Some reflections on overlooked rural black music in the 19th century
March 3, 2017 9:56 AM   Subscribe

"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?" Rural Black String Band Music by Charles Wolfe

That artile oddly lacks any reference to Howard "Louie Bluie" Armstrong, "the last guardian of a vanishing African-American tradition of string-band music," who died in 2003 (New York Times obituary, previously). To rectify this particular gap, here's his 1985 documentary in full (mentioned previously). Armstrong's style of music that's somewhat hard to define, as mentioned by Roger Ebert in his review of the documentary, where he recalls first seeing Howard Armstrong play with his band in a bar. A few years after his passing, the Louie Bluie Music and Arts Festival (previously) started up near his childhood hometown of LaFollette, Tennessee.

Additional reading: Tracking the Banjo From Across the Water to the Stage and Up the Mountains, a 16 page paper for an advanced music college course, which provides the full citation for Epstein's 1977 publication, Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War (Google books preview of the 2003 edition). For lot more reading material, here's the original source of Charles Wolfe's article: the Black Music Research Newsletter, a digitized collection running from 1977 to 1987 (Columbia College, Chicago), from the Consortium of Academic and Research Libraries in Illinois (CARLI) Digital Collections hosted by the University of Illinois.

And some music to enjoy while reading the links: Black String Bands on, an hour long radio show featuring Black string bands from the 1920s and '30s. Jug bands and songsters, dance tunes and sweet blues, originally broadcast on XRAY FM on 5/15/15. For a bit more, there's some cross-over in Incoherent Blues, another hour from XRAY FM.
posted by filthy light thief (11 comments total) 51 users marked this as a favorite
Thank you for this post! So much to read about and listen to. (This is something I love about MeFi: there are many posts that point me toward authors, musicians, and genres that I haven't heard of and enjoy discovering.)
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 10:29 AM on March 3, 2017

When I saw "fife and drum," I was hoping that would be a link to the doc on folkstreams. Was not disappointed!

I think I've read a little bit from the Black Music Research newsletter, because for the past couple years I've been studying Buffaloes Soldiers who served in the 1970s and 1880s. It's surprisingly difficult to get an answer when you find yourself wondering things like "what kinds of songs did these soldiers sing and play for each other?" And as far as I can tell, some of the seminal works on the history of popular music have had big blind spots when it comes to African Americans.

I haven't heard of that Epstein book, though, so I'm going to check it out.

Great post!
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 11:14 AM on March 3, 2017

I haven't heard of that Epstein book, though, so I'm going to check it out.

The paper is also a good source other publications you might find interesting, with 23 other works referenced at the end. (And the paper is 38 pages long, not 16, as I wrote in the post.)
posted by filthy light thief at 11:39 AM on March 3, 2017 [1 favorite]

Thanks so much for this post! So much to listen to.
posted by halonine at 11:47 AM on March 3, 2017

Great post. Looking forward to digging into some of this stuff.
posted by brennen at 1:09 PM on March 3, 2017

Great post! On the contemporary side, check out Rhiannon Giddens and her band, the Carolina Chocolate Drops.
posted by stinkfoot at 5:17 PM on March 3, 2017 [4 favorites]

The Chicago Blues Fest held yearly always seemed to have fife and drum corps marching around amongst the crowds.
posted by Chitownfats at 6:18 PM on March 3, 2017 [1 favorite]

This is such a beautiful post. Black music is such a huge foundation.
posted by yueliang at 10:26 PM on March 3, 2017

The first published compilation is Slave Song of the United States, published 1867 and well worth the read. (The lead author is also not without interest. He and his two co-writers went down to St Helena Island S.C. during the CiIvil War, by then in Union hands, and opened a school for the freed slaves. The book was a sideline to that work.)
posted by BWA at 1:45 PM on March 4, 2017 [1 favorite]

Walk Right In, which was a #1 hit in 1963 for The Rooftop Singers, is actually a black jug band tune by Gus Cannon's Jug Stompers. So this tradition is definitely a part of American music, but it's often not recognized for what it is.
posted by jonp72 at 4:18 PM on March 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

Late breaking news: There's a free fife and drum performance at L.A.'s Getty Museum the weekend after this. Announcement and link for tickets here. Blurb:

"Fife and drum music arrived in America's deep south in the 17th century with military marching bands and was quickly woven into musical traditions of African slaves. Today, Shardé Thomas—who leads the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band—keeps that tradition alive through fife and drum blues, one of America's last and most tangible links to this era. Presented in collaboration with the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Free; advance ticket required."
posted by bertran at 1:32 PM on March 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

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