Wednesday, May 10, 2006

The Black String Band Tradition

Scott McLemee

Hurrying from one appointment to another on Thursday, I heard the sound of bluegrass in the air at Grand Central Station. Drawing closer, I saw that it was a couple of African-American guys. Not old men, let's say, but not youngsters either. They were into the flow of what they were playing, just tearing it up on the banjo and fiddle. In other words, this was music they knew and knew well.
That there was once a large black audience for country music (and that hillbillies were sometimes good bluesmen) is one of those realities that's been forgotten, or covered over, by a certain dumbass essentialism that has both reactionary and "leftist" forms. I was really glad to see these guys, and shelled out the money for their CD immediately. It would have been good to stick around and listen some more, but I had to run.
It turns out they are called the Ebony Hilllbillies -- a trio, with a bass player, who wasn't there at the time. They have a website, where you can buy the CD via PayPal. Strongly recommended -- it's a good record.

I haven't bought the CD yet, but there are three selections on-line and they sound great.

Elijah Wald's superb book Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues makes much the same point as does Bill Malone, the dean of country music scholarship, in his Don't Get Above Your Raisin': Country Music and the Southern Working Class.

Afro-pop World Wide devoted at leat one program to the African-American string band tradition.

Sankofa Strings is a Carolina-based group that keeps the tradition alive.

There's been a on-line group under the name of Black Banjo Now And Then which organized a "gathering of black banjo and traditional string players in 2005. They've now organized An Association of Traditional Black String Players.

It would be nice if the folks at Winfield's Walnut Valley Festival would reach out to the Ebony Hillbillies, Sankofa Strings, and other African-American traditional string players.

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