Barbecue Bob

Robert Hicks, better known as Barbecue Bob, was an early American Piedmont blues musician. His nickname was derived from his working as a cook in a barbecue restaurant. One of the three extant photographs of him show him playing a guitar and wearing a full-length white apron and cook's hat.

Hicks was born in Walnut Grove, Georgia. His parents, Charlie and Mary Hicks, were farmers. He and his brother, Charlie Hicks, together with Curley Weaver, were taught how to play the guitar by Curley's mother, Savannah "Dip" Weaver. Bob began playing the 6-string guitar but picked up the 12-string guitar after moving to Atlanta, Georgia, in 1924. He became one of the prominent performers of the newly developing Atlanta blues style.

In Atlanta, Hicks worked at various jobs, playing music on the side. While working at Tidwells' Barbecue in a north Atlanta suburb, he came to the attention of Columbia Records talent scout Dan Hornsby. Hornsby recorded him and used Hicks's job to publicize his records, having Hicks pose in chef's whites and hat for publicity photos and dubbing him "Barbecue Bob". Before his death in 1931, he married a woman named Claudine and lived off Hillard Street in Atlanta.



Len Chandler


Chandler showed an early interest in music and began playing piano at age 8. Studying classical music in his early teens, he learned to play the oboe so he could join the high school band, and during his senior year joined the Akron Symphony Orchestra. He eventually earned his B.A. in Music Education from the University of Akron, moved to New York City, and received an M.A. from Columbia University.

By the early 1960s, Chandler began to get involved in the Civil Rights Movement. He sang at demonstrations and rallies and won a reputation as a protest songwriter. One of his most famous songs was "Beans in My Ears", which was covered by the Serendipity Singers, as well as Pete Seeger. He also served as one of the original crew members of Seeger's CLEARWATER organization, working to save the environment around the Hudson River Valley. One of Chandler's songs entitled "Run Come See the Sun", was sung by Pete Seeger at the Sanders Theater in Boston in the year 1980. This song had a repeated phrase, which built up the harmony as well. (Source: Pete Seeger concert at the Sanders Theater, released on Smithsonian Folkways Records.)




National Museum of African American Music (NMAAM)

The different genre exhibitions feature everything from more interactive exhibits with timelines to cases containing such items as one of Louis Armstrong’s trumpets, one of B.B. King’s “Lucille” guitars, or costumes worn on key nights by performers like Billie Holiday, Nat “King” Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, or Aretha Franklin. The museum doesn’t neglect any area of Black music, going from the earliest spirituals to pre-jazz, traditional and modern jazz, blues, R&B/soul, funk, disco, and into contemporary hip-hop and EDM. There’s also a detailed storyboard for every idiom.

The greatest examples of Black music influencing other idioms that are sometimes mistakenly assumed not to have any links with African Americans can be seen in the Crossroads section. It includes an essay that traces how country founding fathers like Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams were influenced by the blues, and how the acoustic guitar playing of people like Sister Rosetta Tharpe and the gospel-tinged shouting of Odetta in turn influenced white folkies like Joan Baez and Bob Dylan.


Instrument Interview: The Creole Bania, the Oldest Existing Banjo

“Instrument Interview” posts are a chance to sit down with the instruments of traditional, country, bluegrass, and roots music – from different types of instruments to specific ones related to artists, luthiers, and songwriters – and learn more about them. Ten questions are posed, and the instruments answer! Today we talk with the Creole bania.

What ARE you?

I’m a banjo! I know I don’t exactly look like the banjos you think of today, but I’m actually the earliest known banjo that still exists. I was made sometime before 1777, and at that time, banjos were made of gourds and calabashes.

Since you’re so different from the banjos we know today, describe yourself to us.

My body is a calabash, and my drumhead is made of animal skin held on with wooden pins. I have two S-shaped sound holes (kind of like a fiddle). I also have three long strings and one short string and a very nicely carved peghead. My neck is thinner than banjos today, and it is made of wood.

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Photo Essay - The Banjo and African American Musical Culture

The banjo and African Americans have traveled from Senegambian roots to Caribbean birth, to North America, and then to the world. Don Vappie (b. 30 January 1956), the New Orleans-jazz master of the tenor and guitar-banjo, and also a renowned bassist, guitarist, and mandolinist, epitomizes that journey. Vappie has revived the music of King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton and created his own compositions that range from Creole folk music to modern jazz and funk. A regular guest with Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center, Vappie has collaborated with master West African lute players like Cheick Hamala Diabate and Bassekou Kouyate of Mali and Demma Dia of Senegal. His compositions, recordings, and performance link the New Orleans banjo to the music of the Caribbean, where the banjo was born.

