In a BBC Radio 4 three-part series Rhiannon Giddens explores how African American roots music has been whitewashed from the history of American folk and country music.
String bands, hoedowns, square dances, old-time fiddle and banjo styles, these sounds were a dominant strand in African American roots music from the 17th century onwards.
Despite this, many people think that such music comes solely from dungaree-wearing, white rural folk. Country might appear to be the whitest of all music genres, but it has some surprising roots.
How have these black roots been whitewashed from the history of American folk and country music? How have folk and country been positioned as white genres? What does black Americana sound like today?
Frank Johnson, Joe Thompson and the fiddle in North Carolina
Rhiannon Giddens returns to her home state of North Carolina to explore the lives of two black fiddlers – Joe Thompson and Frank Johnson. Johnson was one of the first black celebrities in the Southern states of the USA. Born into slavery, he bought freedom for himself and his family on the back of his profits as a musician. More than 2,000 people processed through Wilmington, North Carolina for his funeral in 1871. Though he died before the start of the recording industry, his music was passed down through generations of black fiddlers in the region. The last of these fiddlers was Joe Thompson, who taught Rhiannon countless songs.
Featuring Iris Thompson Chapman, Phil Jamison, John Jeremiah Sullivan and Dr. Lewin Manly.
Arnold Shultz, the banjo and bluegrass music in Kentucky
Rhiannon Giddens explores bluegrass music in Kentucky, the history of the banjo and the story of Arnold Shultz. For many listeners of bluegrass, the story of this music begins in December 1945, when ‘Father of Bluegrass’ Bill Monroe brought his band on stage at the Grand Ole Opry. Yet, Bill Monroe always acknowledged the black fiddler and guitarist Arnold Shultz as one of his major influences. Rhiannon explores how African American musicians like Shultz were often mentors to white country stars of the time.
Featuring Joshua Bronnenberg, Dr Richard S. Brown, Dr. Erika Brady, Dom Flemons, Dr Andrew Rhinehart and Tray Wellington.
DeFord Bailey, the harmonica and country music in Nashville
Rhiannon Giddens explores the home of country music in Nashville to see how black people shaped this genre. How black is Nashville and its music history? Rhiannon uncovers the story of one of the biggest stars of the early country era – the African American ‘Harmonica Wizard’ DeFord Bailey. He was one of the most beloved performers at the Grand Ole Opry and the first black star of the radio age.
Featuring Frankie Staton, Pamela E Foster, Dom Flemons, David C Morton, Phil Jamison and Alice Randall.