While thinking about how things evolve and change I’ve turned my attention again to how much mountain music and dance traditions are influenced by black traditions of rhythmic dance and songs. Black lives and black creativity really matter in the sound of our music in the Blue Ridge. Blacks never got enough credit which is no surprise. Historically, poor farmer families were basically in the same boat (no matter what color) but poor whites weren’t as discriminated against in general. Poor whites and blacks were probably much more alike than different and had many of the same challenges. Their music was generally untrained and came from the heart and soul in the same way.
Of course, we all understand that the banjo itself originated in Africa, brought in the memories of slaves who re-created the instrument with gourds and animal skin. The banjo’s evolution over 400 years into the mechanical drum-like instrument of today (with many factory-made metal parts) is truly fascinating. Much of the incentive to change the instrument was driven by the desire to overcome some of the problems that caused gourd, grain measures, hoops, and others to fail over time.
The sounds and rhythms of these past generations developed and evolved as well. As happens in the rural mountains, things are slower to change and many older sounds were preserved by a few elders of the black and white communities. They are about all gone now. The identities of many of these elders will never be known, as is the case around my part of the Blue Ridge.
It is curious that, before the time of radio, whites picked up the music played mainly on banjos and captured its sounds from black players with no social structure allowing races to freely mingle. Most of the transfers I assume came in white youth observations in minimal settings of blacks playing and someone dancing nearby.
However, the ‘sound’ of many tunes seems to be carried forward into players of the white community so far back that the old-timers who were interviewed have little if any recollection of blacks who may have played banjos and fiddles. I am no scholar but it is fascinating how the music survived in the ‘common’ folk community and continued to be a music that may well have been heard and played in the black community but never documented.
A memory of a ‘sound’ is a powerful thing and it no doubt was how the tunes came forward into the white community before recording equipment and radio broadcast. Sound is not just a melody but other things like rhythm, pace, and ‘mode’ that blend to back up a singer or inspire a dancer. We are lucky as music lovers to have a ‘memory’ for a tune at least, however, a memory for a ‘sound’ is really special as it related to a ‘feeling’ and doesn’t just happen overnight. We must practice our listening as much as our banjo, fiddle, or guitar.
Here are a couple of versions of the song Georgia Buck from Carroll County players that don’t carry much of a “parlor” sound. Maybe on the porch or under a shade tree.
Comment from David McKissack
Hello Mac. With regard to African-American musicians mingling with whites, Gail and I are presently reading, “A Hotbed of Musicians: Traditional Music in the Upper New River Valley and Whitetop Region,” and in the section on Ola Belle Campbell Reed the author writes:
“[Ola Belle’s family] not only made music with their kin, but also according to Ola, usually jammed on Friday nights at their general store in Lansing, NC [Phipps General Store?] with ‘colored’ musicians, especially the Spurlins family, called ‘The Little Wonders.’ These jam sessions encouraged informal swapping of musician styles. It was in settings like this that the banjo, originally an African-American instrument, became basic in Appalachian music.”
I’ve done a cursory search for the Spurlins/Little Wonders but found nothing on them.
Comment from Michael Ananian
I learned Joe Thompson’s version of this terrific song from Alan Julich (a banjoist who played with Joe).
I enjoyed reading your thoughts about capturing lost “sounds,” specifically African American banjo sounds. I’ve been dealing with these ideas as a banjoist and also as a painter for the past few years. (Attached are two such paintings that I thought you might get a kick out of). To see more, my website is michaelananian.com.
Anyway, thank you for your terrific Georgia Buck “songs” and your thoughtful writings about “Black” sound in old time music.
Professor of Art (Drawing and Painting)
University of North Carolina at Greensboro