Friday, May 25, 2012


Here in Appalachia bluegrass music is indigenous and popular amongst many of the (white) inhabitants. There may be some black aficionados but I don’t know any. Yet, one of the most popular groups is a black one - the Emmy winning Carolina Chocolate Drops. I was introduced to them when they gave a concert benefiting a not for profit on whose board I serve. They say unabashedly that they are bringing back traditional Negro jig music (wow! What would Al Sharpton say about that phase?) Now this is different from blacks in country music like Charlie Pride and Darius Rucker. Bluegrass is much more basic and elemental and is associated with poor white hill people rather than rural whites from the Deep South. So in order to be in this tradition, one would have to have roots in a place where there were very few blacks (no plantations in this part of the world). However, there were blacks sprinkled about Appalachia – many being miners in Kentucky and West Virginia - and their most enduring legacy is the banjo which is derived from an African instrument. Many of the famous blues singers were from that tradition (Josh White, Brownie McGee, Sonny Terry and Blind Boy Fuller). Modern blues singers such as Keb Mo and Eric Bibb incorporate some bluegrass into their work but are not traditionalists like the Chocolate Drops. My longtime girlfriend is kin to the famous Carter Fold whose home is in southwestern Virginia. She tells stories of AP Carter and his friendship with a black musician Lesley Riddle who met in 1927 in Kingsport, TN. AP and Maybelle Carter opened up their home to Riddle and learned not only his gospel, blues and railroad songs but also his slide and finger picking techniques that were the standard of black musicians of the time. AP toured with Riddle throughout the region and adapted his tunes and techniques to his own style and recorded them. My girlfriend often refers to herself and her family as “Melungeons”. The Melungeons are an interesting story since until recently no one knew their origins. They were dark skinned with broad noses and were thought by some to be of African descent. But understandably Appalachians denied it saying that they were descended from Portuguese sailors or Turks or Gypsies. Still Melungeons were discriminated against and in several instances were the subject of court cases accusing them of being black. They prevailed in those cases which established them as being not black if not quite white. However, results from a genetic study have just been published in the journal of Genetic Genealogy which will upset many in Appalachia. The evidence supports an African heritage. It is postulated that intermixing occurred between African and white indentured servants in Virginia in the 1600s before the institution of slavery. Is my girlfriend upset? Quite to the contrary. She is delighted. Welcome to the sustah hood.

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