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Updated: Sep 5, 2023


Still from the archive of Black Fiddlers by Montes-Bradley
Joe Thompson

I could have never anticipated the complexity of the subject when David McCormick approached me with the original idea of making a film about Black Fiddlers. David had been working with Loren Ludwig on the legacy of Thomas Jefferson’s mulatto children, and the recently discovered James River songbook, a singular source of information about the music played in plantations -such as Monticello- up and down the James River. It was from David McCormick that I first learned of Eston, Madison, and Beverly Hemings, Black fiddlers fathered by Thomas Jefferson with Sally Hemings. The sordid affair between master and the enslaved had been well documented in previous research. However, the legacy of his talented children had not, and the James River songbook had opened a window onto a much wider world of exploration than the course of the river itself. A documentary film was in order, and I was delighted to accept the challenge. Black Fiddlers, a 60 minute documentary film, would be made with the support of Early Music Access Project and the Joseph and Robert Cornell Foundation.

Still from the archive of Black Fiddlers by Montes-Bradley
An borrowed illustration showing the exodus of Black families from Charlottesville to Ohio

If the research by David McCormick and Loren Ludwig had kept them mostly focused on domestic life at Monticello and neighboring plantations, mine was going to lead me away from the house on the hill near Charlottesville and into a labyrinth of roads previously traveled by the violin, that mighty--albeit tiny--remanent of the Italian Baroque which had conquered western culture like no other musical instrument before or after. The journey proved to be demanding, plagued with discussions ranging from the origin of the violin itse

Still from the archive of Black Fiddlers by Montes-Bradley
With Giddens and Robinson in Mebane, NC

lf, to the nature of the relationship between the four-string instrument and the community of free and enslaved men and women who embraced the violin as their own, forging with it a unique tradition that paved the way from the ballrooms of the colonial aristocracy in Jamestown and Williamsburg to the jazz clubs of the roaring twenties. Three months into the production of Black Fiddlers, I was deep into the rabbit’s hole and quickly running out of time and financial resources. I was in Heaven.

A deep dive into the legacy of Black performers who shaped the music of a new nation, the film features the music and reflections of David Roberts, Rhiannon Giddens, Earl White and other musicians. The Daily Progress


Following Eston, Madison, and Beverly Hemming’s footsteps , I found myself -just like thousands of Black migrants after the financial crisis of 1837- on my way to Ohio where Judith and Howard Sacks, authors of Way up North in Dixie: A Black Family's Claim to the Confederate Anthem, were waiting to tell me about the Snowdens, a family of African American musicians who, like Eston Hemings, had fund fertile ground for their artistic talents away from the plantations of Maryland and Virginia.

Still from the archive of Black Fiddlers by Montes-Bradley
With Loren Ludwig from EMAP in Baltimore

North of Ohio I found myself standing by the grave of Eston, one of Jefferson’s talented children. The tombstone read E. H. Jefferson. The Hemings’ reference to the enslaved mother was now just a middle initial, a code. Eston had adopted the family name of his master-father and crossed over to the other side, to the white side of life, far from the racial oppression he spent all his life trying to escape. Passing, the maneuver to disguise oneself as a different tribe or race to avoid persecution and to get ahead in life, is just another word for conversion, a term so familiar in the history of many other cultures around the world. Despite the findings in Ohio, and the conversion of Eston Hemings-Jefferson, what I found to be most interesting was a fact unrelated to music or the fiddlers I sought. What I found most extraordinary was to learn that one of Eston’s children, a grandson of the author of the Declaration of Independence, had died a Union officer in Andersonville, the infamous POW camp in Georgia. I often wonder what Jefferson would have thought of his grandson if he only knew. The music was taking me everywhere, and the rabbit hole was beginning to feel like a prison of sorts.

Still from the archive of Black Fiddlers by Montes-Bradley
Travis “Boon” Evans, the custodian of Joe Thompson’s unassuming place in Mebane, NC
The small unassuming house where Thompson lived on a back road in Mebane North Carolina holds memories of days and nights making music, learning from him, and growing within the community of musicians to whom Thompson passed on his love of the music. - Luke Church, Radio IQ

In North Carolina I encounter the legend of Joe and Odell Thomson, and independent researchers whose passion, bordering on obsession, had led them to collect many of the sounds and artifacts that I use to develop a documentary film that had evolved to a much more complex proposition than the original assignment proposed by David McCormick.

Still from the archive of Black Fiddlers by Montes-Bradley
One of my favorite images, one that never made it into the film.

In Oregon I learned of the life of Louis Southworth, the man who paid for his freedom with monies earned in the gold mines, but also while fighting alongside white soldiers in the Rogue River Indian Wars. Of all the characters I’ve come across during my two years working with Black Fiddlers, Louis Southworth is the one I appreciate the most. He was a complex individual, yet also an extremely simple man; he was shaped by tradition, faith, and progress. Yet there were others like him. I can think of Clarinda, the woman who challenged church teachings and the moral police of New England by playing her fiddle for boys and girls to dance their joys away in dark alleyways and in public space. I think also of Billy Waters, who fought for the British in exchange for freedom, a reward the Revolution was not prepared to offer despite the progressive ideas of the Founders. I also learned of Sy Gilliat, the most famous entertainer at the court of governor Botetourt in Williamsburg, a master banjo and violin player who lost everything to the tune of the American Revolution because his name was forever linked to the decadence of the last years of the ruling class in colonial times. Oh! Black Fiddlers, what an amazing rabbit hole indeed.

Still from the archive of Black Fiddlers by Montes-Bradley
Easton’s Son - In Virginia he would have been considered Black, and a second class citizen in Charlottesville.

Other roads led me to revisit Beethoven and the Kreutzer Sonata which he had initially dedicated to the virtuoso Black violinist George Bridgetower, and to a plantation in Brazil, and another in Barbados and yet one more in the Bahamas only to find myself back by the James River, chasing fiddlers on fading pentagrams on the pages of the same songbook that David McCormick initially floated my way.

Many of the stories I came across on this journey never made it into the film. Sixty minutes is not enough to tell it all. Nevertheless, their names and stories guided me along the way just like the stars guided the sailors in the high seas, and like the stars, they were always there, and so should they remain to guide those who would dare to continue to explore the lives of Black Fiddlers anywhere.

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