African American Southern Appalachian Music

Southern Appalachian mountain music has transcended time and location, standing as a root to many music genres, such as the blues, jazz, bluegrass, country, gospel, and American folk. It is a fusion of culture that has crossed borders of geography, race, and class, reminding us that music is just as mobile as the people are who create it and listen to it. Beginning with a narrative of forced migration and slavery, the musical practices of African Americans have significantly contributed to the Southern Appalachian musical sound that is heard in the Great Smoky Mountains, and surrounding areas. The African American Experience Project is highlighting this crucial, but often overlooked, African American cultural contribution while also emphasizing the historical presence of African Americans in the region.

Memory, Instruments, and Slavery (16th -19th centuries)

African American culture, including its musical practices, began on slave ships where diverse West African ethnicities and sounds were forced to collide in order to survive. Various songs, languages, and cultures traveled within the memories of captured Africans as their chained bodies were transported as cargo across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas. On this violent journey, the captives were sometimes brought up from the confined storage spaces of the ship and were required to dance and sing for exercise on the ship’s deck so that they would be healthy for profit on American slave markets. This led to the development of cultural kinships, as languages, music, dance practices, and religious beliefs were shared amongst the captives. Once they arrived on American shores, enslaved Africans used the various cultural practices of their homelands to create a new and vibrant African American culture that was born in bondage. They went on to create and contribute to so much of what is considered American culture and music, including Southern Appalachian mountain music. Within the memories of captured Africans there also traveled the sound and construction of over sixty long necked West African gourd instruments, such as the ankonting, ngoni, and xalam to name a few. Gourds are oddly shaped fruits with thick shells that are used as the body of these instruments. The gourd instruments later evolved into what is now the banjo. Enslaved Africans’ distinct style of down stroke banjo picking, which is known as “clawhammer”, was popularized on plantations and established the unique Southern Appalachian banjo sound that is heard today.

Also known as the bowed lute, the fiddle traveled across the Atlantic within the memories of captured Africans as well.While the fiddle historically has multiple cultural meanings and origins in many civilizations around the globe, African Americans’ style of fiddling is reflective of centuries old West African fiddling techniques. Those techniques went on to heavily influence the traditional Southern Appalachian fiddling style. Jim Spencer was a formerly enslaved African American man who this fiddling tradition lived on through, as the old-time musician Hobart Smith recalled hearing Spencer play the fiddle when Smith was a young boy in the early 1900s in Sugar Grove, NC. Enslaved Africans used their music to practice religion, tell stories, and to communicate paths to freedom. Using their bodies as instruments, they would ‘pat juba’, a dance practiced by enslaved Africans that involved the hands patting the body to provide a drum like quality or beat to musical ensembles. “‘Pattin’ juba’” was popularized when it became illegal for the enslaved to play drums, as whites feared that they would use drums to communicate with one another in order to make plans of escape or rebellion. This concept of the dancing body as an instrument remains in Southern Appalachia today and is practiced by individuals like Arthur Grimes of Boone, NC, an African American clog dancer who uses his tapping feet to perform with musical ensembles. Clogging is also a dance practice that has African roots, as well as Native American, and European roots, and it is traditional in the Great Smoky Mountain region.

With fast down stroking fingers, dust kicking feet, and soft scratching fiddling, enslaved African musicians created tunes that became a standard musical sound across the Antebellum South. They were often required to perform to entertain whites on plantations and would also be sent by their owners to travel to other plantations or social events as entertainment, further spreading musical Africanisms across the American South. Due to the mountainous terrains and weather conditions, slavery was less widespread in the southern mountains than in the Deep South because the environment was not suitable for profitable crops. However, slavery was still very present in the Southern Appalachian Mountains. This resulted in closer interactions between whites and Blacks in areas like the Great Smokies. While there was still a societal racial imbalance, these close interactions created the rich intercultural nature of Southern Appalachian music which combined African, European, and Native American musical practices.

