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A Part of My Story as a Bluegrass Musician

 

I found this surprising reference in the  Jerry Douglas Bulletin Board Archives.

Several years ago when searching The Internet I ran across this posting made by the guy I bought my upright bass from. Since that time I lost track of the posting but a little while ago I re-discovered it.  It follows here:

Subject: RE: Black Banjo Conference-very cool!
Poster: Daver
date: 30-Jan-05 08:32 PM

Thanks, Derka. I don't know all the reasons, but it's sad that there are virtually no African-Americans in professional Country Music (to my knowledge, only Charley Pride and bass players for Mary Chapin Carpenter and Russ Taff), and zero that I'm aware of in bluegrass. Please fill in the blanks if I'm missing someone obvious... A Chicago area bluegrass group in the 70's (the Unity Bluegrass Band - all members of the Bahá'í Faith) had an African-American bass player (I sold him my old Kay upright for the $80 I paid for it). Up until IBMA when I ran into the Ebony Hillbillies, he was the only African-American BG musician I had ever seen.

Guess I'm pretty unique.  *G*

Update: 6-16-13 - just checked the link of this message post and it no longer exists, it was good that I copied it here, otherwise it would be lost now and can't have my history disappearing on me...

Jess Morris

 
Jess Morris, born June 12, 1878, in Williamson County, Texas, was a noted fiddler in the western Panhandle region. In 1890, his father moved the family to a ranch near old Tascosa, in the northwest panhandle. The family lived for a time in the Casimero Romero home, built in the 1870s by some of the earliest settlers of the area.
 
By 1894, at age sixteen, Jess formed his first musical group, which played for dances and balls throughout the region. Reportedly, it was not unusual for Morris's group to receive one hundred dollars for an evening of music. He is said to have studied violin both in Austin, Texas, and at Valparaiso, Indiana, but he claimed he would never be anything but a cowboy fiddler.
 
Morris competed in Amarillo's Tri-State Old Fiddlers' Contest in 1928 and 1929 but did not place. The newspaper account of the 1928 contest, however, singled him out for his rendition of "Goodbye Ol' Paint." According to the article, "the audience forgot all dignity and joined in a hearty, lusty yell on the chorus." In the 1931 contest, Morris placed second behind A. E. Rusk of Canyon, who won the event, and ahead of Eck Robertson, who took third. 
 
Besides fiddling, Morris worked as a cowboy and a wolfer on the XIT, LS, and LIT ranches.  In the early 1940s, Morris registered several of his original songs and fiddle tunes with the Library of Congress, including "El Rancho Grande XIT Schottische," "XIT Ranch Cowboy Polka," and "Ridin' Ol' Paint an' Leadin' Ol' Ball."

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Deford Bailey A Legend Lost

Deford Bailey was the most influential harmonica player in the first half of the 20th Century. Despite such acclaim, Deford dies quietly without recognition of his place in American music history...

Black Hillbilly Music

DeFord's family played tunes that were part of a rich tradition of string band playing shared by both blacks and whites in the early nineteenth century.

"White and blacks would be playing music and dancing at what you'd call a barn dance—you clean the ground off and put sawdust down on it and make it soft where you can dance. Well, they'd look out and see the Baileys and they'd say, ‘Here come the Baileys, we'll turn the thing over to them. They would usually have a fiddle, guitar, banjo, harp, mandolin, and drums.’"

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Black Hillbilly - or - What you really know about the Upper South?

 

by Eric Brightwell

The first non-Native American settlers of Appalachia and later, the Ozarks, were of primarily of three ethnicities: Scots-Irish, English, and German. These hard-working farmers and craftsmen created a distinct culture which in the 19th Century came to be named “hillbilly.” Although the Northern European roots of hillbilly are routinely acknowledged, even scholars on the culture are far less likely to recognize hillbilly’s other significant place of ancestral origin, West Africa.

Hillbilly music’s biracial parentage should be immediately evident to anyone with any knowledge of the music’s primary instruments, the fiddle and the banjo. The modern fiddle (or violin) may have originated in 16th Century Italy but similar bowed instruments preceded its development by several centuries and the violin made its way to the Americas thanks to English colonists. The banjo, descended from the numerous plucked instruments of West Africa such as the akontingngoni, and xalam, was introduced to the Americas by African slaves. 

Famous slave owners like George WashingtonThomas JeffersonJames MadisonJames Monroe,Andrew JacksonMartin Van BurenWilliam Henry HarrisonJohn TylerJames K. PolkZachary Taylor, and Andrew Johnson routinely required their forced laborers to learn to play violin to entertain their friends and themselves at plantation balls and the White House. 

