Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Interracial Origin of Appalachian Fiddling: Lost in Perception

Writing Seminar II
Professor Spohn
3 December 2009

Appalachian fiddle music has long been associated in the popular mind, at least through most of the twentieth century, with white Americans. Images of fiddle-and-banjo players in the modern era have been almost exclusively of white “hillbillies” or mountain people, and most of the people actually playing the music in that time period have been white, which tended to reinforce the stereotype. But this was not always the case. In an earlier era, there was much more diversity, with many players of fiddle-based dance music in the Upper South being black, and derogatory images in popular culture reflecting an association of the music with blacks. Fiddle has, from very early in America, been identified with the banjo, and this duet of instruments became intimately tied together, both in actual practice and in the popular imagination. The banjo can be traced directly to Africa, and that is only the most obvious clue pointing to the interracial origin of Appalachian instrumental music. The duet of fiddle and banjo is “interracial” in itself—the fiddle, European, and the banjo, African—and this paper will show that there are many other signs that the music which is traditionally played on this duo of instruments has components of both Anglo-Celtic and African musical concepts, material, and practices deriving from a process of exchange between European and African Americans.

There are many references to exchanges between blacks and whites in the 19th century. Joel Walker Sweeney, the first famous white banjo player, learned the instrument from a slave on the plantation of a neighbor, Dr. Joel Walker Flood, Sr. But cultural interchange between whites and blacks, though not well documented, certainly went back to the very first contact, and was more extensive than has been portrayed by the conventional historical view.

Modern Perceptions of Old-Time Music

I grew up in rural southwest Michigan, in an area which had many families whose parents or grandparents had migrated from the south during the Great Depression, seeking work in the factories of the auto industry. Some of these families migrated intact from Tennessee and Kentucky, and my father’s family was one of these. Many of these family groups kept aspects of southern culture, and Bluegrass music, a modern descendant of Old-time music, was very popular. I don't think any of these people would have conceded that African-Americans had any role in the history of their music. From a young age, I was aware of a pervasive racism among my neighbors and even members of my family. The music perceived to have come with them from the Appalachian region of their forefathers—which they generically called Bluegrass—was very much imbued with a sense of white pride. At the annual Bluegrass festival in Barry County, which I often attended with my parents, confederate battle flags and other symbols of White Supremacy were prominently displayed.

Of course, Bluegrass music is quite different from what I am referring to here as “Old-time” music: it is a product of the 20th century, mainly created by Bill Monroe, its most famous proponent. Monroe actually acknowledged the influence of Jazz on his music, and said that he organized the Bluegrass band along the same lines as the Swing band—with each instrument inhabiting a different sonic space, and taking turns soloing over the chord changes of the tune. Bluegrass owes much to the fiddle music it supplanted, which came to be called “Old-time” to distinguish it from Bluegrass, and for many white non-musicians, there is no distinction between the two. For many, if the music is Southern, and has fiddle and banjo, it is “Bluegrass.” The perception that this southern, Appalachian fiddle music was the exclusive province of whites was largely unspoken. It was a matter of white pride to associate oneself with fiddle, banjo, guitar, dulcimer, and the “high lonesome sound” of what was taken to be a racial heritage of music stretching in an unbroken line back to the British Isles.

This is the story I internalized growing up, and it still persists today. I don’t know how many times I have been at a Celtic- or Folk-music festival and had someone approach me saying: “that Irish music is in my blood, just like my Grandad used to play in Kentucky,” or “Bluegrass music (interchangeable with Old-time in the popular mind) and Irish music are all the same thing,” or some such construction conflating Anglo-Celtic and Appalachian musics. Actually, the fiddle music of the Upper South is very different from that played in either the Irish or Scottish traditions today. Though there are many tunes in common, and many tunes in American fiddling that seem to have their origin in Anglo-Celtic sources, there are a great many tunes that are native to America, and moreover, have no archetypes in European music. More importantly, though, the rhythmic conception embedded in Appalachian fiddling is utterly different from that of either Irish or Scottish fiddling, and is profoundly syncopated and polyrhythmical: in a word, it is African. Later, as I learned more about music generally, and was exposed to different styles, I realized that Irish fiddle music sounded quite different from the Bluegrass and Old-time music I had grown up hearing. If Appalachian fiddle music had come directly from Ireland and Scotland, what accounted for the drastic difference I heard, but could not yet describe, between the two?

