Rural Black String Band Music

By Charles Wolfe

Originally published in Black Music Research Newsletter 4, No. 2 (Fall 1980). Used by permission of Mary Dean Wolfe.

“The first time I think I ever seen Arnold Schultz … this square dance was at Rosine, Kentucky, and Arnold and two more colored fellows come up there and played for the dance. They had a guitar, banjo, and fiddle. Ar­nold played the guitar but he could play the fiddle-numbers like Sally Goodin. People loved Arnold so well all through Kentucky there; if he was playing a guitar they’d go gang up around him till he would get tired and then maybe he’d go catch a train …. I admired him that much that I never forgot a lot of the things he would say. There’s things in my music, you know, that comes from Arnold Schultz-runs that I use in a lot of my music.”

– Bill Monroe, from Bossmen: Bill Monroe & Muddy Waters by James Rooney (Dial Press, 1971)

Quotes such as this one from bluegrass star Bill Monroe are by no means atypical. For ten years I have been interviewing at length older country musicians and folk musicians from the 1920s and 1930s about that misty borderland wherein traditional American folk music was somehow transformed into commercial country music; many, many of them mention bands such as Arnold Schultz’s string band, point to them as influences, as models, as colleagues. They point to a genre of American music that most scholars have ignored and that most mem­bers of the general public do not even know existed: a genre that De­Ford Bailey, the famous harmonica player on the early Grand Ole Opry, defined for me in a 1975 interview as ”black hillbilly music.” “Sure,” he said, ”black hillbilly music. Everybody around me grew up playin’ that. Fiddles and banjos and guitars; they weren’t playin’ no blues then. It was black hillbilly music.”

For years the emphasis of those studying black American folk music has been directed to religious music (the first really respectable music to study), to jazz (the first commercially successful brand of music), or to blues. Yet do these three forms really account for all of the rich variety of black music found in folk tradition — or just the most visible ones? What about the rural fife-and-drum tradition, which has lingered unno­ticed in Tennessee until this present generation? What about the tradition of black non-blues secular song? And what about the tradition of the rural string band music? To explore these aspects of black music requires a great deal more digging and musical archaeology but might yield in the end results as fruitful as those coming from jazz, blues, and religious music studies.

The scanty references to rural black music in the nineteenth century reflect a flourishing string band tradition. As early as 1774, the Journal of Nicholas Cresswell, 1774-1777, describes a southern plantation party where “A great number of young people met together with a Fiddle and Banjo played by two Negroes,” (from Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War by Dana Epstein, University of Illinois Press, 1977). In the pre­war South, black bands consisted of banjos and lutes; banjos, fiddles, and triangles; twin fiddles and a fife; and many other combinations (Ep­stein 1977). In the WPA ex-slave narratives there are hundreds of refer­ences to the fiddle and banjo; in fact, while references to fiddle-playing number 205 and banjo-playing total some 106, references to the guitar total only 15; strong evidence of the guitar’s late arrival in black folk music. (Strikingly, the majority of references to the guitar occur in south-central Mississippi.) The favorite string band combination to ap­pear in the WPA narratives is the simple fiddle-banjo duo — the same instrumentation to dominate early white rural music. Without much doubt, the fiddle was the favorite instrument of both white and black rural musicians in the nineteenth century.

Much of this tradition was still highly visible in the 1920s when com­mercial recording companies began to document southern music. Unfor­tunately, the record companies segregated this music into separate se­ries, one designed for whites, the other for blacks. White rural music included fiddle bands, banjo tunes, sentimental songs, and a few religious pieces; black music series were dominated by country blues, gos­pel, preachers like Rev. Gates, and a few vaudeville numbers. A black band playing something other than blues did not fit into either stereo­type; consequently, few of them were recorded. Thus, today we are left with only a pathetic handful of recordings representing this tradition in its flowering: there are perhaps as many as fifty commercial pre-war recordings that really reflect it, as opposed to some twenty thousand pre-war records of blues and gospel music. In the 1930s, when the Li­brary of Congress got into the field, researchers were more open­-minded, but their equipment was woefully inadequate for recording a full string band.

Still, this minuscule sample contains some tantalizing bits. A handful of records from the late 1920s shows white and black musicians playing together, several years before jazz’s first “integrated” session. Jim Booker played Grey Eagle with white banjoist Marion Underwood for Taylor’s Kentucky Boys in 1927, and the black harmonica stylist El Wat­son recorded with the white Johnson Brothers that same year for Victor; Andrew Baxter, an Afro-Cherokee fiddler born in northwest Georgia in 1870, played regularly with white Georgia fiddlers and played lead on the Georgia Yellow Hammers’ popular 1928 recording of G Rag. Other recordings reflect a complex school of rural black ragtime: Dallas musician Coley Jones formed the Dallas String Band, featuring mando­lin, guitar, and cello, and recorded several fascinating sides for Colum­bia, while Nap Hayes and Matthew Prater (The Blue Boys) recorded folk variants of Scott Joplin’s rags using mandolin and guitar. Black “hoe­down” music was recorded by James Cole (probably from Indiana) and by the spectacular square dance band headed by fiddler John Lusk. This latter band, recorded by the Library of Congress in 1946, played for years in rural Tennessee, just a few miles from the birthplace of blue­grass star Lester Hatt, and featured the “pre-bluegrass” banjo styles of the late Murphy Gribble. As recently as 1976 Kip Lomell recorded a driving black fiddle-banjo team in the Blue Ridge Mountains, proving that the tradition is not entirely extinct (Virginia Traditions.

The study of black string band music is still in its infancy, but even pre­liminary investigations have posed some potent questions. Is (was) there a black string band repertoire distinctive from the white one? Is there an identifiable black fiddle style? Have there been characteristic and dis­tinctive black instrumental combinations? Have geographical features affected these combinations? (Do fiddle-banjo combinations seem more common in the mountains, with guitar combinations dominant in the Deep South?) How really representative of the music were these record­ing sessions? How are they related to various black formal composers, like Gussie Davis, Scott Joplin, or even W. C. Handy? How were the bands that recorded related to other quasi-blues forms, such as the jug or washboard band, the vaudeville or medicine show tradition, or even the tradition of the black non-blues songster which included such singers as Henry Thomas, Luke Jordan, and Jim Jackson? Until the scattered bits of evidence about this music are collected, collated, put in proper context, and studied, we can only guess at the answers.


  • Virginia Traditions. BRI-001. Blue Ridge Institute, Ferrum College, Ferrum, Va.
  • Blind James Campbell and his Nashville Street Band. Arhoolie 1015, recorded as recently as 1962.
  • Altamont: Black string band music from the Library of Congress. Rounder Records or Compact Disc 0238. 0942-1946 recordings by the John Lusk String Band and the fiddle-banjo duo of Nathan Frazier and Frank Patterson, with extensive annotation by the author.

Originally published in Black Music Research Newsletter 4, No. 2 (Fall 1980). Used by permission of Mary Dean Wolfe.

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