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Links & Information

  • In the 1970s, after 25 years of research on her own, Dena Epstein published a series of papers and her monumental book, Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folks Music to the Civil War, which shattered myths that African slaves arrived in the Americas "culturally naked." She documented a musical culture among Africans and African-Americans that was rich with song, dance and instrumentation.
    In 2009 Jim Carrier was able to interview Dena and produced a film about her life and legacy titled "The Librarian and The Banjo".
     
  • The Carolina Chocolate Drops are a group of young African-American stringband musicians that have come to together to play the rich tradition of fiddle and banjo music in Carolinas' piedmont.
     
  • In the spirit of independent, community-based music comes Sankofa Strings, a trio of African American artists in love with self-made music.  Armed with fiddles and 'jos, bones and drums, Sankofa Strings is taking that "Old Time" sound and using it to bring the people together again. Young and old love this music—it is deep in our collective memory.  Come back, and let's go forward together.
     
  • Lesley Riddle never became a professional musician; however, it is his contribution to country music for which he is most remembered. Maybelle Carter credited Riddle with teaching her the "bottleneck" style of guitar picking, in which the index finger plays the melody while the thumb keeps the rhythm on the bass strings. Riddle taught the Carter Family such songs as "The Cannon Ball," "1 Know What It Means To Be Lonesome," and "Let the Church Roll On."
     
  • Joe Thompson is an 87 year-old Old-time traditional black string band musician from Cedar Grove, North Carolina in the Piedmont region near the Virginia border. Joe plays fiddle and sings in his Granddaddy's style of music that can be traced in America to the 1700's, and even earlier to origins in Africa. Joe is one of the last of the black musicians of his generation who play this style of music. His music builds community by crossing boundaries of generations, races, and cultures.
     
  • Richard (Richie) Brown has been a part-time bluegrass musician in the Boston area since the mid-sixties. Richard has played with several prominent New England bands and occasionally filled in with nationally known bluegrass artists, as well. He has done mandolin workshops with Ron Thomason, Dave McLaughlin, and Lou Martin at the Joe Val Memorial Bluegrass Festival and other events for the Boston Bluegrass Union, and with Mike Holmes at the New England Folk Festival. Richard's playing is heavily influenced by Bill Monroe's style and "old style" mandolin players. He currently plays mandolin and sings in the Boston-based Reunion Band with Dave Dillon, Lauck Benson, Margaret Gerteis and Art Schatz.
     
  • Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown was born on this date in 1924. He was an African-American musician. Given the "Gatemouth" handle by a high school instructor who accused Brown of having a "voice like a gate," He played an impressive array of instruments such as guitar, fiddle, mandolin, viola as well as harmonica and drums. He was featured on the TV show Hee Haw with pal Roy Clark after they cut a 1979 duet album for MCA, Makin' Music. During his career, Brown recorded 30 records. He won a Grammy Award for Traditional Blues in 1983 for his album, Alright Again. Gatemouth Brown passed away on September 10, 2005 in Orange, TX.
     
  • The Ebony Hillbillies are not only one of the last black string bands in AMERICA, but they are the only string band based in NYC.  Consisting of fiddle, banjo, washboard and bass fiddle, They have successfully created a following that has crossed over to audiences in pop, country, bluegrass, folk, jazz and beyond while maintaining their grassroots credibility.
     
  • . . . These days the old-time music and dance scene is predominantly white. It is rare to see an African-American musician or dancer at Mt. Airy, Clifftop, or other music festivals where old-time or bluegrass music is being played. There are a few, such as fiddler Earl White, who was an early member of the Green Grass Cloggers, but how many other black old-time musicians or dancers do you know? That is why I remember the day, a number of years ago, when I first saw Arthur Grimes. He was clogging in cowboy boots at a square dance I was calling at Merlefest in Wilkes County, North Carolina. Since that time, we have become friends, and we have shared the dance floor many times. But it wasn't until last December, when I interviewed him at the Boone Drug Store in Boone, that I learned how he got involved in old-time dancing.
     
  • The Berea College's Celebration of Traditional Music page has several profiles of African American musicians.
     
  • Black String Revival --- "Before the Blues--and the phonograph-- revolutionized popular music, African-American string bands featuring banjo and fiddle played for "frolics" (square dances), parades, house parties, corn shuckings, funerals, and baby christenings. Largely forgotten, this vital musical tradition survived into the 1950s. Now a new generation of blacks is rediscovering and reinvigorating the string band tradition. Black and white scholars are documenting the African origins of the banjo and how African-Americans adapted it. At the same time, young African-American string bands like The Carolina Chocolate Drops, The Ebony Hillbillies, Sankofa Strings, and Don Vappie and His Creole Jazz Serenaders are reinventing traditional banjo and fiddle music. Black String Revival, an hour-long documentary, will tell the story of the rise and fall and the rise again of the Black string band tradition."
     