The answer is complex, and much more interesting than the simple idea of Anglo-Celtic migrants bringing their music intact from one continent to another. It involves the profound cultural interchange brought about by the African slave-trade and the colonization of America, a largely brutal and tragic history which nevertheless produced a unique and beautiful style of fiddle music which is quite unlike the parallel styles in Ireland and Scotland. This dissimilarity is made more clear by the unlikely combination of the European fiddle and the African banjo.

The Exchange of Instruments: Fiddle and Banjo

The tradition of the banjo, an instrument which has existed in various forms and been called by different names, goes back to at least the seventh century in Africa. The first documented instance of African-American slaves playing the banjo is from 1740, but the instrument in America undoubtedly goes further back. By 1781, Thomas Jefferson could say that “the instrument proper to them (the slaves) is the Banjar, which they brought hither from Africa”. While it is not clear exactly when the banjo arrived in America, historians and musicologists agree that it was very early; probably in the 17th century. The Reverend Jonathan Boucher, who lived in Virginia and Maryland prior to 1775, noted in his Boucher’s Glossary of Archaic and Provincial Words, published in 1832, that in Maryland and Virginia,

The Favourite (sic) and almost only instrument in use among the slaves there was a bandore, or as they pronounced the word, banjer. Its body was a long hollow gourd, with a long handle attached to it, strung with catgut,and played on with fingers. Its sound is a dull, heavy, grumbling murmer; yet not without something like melody, nor incapable of inspiring cheerfulness and myrth. Negroes... are always awakened and alive at the sound of the banjer.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, large numbers of Scottish, Irish, and Northern Irish immigrants were arriving in the colonies, many of them as indentured servants. Some undoubtedly brought their “recently standardized” fiddles with them, but actually, rather than fiddle music from the British Isles being the ancestor of American fiddle music, all of these styles emerged simultaneously as part of a revolution of instrumental violin music throughout the English-speaking world in the late 18th century. A profound democratization of the instrument occurred at that time, corresponding to its becoming widely available due to mass production. During the earlier part of that period, the African slave-trade was just getting underway, and the ruling elites of the colonies depended on these “white slaves” for a large part of the labor force. They didn’t consider the Irish—mostly Roman Catholic and Gaelic speaking—to be “white” at that time, and white and black slaves were often housed together, resulting in a great deal of interchange, including de facto intermarriage. It is likely that the Africans, being familiar with fiddle-like instruments from their homeland, were quick to understand and adapt to the European violin, and it is probably during this period that the instrument was introduced to them. One thing which is very clear is that the unique combination of fiddle and banjo—the very signature sound of Old-time music—which is today so strongly associated with white mountain people, was played exclusively by blacks for at least 100 years.

African Rhythm, European Melody

Thus began a process, lasting over three centuries, of musical interchange whereby Africans and African-Americans were introduced to Anglo-Celtic instruments and melodies, and Anglo-Americans were exposed to African conceptions of rhythm. By the end of the 17th century, planters in the colonies had turned more and more to African slaves for their labor needs. Frightened by a series of interracial revolts, most notably “Bacon’s Rebellion,” in 1676, they segregated white and black servants, and began to develop the legal system of slavery.

During the height of plantation slavery, slave owners often sought to have the more musically talented of their slaves play for their dances, parties, and celebrations. They would have wanted the slaves to play familiar types of dance-tunes, which the slaves would have had to have been taught. Because these slave owners wouldn’t have necessarily had white musicians at their disposal, and presumably would not have cared one way or another as to the color of the musicians, it became very common for blacks to play for white dances. In fact, it appears to have been the rule rather than the exception for musicians at white dances to be black. The iconography of the period shows the fiddle as practically the only instrument played at these gatherings, sometimes accompanied by percussion such as the bones.

It is likely, almost inevitable, that the slaves would have “Africanized” the Anglo-Celtic melodies they were required to play. These would have been standard dance-tunes like marches, quadrilles, flings, and reels, and would have been Africanized by simplifying them melodically, while complicating them rhythmically. African music is, in general, less melodically dense than European music, but much more complex in terms of rhythm. Africans would have introduced polyrhythm into these melodies, or what whites would hear as “syncopation”—the stress of non-primary beats or divisions of beats in the cycle of the rhythm. At the same time, the white dancers would have experienced, in their very bodies, the influence of this Africanized rhythm, and it could not have but had an effect on them.