Post-Civil War and the Great Migration (late 19th – mid 20th century)

Minstrel shows became extremely popular nationally and globally during the post-Civil War era of the late 19th century. Minstrelsy was a form of theatrical entertainment that portrayed racist stereotypes of African Americans that were rooted in the history of slavery. White actors would apply black colored makeup to their faces and red paste on and around their mouths to create large, exaggerated lips to mock African features. This is called ‘black face’, a clown like mask used to negatively portray African Americans as they were seen in the eye of white society.

Minstrel shows globalized African American musical styles and techniques, as the banjo and fiddle were incorporated into the acts to further characterize dehumanizing caricatures of blackness. Although slavery was abolished in 1865, the entertainment industry and the country at large were highly discriminatory. If African Americans were able to find paid work as performers during this time, many were often required to portray degrading characters and even perform in black face themselves.

The Southern Black Appalachian music sound also expanded in sound, popularity, and region during the late 19th to mid 20th centuries largely due to the railroad industry which brought many jobs to Southern Appalachia. Thus, African American men and their families migrated from the Deep South to Appalachia to work on the railroads, bringing their own cultures and musical styles with them. Over the clanks of metal tools against the unfinished railroads, perhaps some would hum the tune of songs like “Railway Bill” or “Smokey Blues”, with sounds of banjo picking and down-home fiddling playing in the backs of their minds. Dave Thompson, a Black banjo player from Ashe County, NC, traveled to Tennessee and Kentucky as a railroad worker, and possibly inspired the famous white Southern Appalachian musician Tom Ashley’s sound.

Southern Appalachian mountain music steadily grew in national popularity in the early to mid-20th century. However, many recording labels characterized southern mountain and ‘old-time’ music with white hillbilly and country music singers, rejecting its Black pioneers.This racialization led to the region’s music being solely linked to southern whiteness. As a result, African American musicians like Lesley Riddle of Burnsville, NC, fell into the backdrop of Southern Appalachian music, working with the famous white folk music group The Carter Family behind the scenes.Fortunately, there are recordings of African American musicians like Leola Manning, Odessa Cansler, and the Tennessee Chocolate Drops from the 1929 and 1930 St. James Sessions in Knoxville, TN where the musicians recorded gospel, blues, old-time, and pop records. Each of these genres have Black Southern Appalachian roots, mountain songs were even originally called “blues” in the 20th century and they took on African American musical sounds and practices.

The Great Migration (1915-1970) was a period when millions of African Americans left southern rural areas and migrated to more urban or northern locations. They fled to escape racism and to seek better employment and educational opportunities. As a result, many eventually lost their personal connections to Southern Appalachian music. With the desire to reshape their narratives and separate themselves from racist stereotypes, many African Americans left instruments like the banjo and fiddle behind due to their popularized demeaning imagery in minstrel shows. Many African American musicians migrated North during the 1940s and 1950s. At this time Black musicians were creating mostly jazz, blues, and gospel records that were more accepted from them by the record industry, while also creating music that they felt was more positively reflective of Black life and culture.

Mobility is a key trait of the African American experience. From the slave ship, to the railroads, and to the Great Migration, music that has derived from this history has traveled and evolved along with its creators. Even though many 20th century African American musicians left Southern Appalachian music in the past, its sound, soul, and storytelling techniques still lingered in their music, and it continues to linger on American music genres.

There are some African American musicians who keep the Southern Appalachian style alive today at folk festivals and Black banjo gatherings. The former band The Carolina Chocolate Drops are largely responsible for reviving Southern Appalachian music within the African American community. Its former members, Rhiannon Giddens and Dom Flemons amongst others, continue to keep the genre alive today. Through the ancestral memory of musical Africanisms that were brought to Southern Appalachia, African Americans have created distinctly inescapable musical styles that have contributed so much to what is commonly understood today as Southern Appalachian mountain music.

—This piece was originally published as part of the National Parks Service, African American Experience Project.


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