Rhiannon Giddens is fast becoming the voice of country music scholarship. A banjo player whose work in Carolina Chocolate Drops did for bluegrass what Jack White did for the blues, as a solo act she has released four albums of roots music, two with her partner Francesco Turrisi with whom she lives in Ireland. BBC Radio 4 commissioned this three-part series in which Rhiannon tells the stories of black musicians who seem to have been lost in the mists of time, perhaps on purpose.
Bluegrass, conventional wisdom goes, was pioneered by Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt. Recent stars include Molly Tuttle, Ketch Secor of Old Crow Medicine Show and Billy Strings but, as in every cultural item from movies to TV to literature to actors, we must view bluegrass through the prism of the 2010 Equality Act and right historical wrongs.
BBC Radio 3 typically does this type of music programme well, using a skilled musician to tell a story, but Radio 4 seems to obey the edict to put on air more minority voices not usually represented in the past 100 years of the Home Service. It’s a welcome correction, and if it means more Rhiannon Giddens, whose version of She’s Got You is the definitive version, so much the better.
Within two minutes of the first episode, we get Rhiannon stating her race – ‘as a mixed race person’ and later ‘the only black face in a jam session’ and ‘an outsider in a white folk culture’ – just in case nobody knows about her performance and scholarship. ‘There is no Black South and White South,’ she argues, and square dancing is ‘uniformly white’ too, even though in 1900 there was a common songbook for people of all creeds.
Fusionism, mixing white and black performers and cultures, was the order of the day. Then, at the turn of the century, came the ‘white backlash’ which drove out the black folk, thanks to the fear of mixed relationships.
We hear about two fiddlers from North Carolina in the show. Frank Johnson was born a slave whose talent was passed on to future generations. He died as a renowned player in a post-abolition era. Rhiannon’s own teacher Joe Thompson was 86 when she met him as ‘one of the last living links’ to the bluegrass fiddlers of the 1600s, which included Johnson. These chaps would play on plantations and make folk dance until the sun came up, and Rhiannon earns her fee by giving us the old ‘barking puppy’ rhythm.
The second episode asks ‘How has the banjo been whitewashed?’ We hear the famous Foggy Mountain Breakdown, one of many tunes which commercialised the genre and led people to think it had lots of Caucasians as pioneers. This started with minstrelsy, which is a whole other kettle of fish.
Our tour guide heads to Kentucky where she tells us about Arnold Shultz, who died in 1931 and was an influence on Bill Monroe, the self-proclaimed shaper of the genre. ‘I wish I could be a banjo player, not a black female banjo player,’ says Rhiannon, reminding us of the point of this series. ‘You don’t have to carry a torch for a whole entire race!’ But that’s what is being thrust upon her, just as the many women in country must represent half of humanity.
On their recent brilliant album, Old Crow Medicine Show included a hymn to harmonica player DeFord Bailey, the first black performer to be an Opry member and the only one there in his lifetime. (Charley Pride wasn’t invited until 1993, a decade after DeFord died.) DeFord (pronounced ‘Dee-Ford’, by the way) gets the acclaim in the final episode of the series, which begins with words from Frankie Station, the Black Country Music Association’s founder.
Frankie reminds that listener that, even in 1996, there was opposition to black acts. ‘I was just tired of Nashville,’ she says, ‘looking at a big party through a glass window.’ Rhiannon ‘did not always feel welcome because of the colour of my skin…It was always a white town.’
Likewise, although she loved the Southern entertainment offered on the stereotypical Hee Haw, it left out the racial tensions and, yep, erased and whitewashed black musicians like DeFord. His family, who were farmhands on a white farm, furnished him with a harmonica to console him while he was in quarantine with polio, being the 1900s and with no vaccine available. We hear him speaking incomprehensibly, like Shane MacGowan, before Rhiannon’s fellow Chocolate Drop Dom Flemons goes behind the curtain to show us how DeFord sounded like a train and invented blues harmonica with a single blue note.
In fact, DeFord was given a break by WSM, the radio station which aired the Opry radio show that booked him every Saturday night for 15 years until he was fired for insubordination relating to politics between radio and publisher. It was nothing to do with him being ‘lazy’, as one source inaccurately alleged. By the 1940s, race records and hillbilly records were being marketed to different audiences, which meant that white performers were preferred for country record labels. ‘There was little room allowed,’ Rhiannon says, ‘for black hillbilly musicians’. What was Elvis Presley, I would add, than a Tupelo truck driver dressed as a bluesman?
If someone isn’t working on a screenplay about DeFord Bailey, who lived in a time of segregation and is compared by one academic to Jimi Hendrix or Prince, I’ll write one. He died 40 years ago this month and it is to the credit of the interviewees in the third show, especially his biographer and friend who is audibly overcome with emotion, that he is remembered.
Only two other black guys are Country Music Hall of Fame members, though. It is a time for ‘reckoning and reconciliation’, so the sins of the past can be atoned thanks to champions like Rhiannon Giddens.
Black Roots can be listened to on BBC Sounds.