Musicologist Douglas Goodhart, of Kansas City, believes that African rhythm is actually embedded in the bowing patterns still used today in Appalachian fiddling. Goodhart has discovered that “bell patterns,” set rhythmic patterns that form the basis for many styles and genres of African music, are actually being “hammered out” constantly by the bows of fiddlers. The most common bell pattern is related to what is called the “clave beat” of Caribbean music, The melodies played or sung over these rhythms also begin halfway through the rhythmic pattern. Goodhart can show that, in the bowing, the melody will start at that same halfway point. This is uncanny, and there is “absolutely no way white people could have come up with this.” Yet, for blacks, in whom these rhythms were ingrained, it would have been second-nature, and could have easily entered their fiddle playing. The impact of these rhythms is undeniable and would have been adopted by whites immediately, as a fashion. If you watch Goodhart play a tune like “Cluck Old Hen,” and you follow the movement of his bow, you can see it defining this twelve-eight bell-pattern rhythm all the way through the tune.

In addition to the tunes of Anglo-Celtic origin which were rhythmically Africanized, there are also tunes of American origin that follow a “short motif” form in which the melodic content is very short—usually two bars long—and extremely simple. The melodic content in these tunes “says” almost nothing in comparison to the relatively well-developed melodies of European dance music. These tunes are profoundly African in their rhythm, and are melodically very similar to certain styles of African tunes. There is absolutely nothing like this in European music, and it is almost certain that these kinds of tunes were originally composed by African-Americans or by white musicians, in imitation of those kinds of melodies. Tunes like “Backstep Cindy” and “Boogerman” are examples of the short-motif form which are still played today.

In addition to the interchange and Africanization which took place purely in the context of the fiddle, the combination of the fiddle with the banjo further solidified the African-American component of the fiddle music of the upper south. The common style of playing the five-string banjo is called “frailing,” or “clawhammer,” and involves a downward brushing motion of the hand in which the backs of the fingernails of either the first or second fingers play the longer strings on the downbeat and on the upbeat, while the thumb plucks the short “drone-string” in between those beats, creating a “micropulse,” or a further subdivision of the beat. This way of playing banjo-like instruments with a short drone-string is still done in Africa today, and is done on no European instrument. The effect is a repeating rhythm of eighth-notes which, especially when every other thumb is left out, sets up a loping rhythm that sounds like “bum-titty, bum-titty.” When the syncopated melodies of the fiddle are overlaid on this micropulse, the effect becomes all the more polyrhythmical.

Polyrhythms are rhythms, usually of two and three, which happen simultaneously one over the other. These rhythms are already suggested in many traditional fiddle tunes, but the micropulse, or the minutely divided rhythm of the banjo, makes them even more explicit. Goodhart defines polyrhythmic music this way:

Polyrhythmic music is music organized so that two or more rhythmic parts, independent in their rhythmic makeup, create a whole, with an identity different from that of any of the parts. The parts may, seemingly, have nothing to do with one another but when played together interlock and form unity. The difference between polyrhymic and non-polyrhythmic music is that in non-polyrhythmic ensembles it is possible for an instrument to drop out and still have a version of the music, depending on the genre and which instrument is absent. But with polyrhythmic ensembles if an instrument drops out there is no music. The vase has been broken and the pieces of glass are no longer a vase.

Polyrhythms tend to be heard by Europeans as being “off” the main downbeats because the concept of polyrhythm is basically absent from formal European music. It is, however, central to African music.

