Repairing narratives: old-time and bluegrass music

Today I add my voice to the chorus of people singing the true story of old-time and bluegrass music. It is a marvelously multicultural story, wrought with pain and possibility. We call for the repair of false and incomplete narratives which paint this music as a white cultural commodity. We hold hope for the positive potential of transformative truth.

Scott Family string band in Michigan, circa 1900

While I have been passionate about this topic for quite awhile, I was motivated to finally write about it after reading two quotes which, in my opinion, obscure the full roots of the music which is so much a part of the cultural identity of this area.

The first was in Explore Asheville’s Official 2018 Visitor Guide (p.25): “Rooted in old-time mountain tunes, ancestral Cherokee traditions, and the jigs of Scot-Irish settlers who took refuge in the Blue Ridge Mountains, the local music scene is always timeless — and always spinning in new directions.”

The second is from the January — February 2019 issue of WNC Magazine (p. 73): “If the mountains had a soundtrack, it would surely be of old-time and bluegrass tunes, of little-known talents playing the fiddle, mandolin, bass, and guitar on porches and in backroom picking parlors, crooning ballads and folk songs whose roots stretch back far to the region’s Scots-Irish ancestors.”

What bothered me about these quotes was the omission of the essential musical contributions of enslaved Africans and African Americans, and the continued centering of the Scots-Irish (though I do appreciate Explore Asheville’s mention of the Cherokee, which WNC Magazine also does on p. 68). Both publications have photos of current day Black musicians paired with the pieces the quotes come from. Yet in actuality the dominant musical scene in this area is still woefully white. That is changing, yet it is my belief that truly meaningful cultural shifts cannot occur without correct framing of the past.

Odell and Joe Thompson (mentor to the Carolina Chocolate Drops), 1988

“In order to understand the history of the banjo and the history of bluegrass [and old-time] music, we need to move beyond the narratives we’ve inherited, beyond generalizations that bluegrass is mostly derived from a Scots-Irish tradition, with ‘influences’ from Africa. It is actually a complex creole music that comes from multiple cultures, African and European and Native; the full truth that is so much more interesting, and American,” said musician Rhiannon Giddens (co-founder of the Carolina Chocolate Drops) in her 2017 keynote address at the IBMA conference. That powerful keynote outlines much of this hidden history, refuting myths we’ve heard over and over, pointing to ways racism shaped what happened. Giddens also gave a keynote at the Big Ears Festival in 2018, which you can listen to here.

There are many sources to learn this history, some of which are listed in the bibliography of Gidden’s IBMA keynote. While I knew that the banjo originated in Africa and was introduced to this country by enslaved Africans, my first real introduction to the deeper complexities of the foundations of old-time music (the predecessor to bluegrass) and dance came from a talk that Phil Jamison, author of Hoedowns, Reels, and Frolics: Roots and Branches of Southern Appalachian Dance, gave at the 3rd annual African American in WNC & Souther Appalachia Conference. I’ve since read his book, which is a true treasure trove of illuminating information.

Bascom Lamar Lunsford with the Lovingood Sisters and the Greer Sisters, about 1933, from the Bascom Lamar Lunsford Collection, Southern Appalachian Archives, Mars Hill University

From that talk, I particularly remember an ad he shared (I think it was from the 1930s) for the Mountain Music & Dance Festival (founded by Bascom Lamar Lunsford), which promoted the event as a showcase of “pure Anglo-Saxon” culture, which of course was completely false. Seeing the promo materials and demographics at that event (and the affiliated Shindig on the Green) today, I wonder what has changed in terms of organizers’ and attendees’ understanding of the full roots of mountain music and dance.

From The Carter Family: Don’t Forget This Song, by Frank M. Young and David Lasky

When I consider repairing these narratives, I think about people like Lesley Riddle, who, as I wrote before, was a critical influence on the world-famous Carter Family, but died unknown in Asheville. I have also heard of a Black banjo player who Bascom Lamar Lunsford learned from, though I don’t have his name. Giddens lists other examples of who is remembered and who is forgotten, “Hank Williams, but not Tee Tot Payne? Jimmie Rodgers, Hobart Smith, Tommy Jarrell, Doc Roberts and countless others, who freely acknowledged all the black musicians who inspired them, but that we, as a society, don’t remember or value? And what about Earl Scruggs’ amazing innovation but not the hundreds of years of cross-racial music making that led up to it?”

There are so many layers to these stories. African Americans endured extreme cultural and economic losses as they were stripped of their connection to the music they helped create. These losses also led them to create more innovative musical riches for our country (blues, jazz, hip hop) — every iteration of which white people have profited off of, with little to no reciprocity with the originators. This is one of the questions white people need to answer — how do we rectify the cultural extraction we have engaged in?

I appreciate Gidden’s intentions. “My goal here, today, is to say that what makes this bluegrass, old-time, and other forms of music so powerful is that there is room for everyone to explore these incredible traditions,” she says. “I want people to understand — that recognizing the African American presence within these traditions does not come at the expense of trying to erase all of the other tradition bearers who have already received so much of our attention. ”

“The Musicale, Barber Shop,” Trenton, NY, by Thomas Hicks, 1866

Giddens reminds us, “It is important to what is going on right now to stress the musical brother- and sisterhood we have had for hundreds of years; for every act of cultural appropriation, of financial imbalance, of the erasure of names and faces, of the outside attempt to create artificial division and sow hatred, simply to keep us down so that the powers-that-be can continue to enjoy the fruits of our labor, there are generous acts of working class cultural exchange taking place in the background.”

As we remember how these folk music traditions developed in great part through informal exchanges among people of different races, I wonder where spaces for such exchanges can be created again, or where they already exist for us to nurture.

Ami Worthen and Caroline Pond, Mt. Airy Fiddler’s Convention, early 2000s.

As a person with Scots-Irish ancestry who began my musical journey playing the banjo, I am drawn to the healing potential of an authentically collective narrative about that instrument and the musical genres it is woven into.

Can the banjo be a bridge?

What can repairing these narratives make possible?

How would African American children in Western North Carolina feel to learn they too are part of our “mountain music” story? How would that information shape the attitudes of white students? Can we start to weave Latinx music into today’s stories?

In an opinion piece for the Lexington Herald-Leader, Jillean McCommons, who gave an excellent talk about Black banjo player John Homer Walker at the 4th annual African Americans in WNC & Southern Appalachia Conference wrote, “I hope to encourage more African Americans to play the banjo and to see this instrument as a bridge into our rich cultural history. I hope to see classrooms of black children learning to play the songs and instruments their ancestors played. They played through a terrible era filled with pain. They did so with a forceful creativity and virtuosity developed through playing these instruments over centuries.”

Songs of our Native Daughter

To close, I want to share this moving video of the making of “Mama’s Cryin’ Long” from Songs of Our Native Daughters, an album featuring four Black female banjo players — Rhiannon Giddens, Leyla McCalla, Allison Russell, and Amythyst Kiah — which comes out on February 22 on Smithsonian Folkways Records. “Drawing on and reclaiming early minstrelsy and banjo music, these musicians reclaim, recast, and spotlight the often unheard and untold history of their ancestors, whose stories remain vital and alive today.” Give yourself time and space to process the pain it will evoke.

Onward.

Originally published at amiworthen.com on January 16, 2019.

a writer and collaborator following the call of collective liberation | she/her/ella | amiworthen.com

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