January 29, 2007
By Tony Thomas
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.
today there is relatively little knowledge in the Black community, let
alone appreciation of traditional Black fiddling. As far as anyone
knows, 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.
What happened to all the
Black fiddling? Why does it not continue as white fiddling has in
revivals of old time music, in Country music, and in Bluegrass? To
find out about what happened to African American fiddling we need not
only to regard what has happened to white fiddlers, but to look at the
real dynamics of Black cultural and social life.
Very much of existing
white fiddling is part of the folk revival and its descendants, mutants,
and extensions, something I am proud to be part of. More of it is
part of modern country music and Bluegrass, where fiddling survives as
a real living music. In country and bluegrass part of the rubric--although
these are actually innovative and progressive musics in their own ways--is
the claim that the music looks back to old rural Southern traditions and
involves what Big Mon called "ancient tones." I've been to C/W concerts
where I've overhead audience members decrying groups that are hat-act
light rockers with southern accents, hoping that the next act "has a fiddle
in the band." To these fans, a fiddle meant a continuity with
Country music's links to the rural Southern music of the past..
By and large, revivalism
or nostalgia for past music seems to be a regular feature of dominant
musical tastes in this country since phonograph records made our musical
memories longer and more vivid. We see this even back in the
1920s when Southern string band music was marketed as "Old Time" music,
allegedly music of an earlier time, although the actual music was new,
progressive, and reflected quite modern influences Since WWII we
have had several folk revivals (1930-40s, 1950s-70s), Dixieland revivals,
white revivals of old Black blues forms, several swing, bebop, rock
and roll revivals, and even disco revivals. Yet, none of these revivals,
even when they have involved Black music played by African American musicians,
has had any kind of reflection or counterpart in the African American
African American mass
culture, at least in the 20th century, seems to share none of this desire
to look backward and identify with "the good old days." Perhaps
that is because for us, the old days were not very good. I grew
up knowing relatives whose parents had been slaves. Nostalgia
for the past seems not to be a major part of Black general culture, especially
musical culture. This is especially true in regard to aspects of culture
that symbolize the Southern rural past, the other racial side of the past
that Country music and old time music folk look to.
Moreover, the changes
in Afro-America have been tremendous. When I was born in 1947, even
though there had been significant migration to the Northern and Western
industrial cities during World War II, most African Americans were
involved in Southern agriculture. Today, African Americans are the
most urbanized folk in the country. In fact, today the term "urban"
in music, dress, and other things now seems a synonym for "Black."
I am not saying that for
people who are not Black, the past is a rose garden, or a nice thing,
or is represented correctly in the nostalgic media. That past
was not. However, a different reaction about this rural past
exists in Black musical and general culture than what seems to be the
case in the dominant culture.
Many observers of Black
musical culture have likened it to some schemas of how a cultural
vanguard (this is not to say that Black music is some kind of vanguard).
An important and dynamic aspect of Black music battles against the
dominant culture's attempts to contain, homogenize, and redefine the different
waves of Black musical expression and blend it down to being acceptable
to the dominant culture. African American music makers and their
audience (the significant group both among creators and consumers being
young hormone rich folks who love to dance) tend to move on to something
new, authentic, and something that has not yet been captured by the dominant
culture. They seek something that expresses, not the dominant experience,
but their own experience and identity.
much identification with anything that harkens to the past, that culture
tends to wish to create newer "Blacker" forms of expression that folks
vainly hope will not become contained, or adulterated by the dominant
This means that there
is almost no orientation to going back to the old music, or trying to
identify with "ancient tones." There is no strong attempt to identify
with rural roots or the past of the Jim Crow rural South. There is simply
no counterpart in Black mass musical culture to revivalist folk music,
country music, and bluegrass music's attempts to identify with older
musics and older life. None of their musical revivals ranging from
those of Dixieland after WWII to the more recent "Swing" revival have
had any reflection in African American musical culture and there have
been no parallel separate revivalisms among African Americans either.
includes the attempts by a faction of Black Jazz musicians to model Jazz
performance and practice on the models of Classical Music (some even distain
the term, "Jazz ," and speak of "Black Classical Music"). They
have created orchestras who perform Jazz classics from the past,
much as symphony repeat the classical standards. My attendance as some
of a great concert of the Jazz Orchestra of Lincoln Marsalis redoing the
classics of Black swing music, was similar to attending folk concerts
and events. Very few Black folk were there.
Some Blacks see
these revivals as attempts to get away from African American based music
of the present or to recast older Black musics in white versions. As
an African American who writes about and performs old time music and blues,
I regularly receive letters from white persons who counterpose "the Black
cultural heritage" of Blues or Black string band music to the "bad " hip
hop and rap. Such white folks ignore the fact that the current musics
created by the young and African American exist precisely as a continuation
of musical traditions of blues and black string band music, and that the
purpose of culture is to express the real identity and living conditions
of people, so that they should expect Black folks, particularly the young,
the poor, and the alienated to create music that speaks of their own separateness,
and not the tastes of the non-white, non-young, and non-Ghetto population.
of us interested in performing traditional African American music of the
past, are usually condemned to performing for largely non-Black audiences.
folk fiddling disappears as part of this cycle. Black fiddling was
fairly popular in the 19th century and in the early part of the 20th Century
when string band playing and dancing were dominant in rural Black communities.
Even when the blues and its own dancing replaced the older music
starting at the turning of the century, fiddles, unlike five-string banjos,
tended to be included in blues bands, and to accompany solo
blues artists on records. Yet, in the 1940s when blues bands
went from being acoustic band to electric, with the exception of
a great few, Black popular fiddling disappears.
the subsequent years there has been no tendency to want to go back or
at least pretend to go back to a rural Southern past, by retaining fiddles
or banjos for that matter. There is a similar relationship between
the Black R & B that went electric in the 1940s and older Black rural
musics with fiddles that preceded R & B as there is between,
older white musics and Western Swing and "Country" bands that went
electric and older acoustic Western and "Country". None of the Black bands
reach back to rural roots by retaining fiddles or banjos as the Western
and Country bands have.
I stress that this is
not a moral or some other kind of valuation of African American culture
as being superior to white culture. It is just different.
Thomas is the list owner of Black Banjo Then and Now (on Yahoo at http://launch.groups.yahoo.com/group/BlackBanjo/
). He was convenor of the Black Banjo Gathering at Appalachian State
College in Boone, NC in April 2005. He plays old time music
, blues, and folk music on the guitar, five-string banjo, and fiddle.
His articles have appeared in the Old Time Herald and The Black
Scholar. He lives in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale area of Florida and
can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
2007 by Tony Thomas, used by permission.