African-American roots run deep in traditional music


Dom Flemons (on guitar) with unidentified musicians at the 2010 Rhythm and Roots Reunion, Bristol, Tennessee.

By David Winship

Music, like the leaves of a tree, derives its strength and sustenance from the branches, the trunk and, ultimately, the roots from which it springs. The roots of American traditional music, whether old-time, bluegrass or Americana, come from their ties with Africa, as well as with Northern Europe. The tunes, influences and place of the banjo, with its origins in Africa, and its heritage with the enslaved populations of the South and their descendants, began to be reclaimed. Additionally, blues music from the Mississippi Delta and Piedmont regions provides an important soundtrack to roots music.

Songs from the blues, including fields, trains, and prisons, provide the foundations and foundations for traditional songs that are now being revived and reinterpreted. These influences in recordings made in the 20th century have found receptive respondents in 21st century musicians.

From the earliest days of recorded music, black artists have been important and influential singers, songwriters and musicians. If it weren’t for Lesley Riddle, we wouldn’t have had the tunes to go along with AP Carter’s collection of songs and The Carter Family. If it hadn’t been for the black Mississippi blues singers of the railroads, we wouldn’t have had the singing style of Jimmie Rodgers. If we hadn’t had the influence of Arnold Schultz, we wouldn’t have had the sound of Bill Monroe and early bluegrass music.

Without traditional Piedmontese musicians like Joe Thompson, we wouldn’t have had the Carolina Chocolate Drops. If it hadn’t been for Carl Martin, Ted Bogan and Howard Armstrong, the legacy of black string orchestra musicians would not have continued through the folk era of the 1960s. Without Elizabeth Cotton, we wouldn’t have had “Freight Train” or Dale Jett continuing the family tradition of The Carter Family, because she showed him how to play left-handed.

These influences bear fruit in the 21st century. Perhaps the most notable, but by no means the only, strong, powerful, and talented African American the musicians are those who emerged from the Black Banjo Gathering in 2005 at Appalachian State University. The Carolina Chocolate Drops were born out of this gathering, which was Rhiannon Giddens, Dom Flemons and Justin Robinson’s first meeting.

Dom Flemons spread traditional musical interpretations as “The American Songster”, releasing albums, winning awards and educating the public about the rich and influential history of African Americans, such as his record “Black Cowboys” . His music reflects early music, including original black banjo music from the Carolinas, such as Sid Hemphill, Henry Thomas and Peg Leg Howell.

Rhiannon Giddens has blazed multiple trails since her days with Carolina Chocolate Drops. Among them are the “Songs of Our Native Daughters,” a collaborative effort of female banjo pickers, including former Chocolate Drop Layla McCalla, Allison Russell and Amythyst Kiah. The album explores and highlights the lives and legacies of their black experience. Russell recently released his first solo album, “Outside Child”, which received three Grammy nominations this year. Kiah’s 2021 album “Wary + Strange” is a clash between his old-time/roots music and his early-influenced alternative rock. It includes his award-winning song “Black Myself,” a song Billboard Magazine described as “Blistering…A must-listen to life in the land of white privilege.”

Tray Wellington is a contemporary banjo player who received the 2019 Momentum Instrumentalist Award from the International Bluegrass Music Association, as well as the Momentum Band as a member of Cane Mill Road. In addition to leading the Tray Wellington Band, he recently began his career as communications manager for Pinecone, the Piedmont Council of Traditional Music.

Black roots run deep in the fertile soil of American traditional music. The seeds of the legacy of musicians who came before us are harvested from new young musicians who nurture the music, expand audiences, develop their own sounds and bring enrichment, education and entertainment to the world.

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David Bonner Winship is a member of Winston-Salem Writers, resident of Bristol, Tennessee, and works with the Birthplace of Country Music Museum in Bristol, Virginia, on educational projects. He is the host of the weekly show Vinyl Reflections on Emory & Henry College radio station, where he showcases songs from the hundreds of vinyl albums in his collection. Contact him at [email protected]

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