2020 and 2021 have given us little to look forward to. If I were to pick one word that best encapsulates the past year, “exciting” would not be the one (in fairness, neither would “boring”). One thing I have found to be excited about is the Fort Worth African American Music Festival, due to take place online on March 13. In addition to being a welcome offering of online music from skilled performers, I feel that – where African Americans and our issues are concerned – it addresses the most urgent needs of the old-time music scene today.
Stringband musicians are singularly concerned with history. Deep knowledge of the tradition carries as much weight as technical skill in our circles; and if an individual can only have one, it’s often considered better to have the former. While the world at large has little reason to know the backstory of the music we love, it’s surprising that we have largely forgotten a significant share of our own venerated forebears. Far too often, I have heard old-time music explained as “Irish music that came to the New World and changed.” That precipitates a discussion of what “changed” the Irish music; whereupon one generally hears that African rhythms somehow snuck into the repertoire. This telling of the story is riddled with inaccuracies; most pertinent to this piece is that it portrays Black Americans as an external, indirect influence on the music. It portrays our traditions as outside sounds that passively bled into fiddle repertoire.
One can recite the entire, oversimplified “Irish melodies, African rhythms” narrative and leave out that some of the Africans brought here had their own fiddle traditions prior to their enslavement. One can leave out that Black people were playing the fiddle in the colonies in the seventeenth century, while the mass immigration of Ulster Scots to which we are told we owe the entirety of American fiddle music began in the following century. One can leave out that Black people developed the banjo from African instruments.
We are moving, as a community, into a period of greater awareness around this history. Even in the relatively few years that I’ve been a part of the conversation, I have witnessed a profound shift in the way we tell our collective story. That change is needed, and yet ongoing. The most pressing needs that I see within the old-time community are as follows:
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- Naming and acknowledging Black musicians in the way we do white ones
Portraying Black stringband musicians as a nameless, homogenous whole perpetuates the idea that Black music was a separate, self-contained influence on “normal” stringband music. I have often encountered the misconception that there were actually two separate stringband traditions: one among Black people and one among white people. Homogenizing Black musicians also erases the vast regional variations in style and repertoire; Bill Driver and Joe Thompson, for instance, had little in common.
- Destigmatizing Black sounds
As do performers in most traditional genres, we hew to old notions of what our music is “supposed to sound like.” But we, as a community, have not sufficiently grappled with the fact that old-time music as a genre was originally defined by race, and that the sound cannot help but reflect that. Southern music was originally divided into two categories: “race records,” consisting of Black people playing blues, jazz and gospel, and “hillbilly records,” which featured white musicians playing old-time and early country. Black musicians who played in “hillbilly” styles were ignored. Cuje Bertram and Lesley Riddle, for example, supplied commercially successful hillbilly musicians (Burnett & Rutherford and The Carter Family, respectively) with a substantial amount of their repertoire, but lived out their own lives in relative obscurity.
All of which is to say: the first, original requirement of old-time music (then hillbilly music) was that the musicians and the audience be white. We have discarded this particular constraint of the genre, but kept all of the musical conventions that reflect it. In my experience, an old-time artist’s proximity to musical styles perceived as more explicitly Black directly correlates with the amount of ridicule they experience from other community members. Blues influence, the community tolerates in doses. Jazz influence is controversial. Rock influence is for hippies. Rap influence is practically unheard of. Percussion, somehow, is always a bridge too far. The more unambiguously Black the music is considered to be, the more we hate on it. I do not perceive this as a coincidence. It’s well-understood in the Black community (and proven by studies) that some white social establishments ban stereotypically Black clothing in an effort to indirectly ban Black people. The old-time community’s musical “dress code” feels alarmingly similar. This is not to say we cannot have one at all, but merely that we should always be mindful of what and whom it circumscribes.
- Acknowledging this history is crucial
Nonetheless, most Black people will not feel welcome or represented in the community until we no longer have to read several books to understand why we should. If we want to welcome Black people back into the fold (if you don’t, this is not the article for you), we’re going to have to make changes. We need to question our strong tendency to hold events in rural areas that many Black people are trained from birth to avoid for our safety. We need to ensure that we are treating Black people at our events with basic decency; my Black friends and I are regularly called by each other’s names, asked to speak on behalf of our race and burdened with racial discourse when we’re just trying to have a good time. Are these hate crimes? No. But microaggressions like these are annoying, enough to ruin a good time — and also enough to drive away Black people with only a casual interest.
The Fort Worth African American Music Festival neatly checks all three of these boxes, and then some. It features a diverse cast of Black musicians (myself included) who perform in a range of styles and come from a range of different backgrounds. It addresses my first point of concern: here is a slate of Black stringband performers with their names in large print, whose art displays the extent of our ancestors’ musical innovativeness and versatility. That musical diversity fulfills the second need. Placing these styles on a level playing field, in a format that emphasizes their interconnectedness, undermines the notion that they must be kept separate and apart to retain their integrity. Moreover, it undertakes the revolutionary task of reframing stringband music as a facet of African American music, whereas most members of the community would tell you that there’s an African American subset of old-time music. For once, white old-time musicians are being invited onto Black musicians’ turf rather than the other way around, and that is huge.
In my opinion, answering the third need of old-time music — restoring living, breathing Black people to the tradition — is a process that begins with events like FWAAMFest. I have often struggled to reconcile my feeling that Black people aren’t being welcomed at our events with my belief that old-time musicians are significantly less racist than most majority-white communities you’ll find. Why would Black people who feel comfortable in any other white space avoid old-time music? The answer is one that has troubled institutions, corporations, and even cities for as long as I’ve been alive: lack of diversity is a self-perpetuating condition. Black people are less likely to go to an event where there are no other Black people, because missteps like the ones I referenced above are simply inevitable. How shall we resolve this problem? With events like FWAAMFest, which are explicitly focused on Black music and include stringband styles. It will provide Black people with an opportunity to experience stringband music in a social environment that is meant for us, as opposed to one where we might sometimes feel like interlopers. It represents a chance for Black people interested in the music to connect with those of us who are more experienced in the community in a safe environment. Rather than plunging headfirst into the almost-exclusively white environment of stringband music with no safety net, Black people will be able to experience the music on friendly turf and develop a community that they can rely on for support if they decide to delve deeper. FWAAMFest, in this respect, will have the effect of building a staircase where once we had to climb a wall.
Our community has come a very long way in a relatively short span of time. But a community is made up of its members — and like those members, always has more growing to do. I believe that FWAAMFest is just what the doctor ordered, and I hope that community support will prove it to be a viable template for future events. I’m honored to be a part of it, and I can’t wait to see what new life it brings.
Photo credits – collage: Steven casanova (Justin Golden), Edwin Remsberg (Phil Wiggins), Suze Uttal (Brian Farrow), Amber Zbitnoff (Benjamin Hunter), Cheryl Jefferson (Brandi Waller-Pace, Joe Seamons (Briar)