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The Lost Tradition of Black String Bands

It is a summer day in 1975, and 76-year-old DeFord Bailey, the legendary harmonica pioneer of the Grand Ole Opry, is sitting on the porch outside his apartment entertaining visitors. Today he has decided not to play the harp, and has brought out a five-string banjo, which he picks with his left hand and holds upside down. He is playing in an old drop-thumb style, and playing a fine tune called "Lost John".

"Where are your picks?" someone asks after he finishes. He holds up his hand and shows his long, tough fingernails. "Hawks' bills," he grins. "Did you learn to play the banjo growing up out in the country?" someone else asks. "Oh yeah," he says. "I never heard the blues till I came to Nashville to work. All I heard as a boy back then was what we called black hillbilly music."

Later on we learn that DeFord's grandfather was a champion fiddler of the state of Tennessee in the 1880s. And we learn that the Bailey Family Band, comprised of uncles and great uncles, was a fixture at the Wilson County fair every year, where they played banjo and mandolin and fiddle for the big square dances. And we learn that DeFord, as usual, was absolutely right; there was a time when "black hillbilly music" was everywhere across the South.

The black string band tradition is all but extinct today. The last remnants of it could be heard in the music of Joe and Odell Thompson, in the lilting banjo styles of the late John Jackson, in the driving fiddle of Howard Armstrong, occasionally in the work of Taj Mahal. But diaries and letters from the 19th century, as well as dozens of fading old photos, show that as late as the turn of the 20th century, there were still hundreds of black fiddlers and banjo players plying their trade.

W.C. Handy, the blues composer, described how his own grandfather, Brewer, played the fiddle for dances, often singing words like, "Sal got a meatskin laid away/To grease her wooden leg every day." In slavery days, talented black musicians were sent to New Orleans, where they learned how to fiddle the quadrilles and reels favored at plantation dances. Later, these musicians began to develop their own styles, based on the white fiddle tunes but with a more forceful bowing style and a sense of dynamics.

A handful of these bands made it onto early commercial records in the 1920s and 1930s. The Mississippi Sheiks, formed around brothers Bo, Sam and Lonnie Chatmon, traveled throughout the South and recorded dozens of sides for the Okeh label -- including the standard "Sittin' On Top Of The World". Two wandering minstrels called Evans and McClain, from Knoxville, Tennessee, billed themselves as the Two Poor Boys and did some sparkling mandolin and guitar duets such as "Sourwood Mountain" and "Old Hen Cackle". An incredible family band from eastern Kentucky, the Booker Orchestra, was allowed to make only two sides by Gennett Recording Company, who noted in their files, "made for hillbilly market."

All told, there may have been as many as 50 sides captured on commercial disc during the time that the companies were recording hundreds of white fiddle bands and hundreds of blues singers.

Why weren't more examples of black hillbilly music recorded? The biggest reason was a sort of commercialized racism on the part of the big Northern record companies. As the big companies such as Columbia and Victor began to discover the market for Southern roots music in the 1920s, they decided only white people would buy "white" music and only black people would buy "black" music; thus the white music was pigeonholed as "hillbilly" or "old-time" and the black music was labeled "race" music.

The companies all created separate release series for each; Columbia, for instance, listed all its old-time records in its 15000 series and all its blues records in its 14000 series. One series was distributed mainly to stores in black neighborhoods, the other to white working-class neighborhoods. A black band playing fiddles and banjos, such as the Sheiks, didn't fit into either stereotype. Though some of the Sheiks' records were actually released in both series, most of the time the Northern A&R men ignored such bands. They assumed that black music was either blues or gospel, and that white music was hillbilly.

The lesson wasn't lost on young black musicians. Even though some of them (including Lonnie Johnson, Josh White and Brownie McGhee) had grown up playing string band music, they quickly learned that if they wanted to get on record, they needed to play the blues. Slowly, the older black string band men began to fade away. In the 1940s, folklorists for the Library of Congress captured some wonderful examples of the tradition, recording the team of Frazier & Patterson (from the streets of Nashville), and the superb square dance of John Lusk from Tennessee's Cumberland Plateau. (Some samples of these can be heard on the Rounder CD Altamont.)

In the 1950s, Chris Strachwitz managed to get an Arhoolie album from Blind James Campbell and his Nashville dance band. Since then, we have found a handful of older musicians who still remember great African-American breakdowns like "Round Dice Reel" and "Old Joe", but most of them are far beyond their prime and can barely scrape out the old tunes.

Black string band survivors directly influenced many of the classic country stars, including the Carter Family (Leslie Riddle), Bill Monroe (Arnold Shultz), and Hank Williams (Rufus "Tee-Tot" Payne). But that's another story for another time. Today this once dynamic music is mostly just a memory, like the whooping crane, glass packs, and good tequila. But its taste lingers.