Saturday, October 22, 2011

African Americans' Historical Contribution To Old Time Music

Written by Azizi Powell

This is Part II of a series of pancocojams posts that focus on the historical & cultural ties between so-called "Hillbillies" and African Americans.

Part I of this series, entitled "The Shared Steroptypes For Hillbillies & African Americans, Part I" explores the similarities between the stereotypes used for so-called "hillbillies" and for African Americans. The link to that post is

The purpose of this post is to raise awareness among Americans and others about Black contributions to the history of Old Time music.

Few White contemporary fans of old time music seem to be aware of African American contributions to the history of that music. Furthermore, in spite of the award winning African American performers such as the Carolina Chocolate Drops,it appears that few African Americans know anything about the history or current performances of old time music. However, documentation of African Americans' contribution to old time music are found online. Several online quotes on this subject are presented with minimal editorial comments.

The term "old-time"

With its origins in traditional music of Europe and Africa, old-time music represents perhaps the oldest form of North American traditional music other than Native American music, and thus the term "old-time" is an appropriate one. As a label, however, it dates back only to 1923.

Fiddlin' John Carson made some of the first commercial recordings of traditional American country music for the Okeh label. The recordings became hits. Okeh, which had previously coined there [sic] terms "hillbilly music" to describe Appalachian and Southern fiddle-based and religious music and "race recording" to describe the music of African American recording artists, began using "old-time music" as a term to describe the music made by artists of Carson's style. The term, thus, originated as a euphemism, but proved a suitable replacement for other terms that were considered disparaging by many inhabitants of these regions. It remains the term preferred by performers and listeners of the music. It is sometimes referred to as "old-timey" or "mountain music" by long-time practitioners.

Note that the term "hillbilly" referred/refers only to White inhabitants of Appalachia in spite of the fact that there were/are numerous Black people and other People of Color who also resided/reside in Appalachia. Also note that the term "race music" was only used as a referent for music performed by Black people, in spite of the fact that there were/are other races besides "Black".

"Hillbilly music was at one time considered an acceptable label for what is now known as country music. However, some artists and fans, notably Hank Williams Sr., found the term offensive even in its heyday. The label, coined in 1925 by country pianist Al Hopkins, persisted until the 1950s.

Now, the older name is widely deemed offensive, but the term hillbilly music is still used on occasion to refer to old-time music or bluegrass. An early tune that contained the word hillbilly was "Hillbilly Boogie" by the Delmore Brothers in 1946. Earlier, in the 1920s, there were records by a band called the Beverly Hillbillies. In 1927, the Gennett studios in Richmond, Indiana, made a recording of black fiddler Jim Booker with other instrumentalists; their recordings were labeled "made for Hillbilly" in the Gennett files, and were marketed to a white audiences.*...

Popular songs whose style bore characteristics of both hillbilly and African American music were referred to, in the late 1940s and early 1950s as hillbilly boogie, and in the mid-1950s as rockabilly…

Elvis Presley was a prominent player of the latter genre and was known early in his career as the "Hillbilly Cat". When the Country Music Association was founded in 1958, the term hillbilly music gradually fell out of use. However, the term rockabilly is still in common use. Later, the music industry merged hillbilly music, Western Swing, and Cowboy music, to form the current category C&W, Country and Western.

The famous bluegrass fiddler Vassar Clements described his style of music as "hillbilly jazz.""

*Italic font added by me to highlight that sentence.


Most of the `old time' musicians were white rural agrarian Southerners…

Resonant in meaning and methodology, `old time music' had been the heartbeat of Anglo-Celtic Southern America for many generations…

Despite the European background of much of this music and of such instruments as the fiddle, the influence of African-American phrasing and syncopation profoundly affected old time music. (This influence becomes particularly striking when you compare American stringband music to that of Canada, a New World culture which lacked a significant African-American presence.) The banjo is the most obvious legacy of African-Americans in old time music, for the instrument itself is African in origin. It came to white Southerners via the nineteenth century minstrel show, vestiges of which echoed in such performers as Uncle Dave Macon, an early Opry star imitated [more recently] by his longtime accompanist, Sam McGee.

"The McGee brothers [Sam & Kirk] grew up in Franklin, Tennessee, where Sam learned to pick guitar from local black musicians. The use of alternating bass and playing the melody on the treble strings had more in common with black blues than local string band playing, where a guitar kept time with bass runs while backing the fiddle

Besides guitar, Sam played the banjo and the Gibson banjo-guitar. He and Kirk were often billed as comedy acts, with Sam wearing a red wig to become a Toby character developed in minstrel shows. A lot of his songs show his comedic side (with lines like, "Met a little gypsy in a fortune telling place--she read my mind, and then she slapped my face..."), but were accompanied with masterful runs and bends on the guitar. Charles K. Wolfe's excellent book on the early Opry, A Good Natured Riot, tells how Uncle Dave taught showmanship to the McGee brothers, particularly playing up the hillbilly aspects for comedy."

*Italic font added by me for emphasis.

Here's information about the Toby shows from
"Toby Show is a classic American theatre form. They traveled the country in the 19th & early 20th centuries performing vaudeville style shows with music, dance and variety acts in tents like the circus.

The central figure of the Toby Show was Toby, a redheaded rube who, with homespun humor and smarts, always got it over on the big city folks."

Some banjo & fiddle tunes & verses have been traced to various European folk songs/ tunes while other old time tunes & verses have been traced to 19th century (or earlier) African American dance songs or African American children's play songs. Here's a quote about blackface minstrel songs, a precusor of a considerable portion of old time music:
"Author [John] Strausbaugh summed up as follows: "Some minstrel songs started as Negro folk songs, were adapted by White minstrels, became widely popular, and were readopted by Black'...The question of whether minstrelsy was white or black music was moot. It was a mix, a mutt – that is, it was American music.'
John, Strausbaugh Black Like You: Blackface, Whiteface, Insult & Imitation in American Popular Culture"

Here are five video examples of Old Time Music:

Cluck Old Hen (1927) The Hillbillies

Uploaded by cabinbowman on Oct 8, 2009

Charlie Bowman(fiddle), Al Hopkins(vocal) and the Original Hillbillies from 1926.

Charles Thomas "Charlie" Bowman was the fiddler with the original Al Hopkin's Hill Billies, the first country string band to gain national notoriety on radio and records. The group is generally thought to be responsible for establishing the string band as an important part of country music. When the recording company asked for the group's name, one member mentioned that they were just an "old band of hill billies." The name stuck. Bowman is credited with bringing the Hill Billies their most popular song, "Nine Pound Hammer".

Blue Grass Appalachian Music Makers

Uploaded by BAYSIDEBOB on May 18, 2008

A tribute to the early Appalachian music people. That was the for runner to swing, bluegrass, jazz, blues, country blues, old time music, and American music. Hope you enjoy this little clip.

Blind James Campbell String Band - "John Henry"

uploaded by suprovalco on Oct 11, 2008
Two commenters guessed the date for this film clip as "[19]55-60 somewhere in Tennessee, judging from the Type 2 Microbus and the ridge in the background" or "from the crinoline on the young girl dancing, maybe [19]57/58"

Uncle Dave Macon-"Sail Away Ladies"

Uploaded by BBYMRLCCOTN on Dec 8, 2009

Uncle John Scruggs - Little Log Cabin in the Lane

uploaded by madocseren on Oct 14, 2007

Times ain't like they used to be [video recording]: early rural and popular American music, 1928-1935

For more videos, lyrics, and comments about American Banjo & Fiddle Songs, visit this page on my cocojams website

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