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Black Hillbilly - or - What you really know about the Upper South?

Posted by Eric Brightwell, February 9, 2015 09:08am | Post a Comment
The first non-Native American settlers of Appalachia and later, the Ozarks, were of primarily of three ethnicities: Scots-Irish, English, and German. These hard-working farmers and craftsmen created a distinct culture which in the 19th Century came to be named “hillbilly.” Although the Northern European roots of hillbilly are routinely acknowledged, even scholars on the culture are far less likely to recognize hillbilly’s other significant place of ancestral origin, West Africa.


Hillbilly music’s biracial parentage should be immediately evident to anyone with any knowledge of the music’s primary instruments, the fiddle and the banjo. The modern fiddle (or violin) may have originated in 16th Century Italy but similar bowed instruments preceded its development by several centuries and the violin made its way to the Americas thanks to English colonists. The banjo, descended from the numerous plucked instruments of West Africa such as the akonting, ngoni, and xalam, was introduced to the Americas by African slaves.


Famous slave owners like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, James K. Polk, Zachary Taylor, and Andrew Johnson routinely required their forced laborers to learn to play violin to entertain their friends and themselves at plantation balls and the White House.



The fiddle and the banjo soon made their way to the mountains of the Upper South where they were played at barn dances and frolics by free men. Although it’s probably a widely held assumption that free blacks all hightailed it to the North, most actually remained in the South. Many free black southerners came from the Caribbean or had lived in France’s La Louisianewhere blacks were free until it was purchased by the US. Even more were freed former slaves who either elected to remain or were unable to leave. In 1860, 84% lived not in the Deep South, however, but in the hilly Upper South (Arkansas, Kentucky, Missouri, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia).



Although black musicians were influenced by white minstrels — often adding minstrel compositions to their repertoire — white minstrels of course took most of their inspiration from black culture. Although the earliest known document of the banjo and fiddle being played together is by The Virginia Minstrels in 1840, black banjo players were documented as having played both the banjo and fiddle in the proximity of one another as early as 1774 in southern Maryland. The Virginia Minstrels’ first banjoist, Bill Whitlock, also had learned his instrument from black musicians when he was a member of a traveling circus.


The Armstrong Brothers Band


Although hillbilly music, then, had revolved around the pairing together of the fiddle and banjo for many years, in the recording age record companies segregated music into racially-specific genres to simplify their marketing. Companies marketed race music to the black, record-buying public — which included blues, gospel, and jug band music among other genres. “Hillbilly music” was targeted toward the white public. Black hillbilly musicians, then, quickly learned some other tunes if they hoped to cut music for anyone besides field recorders and ethnomusicologists.


The Ebony Hillbillies (image source: Canberra Jazz Blog)


Take the case of DeFord Bailey. Bailey was the first black musician to play on the Grand Ole Opry, had a grandfather who’d been a champion Tennessee fiddler in the 1880s, and as a child played alongside relatives at the Wilson County Fair with The Bailey Family Band. In 1975 he revealed to an interviewer, “I never heard the blues till I came to Nashville to work. All I heard as a boy back then was what we called black hillbilly music.”


The Carolina Chocolate Drops (image source: MTV)


Beginning in the 1910s, all of hillbilly culture had begun to vanish along the hillbilly highway, an exodus from the mountains in which many hill folk moved to cities in search of work in the industrial sector and led to a good deal of popular entertainment based on regionalist stereotypes. In the 1940s, field recorders documented some black hillbillies, whose music by then often blurred the lines between blues and jazz. More musicians passed on and few of their descendants followed in their ancestors’ musical footsteps — although a few taught white musicians with whom hillbilly music came to be almost exclusively identified, musicians like A. P. Carter (taught by Lesley Riddle), Bill Monroe (taught by Arnold Shultz), and Hank Williams (taught by Rufus “Tee-Tot” Payne).


If you’re interested in hearing black mountain music, here’s a discography which includes examples from all eras of recorded music:

Blind James Campbell and his Nashville Street Band: Blind James Campbell and his Nashville Street Band (1995)

Butch Cage and Willie B. Thomas: Old Time Black Southern String Band Music (2006)

Cannon’s Jug Stompers: The Best of Cannon’s Jug Stompers (2001)

Cats and the Fiddle: Killin’ Jive: 1939–1940, Complete Recordings, Volume 1 (1999)

Carl Martin: Carl Martin / Willie "61" Blackwell - Complete Recorded Works In Chronological Order (1994)

Carolina Chocolate Drops: Dona Got a Ramblin’ Mind (2006), Carolina Chocolate Drops & Joe Thompson (2008), Genuine Negro Jig (2010), Heritage (2011), Leaving Eden (2012), 

The Chicago String Band: Chicago String Band (1966)

Deford Bailey: The Legendary DeFord Bailey (1998)

The Ebony Hillbillies: Sabrina's Holiday (2004), I Thought You Knew (2005), and Barefoot And Flying (2011)

