Old Time

Rural Black String Band Music by Charles Wolfe


The first time I think I ever seen Arnold Schultz … this square dance was at Rosine, Kentucky, and Arnold and two more colored fellows come up there and played for the dance. They had a guitar, banjo, and fiddle. Ar­nold played the guitar but he could play the fiddle-numbers like "Sally Goodin." People loved Arnold so well all through Kentucky there; if he was playing a guitar they'd go gang up around him till he would get tired and then maybe he'd go catch a train …. I admired him that much that I never forgot a lot of the things he would say. There's things in my music, you know, that comes from Arnold Schultz-runs that I use in a lot of my music (Bill Monroe, quoted in Rooney 1971).1

Quotes such as this one from bluegrass star Bill Monroe are by no means atypical. For ten years I have been interviewing at length older country musicians and folk musicians from the 1920s and 1930s about that misty borderland wherein traditional American folk music was somehow transformed into commercial country music; many, many of them mention bands such as Arnold Schultz's string band, point to them as influences, as models, as colleagues. They point to a genre of American music that most scholars have ignored and that most mem­bers of the general public do not even know existed: a genre that De­Ford Bailey, the famous harmonica player on the early Grand Ole Opry, defined for me as "black hillbilly music." "Sure," he said, "black hillbilly music. Everybody around me grew up playin' that. Fiddles and banjos and guitars; they weren't playin' no blues then. It was black hillbilly music" (Bailey 1975).

For years the emphasis of those studying black American folk music has been directed to religious music (the first really respectable music to study), to jazz (the first commercially successful brand of music), or to blues. Yet do these three forms really account for all of the rich variety of black music found in folk tradition-or just the most visible ones? What about the rural fife-and-drum tradition, which has lingered unno­ticed in Tennessee until this present generation? What about the tradition of black non-blues secular song? And what about the tradition of the rural string band music? To explore these aspects of black music requires a great deal more digging and musical archaeology but might yield in the end results as fruitful as those coming from jazz, blues, and religious music studies.

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1. Arnold Shultz, incidentally, went on to influence Kennedy Jones, who taught white musician Mose Rager, who taught Merle Travis and Chet Atkins.

DISCOGRAPHY

Virginia Traditions. BRI-001. Blue Ridge Institute, Ferrum College, Ferrum, Va. Blind James Campbell and his Nashville Street Band. Arhoolie 1015, recorded as recently as 1962. Altamont: Black string band music from the Library of Congress. Rounder Records or Compact Disc 0238. 0942-1946 recordings by the John Lusk String Band and the fiddle-banjo duo of Nathan Frazier and Frank Patterson, with extensive annotation by the author.}

Originally published in Black Music Research Newsletter 4, no. 2 (Fall 1980). Used by permission of Mary Dean Wolfe.

The Carolina Chocolate Drops with Bill Hinkley and Judy Larson: a benefit for "Black String Revival"


 

A benefit performance for Black String Revival, an hour-long documentary from Fretless Films which will tell the story of the rise and fall and the rise again of the Black string band tradition. 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 Seranaders are reinventing traditional banjo and fiddle music.

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Why Black Folks Don't Fiddle

 

January 29, 2007
By Tony Thomas

Many unfamiliar with the real history of Black fiddling forget that fiddling was extremely common among African Americans until the early 20th Century. In the we have many reports of Africans in America fiddling and making fiddles almost as soon as they arrived from Africa. The excellence of Black fiddlers performing both for white masters, patrons, and paying audience and for the dances and parties of other Africans in America, speaks not only to the training in European violin playing some slaves received, but also to traditions of fiddling on African bowed instruments that slaves brought here. No wonder, fiddling was the most reported musical activity of African Americans during colonial times. Studies, particularly Bob Winans' survey of instruments mentioned in the WPA interviews of former slaves, show that fiddling was the most widely known instrumental music in Black folk life in the 19th Century.

Yet, today there is relatively little knowledge in the Black community, let alone appreciation of traditional Black fiddling. As far as anyone know, Joe Thompson of Mebane North Carolina remains the last traditional African American fiddler, though a small group of younger African Americans like Earl White, Rique Prince, Rhiannon Giddens, and Justin Robinson are trying to continue the tradition in revivalist bands.

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Bluegrass, string music deeply rooted in African-American tradition

Strains of African-American music beat in the deep heart of bluegrass, from the African-derived tones of the five-string banjo to the blue notes that give the music its characteristic lonesome sound.
 
At least two African-Americans who play bluegrass and string music – Tennessee picker Carl Johnson and Carolina Chocolate Drops member Hubby Jenkins – will perform at this week’s World of Bluegrass festivities in Raleigh. And acoustic-music giant Bela Fleck and banjoist/wife Abigail Washburn will likely explore the banjo’s African roots during their duet appearance Friday.
 
Johnson, 59, a powerful five-string banjo player and singer, grew up in the Virginia mountains. In the segregated South of the 1950s, he came to bluegrass through a family affection for gospel music, a style in which black and white traditions often merge.
 
“I’ve been listening to it all my life,” Johnson said during a recent interview, referencing the bluegrass stars he heard near Roanoke, Va. “We were lucky because we had Don Reno and Red Smiley on TV in the morning and Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs in the evening.”
 
Jenkins, 28, a New York-based musician in his fourth year with the wildly popular, Grammy-winning Chocolate Drops, also tours the United States and Europe with his solo mixture of old-time string music, blues and ragtime.
 
“Definitely in the band, and as a personal mission, I want to bring this music forward,” Jenkins said. “We’re trying to spark more interest in the African-American community, not just as museum music, but as music for the people.”
 

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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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