Winter Blues: Fiddler Show Based on Floyd Celebrates Black History Month | The music
Ralph Berrier Jr. Special for the Roanoke Times
FLOYD The old man looked like he saw a ghost, Earl White thought.
White was playing with his old string band on a stage at Merlefest — the gargantuan music festival in North Wilkesboro, North Carolina, packed with folk, bluegrass and roots rock music — when a friend brought Joe Thompson for the hear play.
Thompson, a former Southern fiddler of some renown, was stunned when he saw White, not just by his rhythmic, dance-oriented playing, but by the color of his skin.
“Joe thought he was the only black man in the world playing old-school traditional music,” White recalled. “He looked like he was fainting, like he saw a ghost.”
Black fiddlers had become rarer than ghost sightings, but that was no longer the case in the United States. Black string bands and musicians have had a major influence on American music, including bluegrass, mountain music, folk, and other styles no longer commonly associated with black performers.
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The Mississippi Sheiks, Cannon’s Jug Stompers, and fiddlers such as Thompson inspired black and white bands. African-American guitarist Lesley Riddle befriended AP Carter in the 1920s and influenced the sounds and songs of the Carter family, which helped create the modern country music industry. DeFord Bailey was the first performer heard on the radio show that would become “The Grand Ole Opry” in 1927, when he played his harmonica during his original piece “Pan American Blues.”
The list of black influences on American folk music is long. The banjo, long associated with bluegrass and mountain string music, has African roots and many of the banjo’s earliest pioneers were black musicians. The “father of bluegrass” Bill Monroe, Doc Watson and other white music legends were heavily influenced by the blues.
White wants people to know more about black artists’ contributions to folk music, so he’s put together “Winter Blues: A Celebration of Black History Month,” a showcase of primarily black blues and folk artists who will be staged at the Floyd Country Store on Saturday.
White, 67, and his wife, Adrienne Davis, lead the Earl White Stringband, which will perform on a bill featuring Phil Wiggins, Guy Davis, Jackie and Resa, Sparky and Rhonda Rucker and Lightnin’ Wells.
White and Davis moved to Floyd County in 2016 after many years in California, where he worked as a respiratory therapist and she worked as a registered nurse. They had bought a farm from Floyd ten years ago and operated the Big Indian Farm artisan bakery near Willis.
White has been involved with early music for 50 years, first as a dancer and later as a musician. He grew up in New Jersey but had Southern roots. Her mother performed in a gospel trio with her sisters in eastern North Carolina, and her father played trombone before the married couple moved north. He spent many youthful summers on his grandparents’ farm on the sandy plains of Greenville, North Carolina, home to East Carolina University, where he enrolled in 1971.
A sour relationship with his first roommate prompted him to move into what he described as a “little off-campus closet” at a crisis intervention center called The Real House. White was studying psychology at the time, so the place suited him just fine.
He met others there, including Dudley Culp, a student who took White to his early fiddle conventions. Culp was a saboteur and soon White had adopted the traditional folk dancing style. They formed a dance troupe which caught the eye of Betty Casey, whose husband edited the local newspaper, who published an article about the group and helped them land a gig at a mental hospital – appropriate for a group that got its start in a crisis center.
The dancers came up with a name that merged “Green” for Greenville with “Grass”, which had multiple inspirations including marijuana, and thus the Green Grass Cloggers were born. The troupe appeared in square dances, danced at fiddler conventions, and won dance competitions in the early 1970s, establishing a tradition that has survived membership changes and still exists today. The Green Grass Cloggers have been recognized for their contributions to preserving traditional dance styles, and in 2014 the group was inducted into the Blue Ridge Music Hall of Fame in Wilkesboro, North Carolina.
Along the way, White picked up the guitar to support other musicians at dances. When a college friend returned from Christmas vacation in the early 1970s, she brought White a present: an old violin that had been in the family for generations after being purchased from a Sears and Roebuck catalog.
“That was the day my life changed,” White said.
He learned to play by ear, never taking lessons, as he incorporated rhythms and patterns he had heard during dances into his style. As he continued to attend fiddling conventions, it wasn’t hard to notice that he was often the only black person on the field.
“There were none,” White said, noting that the Green Grass Cloggers were among very few groups that included people of color, Korean-American dancers and Native American members.
“Nobody was as diverse as us,” he said.
He stayed in the South and worked in Charlottesville for the University of Virginia Health System before moving to California. Friends in the east often told him to check out Floyd County, which he and Adrienne did. They fell in love with it.
Even so, he noticed few black residents or musicians in the area. The Floyd Country Store concert is a way to introduce the community to the contributions of black artists to American traditions.
In recent years, the Carolina Chocolate Drops and its members such as Rhiannon Giddens, Justin Robinson, Dom Flemons – whom White instructed in violin workshops at the Swannanoa Gathering near Asheville, and who also learned from Joe Thompson — sparked a small, high-profile revival. in black folk musical traditions.
Others followed. Former banjo player Jake Blount received the Steve Martin Banjo Award (created by comedian/actor/author/banjoist) in 2020; bluegrass banjo player Tray Wellington was named Momentum Instrumentalist of the Year by the International Bluegrass Music Association in 2019; and Tennessee-born singer-songwriter Amythyst Kiah, dubbed “one of Americana’s great up-and-coming secrets” by Rolling Stone, isn’t so secret anymore. Each is a young African-American musician.
White hopes the show will introduce audiences to music and artists they didn’t know, but who have been playing music for generations.
“I just want to bring diversity to the community and bring longtime friends to me,” he said.