Elizabeth Cotton: Freight Train and Other North Carolina Folk Songs and Tunes (1989)

Gus Cannon: Complete Recorded Works In Chronological Order: Volume 1 (November 1927 To 20 September 1928) (1990)

Henry ThomasTexas Worried Blues: Complete Recorded Works 1927-1929 (1991)

Howard Armstrong: Louie Bluie (1995)

Joe Thompson: Family Tradition (2009)

Martin, Bogan & Armstrong: Barnyard Dance (1972), Martin Bogan & Armstrong (1974), and That Old Gang Of Mine (1978)

Mississippi Sheiks: Complete Recorded Works Presented In Chronological Order, Vol. 5 (1991), Mississippi Sheiks & Chatman Brothers - Complete Recorded Works In Chronological Order: Volume 4 (26 March 1934 To 15 October 1936) (1991), Complete Recorded Works In Chronological Order Volume 3: 25 October 1931 To 2 6 March 1934 (1991), Complete Recorded Works In Chronological Order Volume 2: 15 December 1930 To 24 October 1931 (1991), Complete Recorded Works In Chronological Order Volume 1: 17 February To 12 June 1930 (1991)

Peg Leg Howell & Eddie Anthony: Complete Recorded Works In Chronological Order: Volume 1 (8 November 1926 To 13 August 1928) (1993)

Sankofa Strings: Colored Aristocracy

Spirits of Rhythm: The Spirits Of Rhythm 1932-34 (1985), Spirits Of Rhythm 1932-1941 (1996)

Tommie Bradley - James Cole Groups: 1928-32 (Complete Recorded Works In Chronological Order (1991)

Various Artist Compilations:

Ain’t Gonna Rain No More: Blues and Pre-Blues from Piedmont North Carolina (2006), Altamont: Black Stringband Music From The Library Of Congress (1989), Before the Blues: The Early American Black Music Scene, vol. 1–3 (1996), Black & White Hillbilly Music: Early Harmonica Recordings from the 1920s & 1930s (1996), Black Banjo Songsters of North Carolina and Virginia (1997), Black Fiddlers (The Remaining Titles Of Andrew & Jim Bxter, Nathan Frazier & Frank Patterson. The Complete Recorded Works Of Cuje Bertram) (1929-c.1970) (1999), The Cornshuckers’s Frolic: Downhome Music and Entertainment from the American Countryside, vol. 1 and 2 (1999), Country Negro Jam Session (1993), Deep River of Song: Black Appalachia: String Bands, Songsters and Hoedowns (1999), From Where I Stand: The Black Experience in Country Music (1998), Old Time Black Southern String Band Music (2006), String Bands: 1926–1929 (1993), and Virginia Traditions: Non-Blues Secular Black Music (1995)



Further Reading:

A Man Apart: The Journal of Nicholas Cresswell, 1774 - 1781, (2009) edited by George M. Curtis III and Harold B. Gill, Jr. 

African Banjo Echoes in Appalachia: A Study of Folk Tradition
(1995), by Cecelia Conway

Blacks in Appalachia (2009), edited by William H. Turner and Edward J. Cabbell

Hidden in the Mix: The African American Presence in Country Music
(2013), edited by Diane Pecknold

Slaves Without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South
(1974) by Ira Berlin

Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War
(1977), by Dena Epstein

“Black String Bands: A Few Notes on the Lost Cause”
(1987) and “Rural Black String Band Music” (1990), by Charles K. Wolfe

*****


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Happy Missouri Day! - Yup, It's aready been a yurr since the last'n

Posted by Eric Brightwell, October 15, 2008 12:42am | Post a Comment
MISSOURI DAY

The 3rd Wednesday of the October, this year the 15th.


Pendersleigh & Sons' Official Map of Missouri


In my experience, when you'ins tell people you’re from Missouri, most people reply self-satisfiedly with "don't you mean Missouruh?" or, alternately, "where is Missouri? I don’t think I’ve ever been there."

Whether Missouri is Lower Midwestern or Upper Southern (or the Border South or, the Upland South, or less commonly today, the Yeoman South) is a somewhat common debate amongst Missourians... at least on the internet.

In my experience, Missouri's Midwestern neighbors, centered along the Great Lakes, (haters) tend to disparage Mighty Mo as a hick state whurr test scores are low, the accent is ugly and you'ins can buy fireworks, liquor and ammo... all in the same place.

Missouri's neighbors in the Deep South (also haters) usually don't consider it to be Southern because Missouri didn't side with the South in the Civil War (well, that's complicated-- thurr were 30,000 gray and 109,000 blue) and because South Coasters love to equate the entire South with just the Deep South aka the Lower South aka the Plantation South.

As far as Southern credentials go, Mark Twain, Langston Hughes, Thomas Hart Benton all seem fairly Southern, do they not? On the other hand, natives like T.S. Elliot, William Burroughs and Maya Angelou don’t so much, huh? Cultural cringe I reckon, plays a part in this confusion, as do geographical overlap and historical shifts.


