cannon moved a hundred miles to Clarksdale, then the home of W. C. Handy, at the age of 12. His musical skills came without training; he taught himself to play a banjo that he made from a frying pan and a raccoon skin. He ran away from home at the age of fifteen and began his career entertaining at sawmills and levee and railroad camps in the Mississippi Delta around the turn of the century.

While in Clarksdale, Cannon was influenced by local musicians Jim Turner and Alec Lee. Turner's fiddle playing in W. C. Handy's band so impressed Cannon that he decided to learn to play the fiddle himself. Lee, a guitarist, taught Cannon his first folk blues, "Po' Boy, Long Ways from Home", and showed him how to use a knife blade as a slide, a technique that Cannon adapted to his banjo playing.

Cannon left Clarksdale around 1907 and soon settled near Memphis, Tennessee, where he played in a jug band led by Jim Guffin. He began playing in Memphis with Jim Jackson. He met the harmonica player Noah Lewis, who introduced him to a young guitar player, Ashley Thompson. Lewis and Thompson later were members of Cannon's Jug Stompers. The three of them formed a band to play at parties and dances. In 1914 Cannon began touring in medicine shows. He supported his family through various jobs, including sharecropping, ditch digging, and yard work, but supplemented his income with music.

Read More

Videos

Pages