African American Old-Time String Band Music: A Selective Discography

By Durman, Chris | Notes, June 2008 | Go to article overview

African American Old-Time String Band Music: A Selective Discography


Durman, Chris, Notes


Southern old-time string band music, similar to what might be played today for a square dance, represents perhaps the earliest musical collaboration between African American and European American (often Scots-Irish) musicians. Unfortunately, the scarcity of commercial recordings of black old-time string bands and the paucity of performing bands since the 1930s has obscured this part of our musical heritage. This discogra-phy will highlight some of the important recordings and scholarship that do exist, and point to some current trends that may revitalize the black old-time string band tradition.

Scots-Irish settlers in the Upland South brought the violin--more commonly called the fiddle in folk music--and many traditional fiddle tunes with them as they immigrated to the United States. African Americans brought an instrument modern players would recognize as the gourd banjo, along with their playing techniques, tunes, songs, and a variety of tuning methods. As Cecelia Conway documents in African Banjo Echoes in Appalachia: A Study of Folk Tradition, when musicians from these ethnic groups met in the Upland South, the elements of old-time string band music came together for the first time. (1) Musicians from both groups entertained audiences by playing music suitable for both listening and dancing. This could be done by a single musician, but playing in groups lightened the musical load for the individual musician, increased the volume of the music for the dancers, and, in many cases, proved to be more fun for all.

In the interest of maintaining a clear focus, this essay deals with African American old-time string band dance music and does not examine groups whose recorded repertoire is primarily blues, ragtime, jazz, or folk song. It will thus leave unexamined whole genres of music that evolved out of the same early collaborations between white and black musicians. Also eliminated are many musicians who would have been quite capable of playing old-time string band music for a square dance or, as African Americans were once more likely to say, for a "frolic," but whose music falls outside of the specific stylistic tradition under consideration here. Some of these groups that certainly could be considered African American "string bands," in the broader sense, include the Mississippi Sheiks, Gus Cannon's various ensembles, the Cats and the Fiddle, and the Spirits of Rhythm. This limit is obviously artificial since some groups already discussed, such as the ensemble made up of Sid Hemphill, Lucius Smith, Will Head, and Alec Askew, sound less typical of modern old-time string band music than certain tracks by the more blues-influenced Mississippi Sheiks.

An excellent introduction to a wide variety of African American musical styles, including solo banjo and several approaches to the string band, may be found on Deep River of Song: Black Appalachia (Rounder 11661-1823-2 [1999]). Jimmie Strothers performs a solo banjo version of the classic tune "Cripple Creek" that he recorded in 1936 while in prison in State Farm, Virginia. This recording also allows listeners to compare two traditional old-time string bands. The first, recorded in Campaign, Tennessee, in 1946 features Murphy Cribble on banjo, John Lusk on fiddle, and Albert York on guitar. The other, recorded in 1942 in Sledge, Mississippi, includes Sid Hemphill on fiddle and vocals, Lucius Smith on banjo, Will Head playing bass drum, and Alec Askew on guitar. What makes this band different, however, is that these musicians also play the traditional African American fife and drum music still performed in the hill country of Northeast Mississippi and represented on this disc by "Devil's Dream." Alan Lomax writes of this group that

this area in the hills of Northeast Mississippi has sheltered ante-bellum black musical traditions as nowhere else in the South. Blind Sid Hemphill and his friends are now seen as representing the earliest Afro-American string band styles. …

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