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A Fresh Look Into Black Fiddlers

Updated: Jan 31, 2023

Black Fiddlers is a documentary that, for the first time, will tell the story of early American violinists through biographical sketches and newly recorded performances of their music by living Black fiddlers—male and female—who have preserved or reconstructed these long-neglected but foundational musical traditions.

From the early 1700s to the Civil War, enslaved and free Black fiddlers performed the music for dances and house parties hosted by elite plantation owners at their farms and townhouses in the American south. For the Black community, Black fiddlers played a very different role. Black fiddlers combined the European dance music they performed at these high-visibility White social events with ballads and songs, church hymns, African melodies and rhythms, and their Caribbean variations to create a distinctive fusion music that served to bind together the Black experience in the American south. In their music, we hear a soundtrack of slavery. When Black fiddlers moved west and north in the 1800s, their soundtrack became national music, so attractive and popular that after the Civil War, it was mainstreamed and diluted.

But it has been recovered. Early Black fiddler traditions have been passed down from generation to generation. Some early Black fiddler music has been revived, most notably by the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Scholars have discovered other music awaits fresh performance and its rightful recognition.

We have recruited a talented cast of Black fiddlers and a diverse team of academic and independent scholars, including Benjamin Hunter, Rhiannon Giddens, Justin Robinson, Jacqueline DjeDje, Kip Lornell, John Sullivan, Howard and Judith Sacks, and others. Script development has been collaborative, with artists and scholars sharing information daily. Through this back-and-forth, we have forged relationships of trust, which has enabled candor and debate about vexing moral questions regarding artistic independence, the social responsibility of musicians and music historians, intellectual (or artistic) property, and past and present discrimination in the American cultural or music industry. Benjamin Hunter, whose Seattle-based Black and Tan Hall nonprofit has pioneered the use of music for community development, will be the on-screen film narrator. On-location interviews and sessions with Hunter and other team members, supplemented by previously uncollected archival portraits and photographs, will serve as chapters in a big story.

Typically, the figure or life history of an early Black fiddler will stand for a larger group working in a region, at a historical time, or with one thread in the musical tradition:

  • initial performances by Hunter of selections from the repertoire of Simeon Gilliat (1756-1820), the most celebrated fiddler in pre-Revolutionary Virginia, to illustrate the actual process by which early Black fiddlers transformed and took ownership of European sources, one that involves the demonstration of mastery of the original European composition, a parody or mocking or exaggeration of selected parts, and mixing with other traditions;

  • a brief account of the geographic mobility of early Black fiddlers, such as Eston Hemings (1808-1856) and the Snowden family (1830s-1920s), in Ohio, and Louis Southworth (1830-1917), in California, and the impact of that mobility on their music and its reach;

  • an account of the persistence of distinctively African motifs in the Black fiddler tradition through the compositions and performance practice of “Old Frank” Johnson (1789-1871), the North Carolina fiddler and string dance band leader known as the James Brown of his time, as handed down from one generation to the next to Joe Thompson (1918-2012), with rare family video recordings of Thompson at the turn of the twenty-first century; and

  • a final coda, an impromptu session with Hunter, Giddens, and Robinson in Mebane, NC, performing pre-Civil War songs, including Frank Johnson’s square dance songs and Ellen Snowden’s ‘Dixie’ (as written initially before a competing white Blackface minstrel band misappropriated it), along with very recent Justin Robinson compositions to show the deep roots and enduring vitality of Black fiddler traditions today.

Black Fiddlers aligns well with the Foundation’s Just Films program. The Black fiddler's story makes possible the framing and sharing of hard questions about social justice through music and a correction of the historical record. Black Fiddlers will demonstrate that enslaved and free Black fiddlers were independent artists; that, paradoxically, it is Black fiddlers at the low end of the social ladder who have access to all musical traditions in colonial America and the early republic, that their “soundtrack of slavery” is a musical model of integration, and perhaps of reconciliation and forgiveness as well; that fusion music once thought to begin after the Civil War begins, in fact, much earlier, as soon as there is a Black experience whose harsh discordances and cross-cultural networks seek musical ordering and expression. With bold-face talent and distinguished scholars, Black Fiddlers has the potential to reach audiences across the lines of race and gender and age, and class. In the suspension of difference that music and film uniquely make possible, we may find, even if only for a moment, a new departure point for the hard collective work of achieving social integration for social justice.

Heritage Film Project | June 2021

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