Doug Orr: The Profound African American Influence on Appalachian Music

Wayfaring Strangers: The Musical Voyage from Scotland and Ulster to Appalachia by Fiona Ritchie and Doug Orr

We welcome to the blog today a guest post by Doug Orr, coauthor of the book Wayfaring Strangers: The Musical Voyage from Scotland and Ulster to Appalachia with Fiona Ritchie. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a steady stream of Scots migrated to Ulster and eventually onward across the Atlantic to resettle in the United States. Many of these Scots-Irish immigrants made their way into the mountains of the southern Appalachian region. They brought with them a wealth of traditional ballads and tunes from the British Isles and Ireland, a carrying stream that merged with sounds and songs of English, German, Welsh, African American, French, and Cherokee origin. Their enduring legacy of music flows today from Appalachia back to Ireland and Scotland and around the globe. Ritchie and Orr guide readers on a musical voyage across oceans, linking people and songs through centuries of adaptation and change.

Ritchie and Orr have four upcoming events in North Carolina this fall, beginning Thursday, November 13, in Charlotte. For more information about upcoming author events and appearances, all featuring live music, check out their author page on the UNC Press website.

In a previous post, Ritchie shares some of her travels over the years that contributed to Wayfaring Strangers. In today’s post, Orr traces the historical influence that African American music and culture had on the development of Appalachian music.

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The music of the Appalachians draws its sources from a meandering stream of influences over centuries and distant lands. A substantial Scots-Irish immigration of the eighteenth century, generally through Pennsylvania and down the Great Philadelphia Wagon Road into the southern Appalachians, represented the initial and primary source. But over subsequent years and cultural encounters a variety of influences entered the mix: German, English, French, Welsh, Cherokee and African American—what Fiona Ritchie and I refer to as a “musical tapestry” in our book Wayfaring  Strangers. Perhaps none of these influences has been more misunderstood and underestimated than that of African American music and culture.

It is generally known that the American banjo’s origins trace back to West Africa and a gourd-like instrument, the “ngoni,” among other names. However, the plantations were something of an incubator for music of the African American slaves in a variety of forms: the fiddle, learned at the plantation house; the call-and-response work songs from the toil of the plantation fields; spirituals stemming from church worship—often clandestine services or camp meetings with hidden messages of freedom’s call; and the hush lullabies sung by mammies to their babies, and sung with irony to the children of the plantation overlords.

A reciprocal “short loop” saw influences evolve in both directions between blacks and whites. For example, the slaves would hear white fiddlers play at the plantation house, emulate what they heard on their own instruments, and thereafter return the tunes with added interpretations that included more syncopated, improvisational, bluesy, and rhythmic styles, with ultimately a lasting impact on Appalachian fiddle playing, as the music drifted west from the plantations and into the mountains. It has been estimated that at the time of the Revolutionary War over half of the fiddle players in the South were African American. A similar instrumental give-and-take occurred with the banjo, as the African American thumping style led to the iconic Appalachian clawhammer strum. By the end of the nineteenth century, there had evolved black and white fiddle-banjo duos (although not integrated), and eventually entire black string bands. Many of those string bands would be accompanied by an African American dance caller and play for white square dances as well as African American dances called “frolics.” Several square-dance steps practiced to this day are of African American origin.

Additionally, a number of African American folk musicians were mentors to noted twentieth-century white musicians, particularly through the Appalachian Mountains: singer and guitar player Leslie Riddle for A. P. Carter of the Carter Family; blues guitarist Arnold Schultz with bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe; trumpeter Louis Armstrong for Jimmy Rodgers; Alabama’s “Tee Tot” Payne for Hank Williams; and Jerry Ricks, blues guitarist and a Philadelphia restaurant cook who took a young Doc Watson under his wing,  provided shelter, gourmet cooking, and even a few guitar licks at a time when Doc almost gave in to the challenges of a big city so far from his southern Appalachian home.

Although the banjo and string-band music lost favor in black communities during the era of black-faced minstrelsy and its caricatures, there has been a resurgence in more recent years as programs such as the Black Banjo Reunion and the jug band sounds of the Carolina Chocolate Drops have helped reclaim a heritage that profoundly influenced Appalachian music and the American songbook in the first place.

Doug Orr is president emeritus of Warren Wilson College, where he founded the Swannanoa Gathering music workshops. His book, Wayfaring Strangers: The Musical Voyage from Scotland and Ulster to Appalachia, coauthored with Fiona Ritchie, is now available.

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