  • Bluegrass Nation: A Historical and Cultural Analysis of America's Truest Music (This is a Thesis paper which relates the progression of music from the old string bands from the mid 1800's to modern day bluegrass, as well as touches on some of the influences of African Americans on these styles of music.
     
  • The name of Joe Thompson is hardly well known in music circles and yet in some ways he should be regarded as one of the most historically important American traditional performers active today.  For, since his re-emergence in the Seventies and introduction to a wider audience, Joe has upheld and represented a tradition of Afro-American country fiddling now all but vanished.
     
  • The name Arnold Shultz is one we need to become better aware of.  Arnold was a wandering fiddler/guitarist in Kentucky who had a wide range of influence.  It is documented that he was a major influence for Bill Monroe, Merle Travis and Ike Everly (father to the Everly Brothers).  He lived from 1886-1931 and unfortunately, was never recorded.
     
  • The Archie Edwards Blues Heritage Foundation is keeping East coast acoustic folk blues alive.  Through weekly Saturday jams, performances, workshops, exhibits, and lectures, AEBHF carries on the educational tradition of celebrated Piedmont blues artist Archie Edwards.
     
  • African-American Fiddlers on Early Phonograph Records (Many black musicians active during the 1920s and '30s came from a string-band tradition rooted in the 19th century, an era predating the blues when fiddles and banjos were the predominant instruments, and guitars a rarity. Although the blues signaled a major shift in African-American music, the older traditions proved resilient, and a number of black string bands were documented on early phonograph records in spite of marketing strategies that frequently excluded them. Record company executives, ever mindful of profit margins, were impressed with the sweeping popularity of blues music among black audiences, and felt reluctant to take a chance on the older forms of African-American music. Black fiddlers and string bands, still common in the South throughout the 1920s, were not entirely ignored by the record industry, but were they were sadly under-represented.)
     
  • FOLKS, HE SURE DO PULL SOME BOW!  It's a funny thing. As we embark further on our journey into the new century, we are just now starting to rediscover all the long-forgotten, wonderful things about the 20th. Whether it's bluegrass or early jazz, many music lovers have developed a growing fondness for the musical styles of yesteryear. The result has been a slow but growing interest in older recorded music, music trapped on old 78 RPM records, just waiting to be unleashed by modern technology.
    Vintage Fiddle Music, 1927-1935. Blues, Jazz, Stomps, Shuffles & Rags
     
  •  Thomasville's "Master Violinist"  (This article mentions Gus Rhodes who was known as the "Master Violinist")
     
  • The Black Banjo-Playing Tradition in Virginia and West Virginia (In 1781, Thomas Jefferson wrote in Notes on the State of Virginia that "The instrument proper to [blacks] is the Banjar, which they brought hither from Africa, and which is the original of the guitar, its lower chords being precisely the four lower chords of the guitar." While Jefferson was wrong about the banjo being the original of the guitar, he was right about its having been brought from Africa and about its being "proper" to blacks, which I take to mean uniquely their instrument and rather widely played by them.)
     
  • The Banjo's African American Heritage
    This article was written by Tony Thomas, the leading African American scholar of the banjo. Thomas organized the 2005 Black Banjo Gathering, served as contributing historian to the PBS documentary Give Me the Banjo, plays banjo and guitar with the Ebony Hillbillies, and has presented on Black banjo history and taught banjo at old time music, blues, and banjo festivals, universities, and public schools in the United States and Europe. His work has been published in periodicals like The Black Scholar and the Old Time Herald and is forthcoming at Illinois and Duke University presses. He can be reached for presentations, performance, and classes at BlackBanjoEducation@outlook.com
     
  • The Reunion Band  Known for its tight vocal harmonies and solid traditional bluegrass sound, the Reunion Band features veteran Boston-area musicians Richard Brown (mandolin), Dave Dillon (rhythm guitar), Margaret Gerteis (acoustic bass), Laura Orshaw (fiddle) and most recently BB Bowness (banjo) . The band, which has been around since 2002, takes its name from the fact that its members have played together off and on and in various configurations for over 30 years.
     
  • Juneberry78s Listening Room (Early Rural Black Fiddlers Original Recordings from the 20s - 40s)
     
  • Black Cowboys, is a website dedicated to telling the story of African American American Cowboys (which contrary to the old westerns portrayed in Hollywood, did exist and were a part of the history of the West.
     

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