Academic journal article Black Music Research Journal

Fiddling as an Avenue of Black-White Musical Interchange

Academic journal article Black Music Research Journal

Fiddling as an Avenue of Black-White Musical Interchange

Article excerpt

It is common for historians to view the development of American popular music in terms of the blending of African and European musical elements and the melding of folk and popular traditions. A textbook designed for use in university-level classes in popular music history, for example, states: "A distinctive popular tradition emerged only through cross-pollination of established European styles with white and African-American folk music. African-American music has been the primary catalyst in the evolutionary process. Change has come about mainly through the infusion of African elements into the prevailing popular style" (Campbell 1996, xiii). The well-known story of Sam Phillips, head of Sun Records in Memphis in the 1950s, whose search for a white singer who sounded black ultimately resulted in launching the career of Elvis Presley, is only the most calculated instance of this process at work.

Working backward from the present, we can see this pattern underlying the development of virtually all genres of popular music, including rap, rock, rhythm and blues, gospel, jazz, ragtime, and country. Blackface minstrelsy is often seen as the first manifestation of this process, but the roots of black-white musical interchange lie even deeper than that. The earliest meeting ground between white and black musicians was dance music played primarily on the fiddle. This merging of traditions began at least as early as the late seventeenth century and has had an impact that continues to the present. The threads of this interchange are woven throughout the fabric of southern American vernacular music, affecting a diverse range of musical genres, popular as well as folk.

This may seem like an odd claim to many people in the early twenty-first century, since fiddling now is almost exclusively the province of white culture. At fiddle contests, informal jam sessions, meetings of fiddlers' clubs, and dances where fiddle music is played, the racial makeup of both the performers and the audience is sure to be overwhelmingly, if not exclusively, white. That this has not always been the case is borne out by abundant evidence in the historical record of black fiddlers in both the North and the South from the late seventeenth into the twentieth century.

My own discovery of the long tradition of black fiddling came in the late 1970s during the course of research on the history of fiddling in New England. Much to my surprise, I encountered numerous references to black fiddlers, most from the colonial era but some who were active into the late nineteenth century. Even more surprising, references to these fiddlers were so casual and offhand that it was clear that in an earlier time, fiddling was an occupation that was commonly, if not exclusively, performed by African Americans (Wells 1978, 3).

Once I began to actively look for further evidence of black fiddling, I found it quite easily. American realist painter William Sidney Mount (1807-1868), who lived on Long Island and was himself a fiddler, painted many musical subjects. His work Right and Left (1850) is an elegant portrait of an African American who is playing the fiddle left-handed. Simon Bronner (1987, 16-19), in his work on the history of fiddling and dancing in New York State, mentions Alvah Belcher (ca. 1819-1900), an African-American fiddler who played for dances in Delaware County, New York, through the late nineteenth century.

It is clear that in the rural South black fiddlers remained a strong, if generally overlooked, presence throughout much of the first half of the twentieth century, with some remnants of the tradition continuing to the present. The commercial recording companies who exploited the markets for "race" and "hillbilly" records beginning in the 1920s recorded very little black string band music, presumably because it did not fit their notions of the tastes of their target audiences. Nevertheless, there is a handful of sound recordings of black fiddlers from the 78 rpm era. …

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