Hillbilly Music

 Black Hillbilly Music

DeFord’s family played tunes that were part of a rich tradition of string band playing shared by both blacks and whites in the early nineteenth century.

“White and blacks would be playing music and dancing at what you’d call a barn dance—you clean the ground off and put sawdust down on it and make it soft where you can dance. Well, they’d look out and see the Baileys and they’d say, ‘Here come the Baileys, we’ll turn the thing over to them. They would usually have a fiddle, guitar, banjo, harp, mandolin, and drums.’”

During slavery times, musicians were highly valued. In fact, many slaves were sent to New Orleans to train on the fiddle in order to entertain at plantation dances. After emancipation, many of these fiddle players kept their instruments and developed their own playing styles. DeFord’s grandfather, Lewis Bailey, was one of these musicians. He was a champion fiddle player, considered “the best in Smith County.” DeFord learned much of his style and repertoire from the early influences of his grandfather.

This style of music, which DeFord later called black hillbilly music, started to fade in the 1920’s when the record companies came south to record traditional music. For marketing purposes, the record companies segregated music into white and black series. They believed white people would buy only country music performed by white musicians and that black people would buy only blues and gospel music performed by black musicians.

Even though the Mississippi Sheiks made some early recordings, the younger black musicians who grew up playing black hillbilly music quickly learned that they needed to play the blues if they wanted to get recorded. Slowly, the older black string bands began to disappear.

The few surviving black string bands had a direct influence on many of the classic country stars, including the Carter Family with Leslie Riddle, Bill Monroe with Arnold Shultz, and Hank Williams with Rufus “Tee-Tot” Payne. The black string band tradition is all but extinct today. The last remnants can be heard in the music of Joe and Odell Thompson from North Carolina, in the style of the late John Jackson, in the driving fiddle of Howard Armstrong, and occasionally in the work of Taj Mahal.

The instrumentation included the banjo, introduced by the African slaves via the minstrel shows, the Scottish “fiddle” (the poor man’s violin, simplified so that the fiddler could also sing) and the Spanish guitar (an instrument that became popular in the South only around 1910). Ironically, as more and more blacks abandoned the banjo and adopted the guitar, the banjo ended up being identified with white music, while the guitar ended up being identified as black music. For example, Hobart Smith learned to play from black bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson, but went on to play the banjo while Jefferson played the guitar.




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