In addition to the evidence of African-American and Anglo-Celtic interchange that is embedded in the music itself, there is work being done on the iconography of the period by musicologists, including Chris Smith, who is looking at the work of painter William Sydney Mount (1807-1868), and is finding evidence for widespread musical contact between blacks and whites in New York, where Mount lived, throughout Mount’s life and apparently long before. Musicians were a favorite subject for Mount, and a painting of a black banjo player is one of his most famous. His sketchbooks abound with images of white and black musicians playing together, and they are thought to have been rendered from life. Mount was an amateur musician who is known to have learned from black players, most notably, Anthony Clapp, a fiddler. Mount once wrote “I have sat by Toney Clapp and heard him play his jigs and reels.” The cultural interchange between blacks and whites was “far more ubiquitous” than conventional history would have us believe. There is also evidence of an important black role in Old-time music cited by musicologist and fiddler Paul F. Wells. Of particular note are the recollections of Kentucky fiddler Richard Burnett (b. 1883), interviewed by Charles Wolfe in 1973:

Oh yeah. Yeah. Bled Coffey here in town [Monticello, Kentucky], he was a fiddler during the Civil War, and the Bertram boys here, Cooge Bertram was a good fiddler. He was raised in Corbin [Kentucky]. Yes sir, there were a lot of black men playin’ old time music. Bled Coffey was the best fiddler in the county. Been dead for years. I played many a tune with him—used to play with me, oh, sixty year ago. He’d play any o’ the old songs that I did. The old-fashioned tunes, like “Cripple Creek,” “Sourwood Mountain,” “Soldier’s Joy,” “Fire on the Mountain―them old-fashioned tunes is about what he played. (Quoted in Wolfe 1973, 7)

This kind of interchange between white and black musicians was common from at least the early 19th through the early 20th century. While there was always fiddling among whites, the quintessential duet of fiddle and banjo, the signature sound of Appalachian music, was played only by blacks for over 100 years.

Minstrelsy and changing styles

White people did not begin playing the banjo in earnest until the middle of the 19th century, and when they did, it was with their faces painted black. Blackface minstrelsy has a poor reputation today. It is considered the very embodiment of the racist society that gave birth to it, and, of course, it does reflect that society. However, it was also a medium which showed African-American characters in a positive light relative to “Mr. Interlocutor,” who represented the slave-owner, and was always the villain. Moreover, white performers who pioneered the minstrel stage were often serious fans and students of African-American music, learning it from the slaves themselves and striving for, and taking pride in “authenticity.” Many liberal, anti-slavery Americans at the time welcomed the minstrel shows as an indigenous art-form equivalent to opera. Mark Twain, Horace Greeley, Margaret Fuller, and Walt Whitman sang its praises. The material presented on the minstrel stage, with its

studied imitations of slave styles of singing and dancing and celebrating...brought to the nation’s attention the very concept of racial and cultural difference, making black-style expression into a vocabulary of social commentary. How else could a form of entertainment be interpreted when everyone on the stage but one performer, Mr. Interlocutor, was portrayed as black, and when he continually played the straight man to those portraying slave—and was often the butt of laughter?

Roger Abrahams argues that even while the minstrel-stage reinforced simplistic and negative stereotypes of blacks as lazy, happy, and carefree, at the same time, it humanized plantation life, and celebrated blacks’ creativity and talent at entertaining. “In this process,” he says,

the minstrel-stage entertainment confounded American notions of self and other, for the very success of the form placed actors of all sorts in the position of agreeing to play black even as the system of enslavement was being subjected to moral scrutiny.

The minstrel shows were the most popular form of dance-hall entertainment in America for the better part of 100 years, starting in about 1830. Their influence on all styles of American music, both commercial and vernacular, is undeniable. Their styles were drawn directly from corn shucking and other forms of African-American performance. Joel Walker Sweeney learned to play from African- Americans in his area, and so did many other minstrels. They seem to have been among the more progressive members of white society in that they respected African-American culture, and learned it on its own terms. The African-American music they strove to faithfully reproduce on the stage was taken into the remotest corners of the south, where it was adopted by whites, and entered their traditions. Mountain whites also came into contact with black musicians at the river ports of the Ohio and the Sandy, where tunes and songs were no doubt exchanged, and by the end of the 19th century, Banjo/fiddle music was well-established among whites all over the Upper South.

The 20th Century: Whites Only?

Though blacks continued to play Old-time music well into the 20th century, a number of causes contributed to their moving away from fiddle and banjo. Blues and Jazz grew more popular outside their places of origin—the Mississippi delta and New Orleans—and as blacks migrated in large numbers to urban areas in the north, these newer styles were seen as more vital and relevant. Also, the phenomenon of Blackface minstrelsy soured blacks on the old-fashioned music that was being used to satirize them. At the same time, fiddle and banjo were being embraced by whites in the South, particularly in the Appalachian mountains, and by mid-century, the fact that blacks had once been central to this style of music had faded from memory.