Summer of Sequels Presents -- Jason Bourne

Posted by Eric Brightwell, August 13, 2007 10:05pm | Post a Comment





Jason Bourne
is a guy who's trying to remember his past and figure out who he is because he suffers from amnesia. In the course of his quest he was informed that his real name is David Webb and he was born in Nixa, Missouri but he seems to totally ignore that, or at least they don't depict him trying to glean anything from this. 

So I'm here to help fill in the blanks, like it or not. No spoiler warning.

"Webb" is an occupational family name meaning (in Old English) "weaver." OK, so at least the paternal branch of Jason/David's family is from the British Isles. He looks pretty Irish. Nixa, Missouri is in the Ozark Mountains. In 1717, the Ulster-Scots, aka Scots-Irish, began to move to the area which was by then mostly abandoned or otherwise depopulated by the indigenous population after a 13th century famine.




The Ozarks, a mix of the Shire and Rivendell

Rich, slave-owning planters on the South Coast called the new inhabitants "hillbillies" because (according 
to one theory) as Protestants back in the British Isles, they had supported William III "Billy" of Orange and lived in the hills/highlands.

During the Civil War, Missouri was split between pro-Union sympathizers and those who were pro-Confederate. The state was represented by stars on both
nations' flags. Confederate sympathizers called Border Ruffians waged war the impoverished hillbillies who were often pro-Union. 

The Chicago Tribune wrote of them as “a queer-looking set, slightly resembling human beings, but more closely allied … to wild beasts…They never shave or comb their hair, and their chief occupation is loafing around whiskey shops, squirting tobacco juice, and whittling with a dull jack-knife.” The next few years, in addition to the Civil War, the state became mired in what was known as the Bushwacker War.

The Ozarks continue to have a distinct culture. They call heavy downpours "gully washers" or "frog stranglers." They say "yins" instead of "y'all." Ozarkians frequently complain about characterizations of them as poor, crazy, sleazy, gun-toting, moonshine-making, backwards folk and then they go and sell stuff like a corncob as "Hillbilly toilet paper" in every gas station. And then there is a mountain in the Ozarks called "Knob Lick mountain." And every truck has a gun-rack in the window.



And they have both Branson...

 

...and the Precious Moments Chapel, founded by born-again Christian and family man Sam Butler, who was famously always accompanied by adolescent Filipino boys.

Ozarkians held the interest of film-goers and tv watchers, radio-listeners and comic-readers throughout the 20th century but particularly in the second,  which gave us:

Lum & Abner (1932)

Lil' Abner (1934)

Beverly Hillbillies (1962)

                                                         Snuffy Smith (1934)                                                                 Ma & Pa Kettle (1947)


*****

   
Real Ozark Hillbillies

The slogan of Nixa, Missouri is "The Progressive Choice of the Ozarks." It has a Motel 8, a McDonald's, a Taco Bell, a Kentucky Fried Chicken, a Sonic Drive In, Otts Pasta, Smitty's Supermarket and Restaurant and five strip malls.

So, despite Nixa's wealth of riches, Jason/David gave it up and left. He must've learned to code-switch and eliminate aspects of his idiolect that would betray his hillbilly origins. He got involved with the government and the rest is detailed in the films.

The lastest Bourne film, the Bourne Ultimatum is a lot like the previous installments. It met my expectations. Jason goes to France, New York City, London, Russia, Spain and Tangier. He runs and chases and frequently metes out Krav Maga, a cool-looking fighting style developed by Jews first to protect themselves from Nazis in the 1930s, and perfected in Israel in the 1940s. 

After the Bourne Supremacy, Bourne fans' most common complaint was director Paul "shakycam" Greengrass' heavy reliance on that early 90s fad which is used, I guess, to make us feel like we're really there... like we're invisible and shaking whilst we watch the action from behind potted plants, writhing and convulsing completely unseen by the film's characters. Or maybe it's supposed to be the distracting Brechtian technique that it is, calling attention to itself, reminding us that this is a film, not real life, so remain detached and reflective. Whatever the reason, he uses it less, which still annoyed me because it doesn't need to be there at all. When my friend Hien saw it, he had to excuse himself to throw-up.

One other thing that totally confused me, and I am admittedly a bit slow, was Albert Finney as Albert Hirsh.

In the previous Bourne movies Ward Abbot was played by Brian Cox.

I spent the duration of the latest film thinking they were one in the same, whilst scratching my head trying to remember events of the previous two films. Blackbriar. Treadstone. Names and details don't seem that important but all of the sudden, Albert Finney comes in doing what seems like a Brian Cox impression with slobbery mumbles and looking over his glasses. Maybe I'm the only person that confuses them (although Brian Cox has a bit of Marlon Brando in him too).

Anyway, despite what I felt were relatively minor but annoying flaws, I came out of the theatre really wanting to get into a fight that involves whatever's in reach and to drive recklessly through the streets and alleys, and I think that's the real point.


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