Banjos arose as a folk instrument powering the dances of New World Africans, but as American stages were gradually opened to black performers after the Civil War, black banjoists became national and international stars, occasionally even giving banjo lessons to British royalty. Banjo rhythms inspired ragtime, and in the second decade of the twentieth century, James Reese Europe led New York's orchestras with scores of black banjoists. Rural banjo dance traditions continued into the mid-twentieth century in banjoist Gus Cannon's blues recordings, and from the 1910s to the 1940s, jazz banjoists swung bands that brought jazz to the world.

However, twentieth century musical styles such as the blues, which were often accompanied by singing and slower-tempo dancing, came to require instruments with more sustain and bass than the banjo in all of its varieties can provide. As a result, the banjo receded from African American music of all kinds across the twentieth century. Recently, though, a twenty-first century revival of interest in the African antecedents, Caribbean birth, and African American history of the banjo brought a renaissance of black banjo playing, returning African American banjoists like Don Vappie to prominence within both African American music and the banjo world.

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(Photo courtesy of Skye McFarland.)

The African musical influence in the world of bluegrass music

African music has always influenced other musical genres.  When slaves came to the Appalachian Mountain region from Africa, they brought over a lot of their traditions.  Most of these traditions are shown frequently in the music world, especially in bluegrass music.  

It is already known that the 4-string banjo originated from Africa, along with oral tradition.  The first banjos were made with a gourd sound chamber.  Five elements that compose a banjo include the sound chamber, head (vibrating membrane), neck, bridge, and the strings.  The most important part is the bridge as it transmits sound from the strings to the head.  However, early banjos from Africa did not have bridges.  The strings on early banjos were made from “…silk to dried bird gut to horsehair to vine or twine” (Conway 169).  In 1856, wire, along with fishing line were introduced to be use as strings.  The chamber was made from any animals skin available, whether it was goat, horse, cow, raccoon, snake, etc. (170).  Furthermore, the rims were made of either gourds or wood.  Gourd rims came from Africa, while Europeans adapted the wooden rims.  Wooden rims soon became popularly used because gourds were not easily accessible throughout the year in some regions and were very fragile (174).  Soon after these changes, white Americans changed the number of strings to five.  This change to five strings made the banjo the only original folk instrument in America (190).  

Another African musical influence in bluegrass is the singer’s vocal traits.  Bluegrass singers are of some distinction, but are very much like their African musical counterparts.  Singers will wail, moan, and sometimes shout in the middle of a song to emphasize what they are feeling.  The voice can be the most powerful element in a song.  Most songs are sung in harmony, as in most black Baptist churches.  Some groups, both black and white, will sing accapella tunes that give that eerie, lonesome feeling to the song.  Sometimes one will not be able to follow the words, but become mesmerized by the vocal quality in the tune.  The lead singer usually has a tenor singing voice and hit amazingly high notes.  Bill Monroe was one of few that were able to “climb up from a pledging style in a middle register into a more forceful calling style at higher pitches” (Cantwell 212).


Op-Ed: It’s Time for Country Music to Elevate Its Overlooked Black Voices

Imagine a world where, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement's recent resurgence, country music's headlines were not dominated by chatter regarding Lady A and the Drive-By Truckers' ham-handed attempts at reconciling the negative connotations of their band names. Imagine an industry in which a multitude of Black country stars, buoyed by the passion of protesters worldwide, boldly launched into hard, but necessary, dialogues with the genre's majority non-Black fanbase.

Of course, this idyllic version of events did not occur — but why? And how does the genre achieve essential course correction for Black artist visibility in an immediate, profitable way?

Quickly making space for Blackness in greater abundance in country music does not require discovering brand-new Black artists, then integrating them into the genre's finest traditions. There are already a greater number of Black stars than those currently established who can showcase themselves via their songs, voices, and supergroups, and through songwriting that appeals to the ethos of the country audience and this, or any, societal moment.

Country music has celebrated and currently celebrates a few Black stars: DeFord Bailey, Charley Pride, Mickey Guyton, Jimmie Allen, Yola, Rhiannon Giddens, and a handful of others. However, overall, these performers are the footnotes and commas, rather than the subjects and periods, in the annals of country music history. They've thrived within mainstream country music, but without its commercial acceptance.


Photo: Erika Goldring Getty Images

Black-and-White Duo Allerton & Alton Occupy Special Place In Country Music History

 Portland, Maine, 1947. Two teenagers, one white, one black, rummaged through the record bins at Knight’s Used Furniture store.

The two didn’t know each other, but they scavenged for the same music: Mostly harmony-rich records of duos from the south. Back then it was frequently called “hillbilly music,” and it often arrived in Portland via military personnel who had traveled from southern homes to their Maine station. When recruits were called overseas, they’d often sell their 78 RPM hillbilly records to Knight’s for 15 cents apiece, and the store would sell them to kids like Al Hawkes and Alton Myers for 25 cents each.

But there weren’t a lot of kids like Hawkes and Myers, searching for the plaintive sounds of the rural south, up in Maine. The fact they were of different races seemed less important than their similar taste in music.