By the early 1900’s blacks had moved on to other styles of music: ragtime, blues, and jazz were all created and embraced by African-Americans, who may not have been anxious to hold on to the fiddle music which represented a past for which they probably did not feel much sentimentality. This “moving on” by blacks can also be said to typify an African approach to music which is constantly seeking change. African arts are always replacing and updating the content within a form. Conversely, the Celto-European approach can be seen in the English ballad tradition, in which generations of singers passed down lyrics which changed very little over time. Thus, as time went on, white musicians tended to preserve the fiddle music, while blacks, for a variety of reasons, sought fresh avenues of expression, and made those their own as well. By the middle of the 20th century, the pivotal role of black Americans in developing fiddle music was all but forgotten.


Perceptions are often slow to change, but sometimes they are abandoned overnight. The idea that Appalachian fiddle music is “white” is simply wrong, and should be thrown out and replaced with a more truthful story of the history and provenance of this unique and powerful music. The evidence is overwhelming, and it comes from many different lines of inquiry: Alan Jabbour has collected accounts of past interchange between white and black fiddlers from his sources in the Piedmont; Roger Abrahams uses written records to reconstruct some of the crucial musical interaction between blacks and whites; Cecilia Conway looks at patterns of migration and traces the routes of interchange; Paul Wells analyses tune families, teasing out the probable timeline of variation; Chris Smith finds graphic proof, in the sketchbooks of an artist, of black and white musicians playing together as a matter of routine; Douglas Goodhart has discovered the structure of African music theory embedded in Old-time bowing patterns. All of these scholars, in one way or another, have found strong evidence for African-Americans’ deep involvement in the development of the music—not just “influence,” as some scholars have conceded in the past—but a central role in the very foundations of the music. Since both black and white culture, music, and dance were absolutely critical to the formation of this native American genre, Appalachian fiddle music is truly interracial.


Abrahams, Roger D. Singing the Master: The Emergence of African American Culture
in the Plantation South. New York: Pantheon Books, 1992.

Carlin, Bob. The Birth of the Banjo:Joel Walker Sweeney and Early Minstrelsy.
Jefferson:McFarland, 2004.

Conway, Cecelia.“Black Banjo Songsters in Appalachia,” Black Music Research Journal, Vol.
23, No. ½ (Spring – Autumn, 2003) pp. 149-156

Goertzen, Chris, “American Fiddle Tunes and the Historic-Geographic Method”
Ethnomusicology, Vol 29, No. 3 (Autumn, 1985), 448-473.

Goertzen, Chris and Alan Jabbour, “George P. Knauff's Virginia Reels and Fiddling in
the Antebellum South” American Music, Vol. 5, No. 2 (Summer, 1987), 121-144.

Hay, Fred J., “Black Musicians in Appalachia: An Introduction to Affrilachian Music”
Black MusicResearch Journal, Vol. 23, No. ½, (Spring-Autumn, 2003), 1-19.

Small, Christopher. Music of the Common Tongue: Survival and Celebration in Afro-
American Music. London: John Caldor, 1987.

Southern, Eileen and Josephine Wright. Images: Iconography of Music in African-
American Culture, 1770s-1920s. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc. 2000.

Wells, Paul F. “Fiddling as an Avenue of Black-White Interchange,” Black Music
Research Journal Spring/Fall (2003) 135-147.

Takaki, Ronald. A Different Mirror: a History of Multicultural America. New York: Back Bay
Books, 2008.


  1. Very interesting reading. I will have to read it several times more to properly digest this.

  2. I'd like to talk with you about this. How can reach you? email robin at netherton net -- blogger won't let me sign in with a working address.

  3. This is a terrific post. Thank you! Can you recommend some good Blue Grass/ Appalachian music that incorporates the African sound? I love rousing fiddle music, great beats. I'm so ignorant about this music style but recently was introduced to it while traveling through TN and NC. Thank you for any recommendations and for this educational post. Much appreciated.

  4. Re my post above, my personal email is: Thanks.

  5. Excellent post - one of the best pieces I've read on the origins of old-time music.