Music News & Reviews

Bluegrass, string music deeply rooted in African-American tradition

Banjo player Carl Johnson at a gathering of banjo players at Appalachian State University in Boone, NC in 2011.
Banjo player Carl Johnson at a gathering of banjo players at Appalachian State University in Boone, NC in 2011. Lonnie Webster

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.”

Crossing boundaries

The black influence on bluegrass originated in long-ago collaborations between string musicians in Southern communities. That occurred as open-eared players absorbed the most interesting music they heard, regardless of race, said CeCe Conway, an English professor at Appalachian State University who has studied Southern string music for decades.

“It means that music can cross boundaries that other things don’t and that these musicians cared more about music than about those boundaries,” Conway said.

Though Jenkins has deep family roots in North Carolina, he came to old-time music and blues through urban folk performers and traced his way back, learning in the process about his family’s musical past.

“When I first started getting into playing country music, I found out my great aunt used to listen to the Grand Ole Opry all the time,” he said.

However, societal barriers have meant that black country-music fans had fewer opportunities to play and enjoy it. Many years after the fact, banjo picker Johnson learned that the 1965 Virginia event celebrated as the first bluegrass festival took place just a few miles from his home, on a farm where he often trained horses and cleaned stables.

Johnson loved the banjo playing and singing of Ralph Stanley and other performers at the Fincastle, Va., festival, but he wouldn’t have been allowed to attend because of “Jim Crow kind of stuff,” he said.

“Back then there wasn’t a lot of black folk that liked country music anyway,” he said. “You got teased a little.”

Scholars who study this cultural intertwining say it took place over several centuries, resulting in Southern string music’s “blue” or flattened vocal tones and its use of syncopated, layered rhythms of African origin.

The West African instrument that became the banjo likely came to the South via Jamaica and other Caribbean islands by the mid-18th century, according to UNC-Chapel Hill historian Philip Gura and co-writer James F. Bollman in their book, “America’s Instrument: The Banjo in the Nineteenth Century.”

Bluegrass grew in interactions among black musicians who employed banjo and African tonalities and white ones who played fiddle tunes and sang ballads and hymns brought from England, Ireland and Scotland.

Styles, songs shared

The musicians who in 1945 created the style now known as bluegrass freely acknowledged their debt to black music. Bill Monroe, the Kentuckian and bluegrass founder who once broadcast on the powerful Raleigh radio station WPTF-AM, always cited black fiddler and guitarist Arnold Shultz as one of his prime influences.

The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers, two foundational acts of country and bluegrass, drew heavily on blues and other black styles, sometimes putting their names on songs or lyrics that had long circulated informally. Songs such as “John Henry” and “Sittin’ on Top of the World” were popular across the board.

The genre-crossing blue notes in those songs also emerged in vocal and instrumental styles of bluegrass founders such as Monroe, Scruggs and the Stanley Brothers.

After bluegrass gained commercial popularity in the late 1940s and ’50s, its key performers toured constantly, something that was more difficult for black performers. Black string band musicians such as Mebane’s Odell and Joe Thompson became less visible.

But in the 21st century, Joe Thompson made an indelible mark on the young black musicians who started the Chocolate Drops.

“When you have the opportunity to meet Joe and sit with him, this music becomes less of a distant thing,” Jenkins said.

Mainstream bluegrassers continued to draw inspiration from more contemporary blues, gospel, R&B even rock ’n’ roll, with Grand Ole Opry stars Jim & Jesse McReynolds recording an entire album of Chuck Berry songs and the award-winning Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver recreating tunes by Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers.

But many bluegrass festivals and clubs tended to be segregated in fact if not by law, and the music took on associations with the old South, said Allen Farmelo, a New York scholar and musician.

“What I found was that bluegrass festivals were a scenario in which nobody I know who was black would have felt comfortable attending,” he said, adding that exclusionary signs were more cultural than official.

“Did I see the Confederate flag hanging from motor homes?” Farmelo said. “Absolutely.”

A black banjo revival

Scholars and musicians such as Lexington’s Bob Carlin have put years into studying the West African origins of the banjo and its links to Southern string music.

“What this community of players and scholars have established is that the original playing style and the structure of this instrument all harked back to West Africa,” Carlin said.

When the contemporary Malian musician Cheick Hamala Diabate was first presented a gourd banjo like those played by early black musicians in the South, he tuned it, Carlin said.

“All of my music fits on this instrument,” Carlin recalled Diabate saying.

IBMA artist Fleck, probably the best-known player to perform many different styles on the banjo, made the documentary “Throw Down Your Heart” to illustrate the links between the instrument that can play “Rocky Top” or “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” and the similar one still played in Africa.

“I thought it was important for people to realize where the banjo comes from,” Fleck said.

In 2004, Conway and others started an online community called Black Banjo Then and Now to bring together musicians and scholars. That effort bore fruit in the 2005 Black Banjo Gathering in Boone, attended by Joe Thompson and future members of the Chocolate Drops.

By the time the Black Banjo Gathering Reunion occurred in 2010, both Johnson and Hubby Jenkins were in attendance, as they will be at World of Bluegrass in Raleigh this week.

“Lord, I know Hubby,” Johnson said upon hearing that Jenkins will be in Raleigh. “I played with the Chocolate Drops at at the Black Banjo Reunion. That’ll be great.”

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer