String bands, hoedowns, square dances, old-time fiddle and banjo styles, these sounds were a dominant strand in African American roots music from the 17th century onwards. Despite this, many people think that such music comes solely from dungaree-wearing, white rural folk. Country might appear to be the whitest of all music genres, but it has some surprising roots.
How have these black roots been whitewashed from the history of American folk and country music? How have folk and country been positioned as white genres? What does black Americana sound like today?
In this episode, acclaimed musician Rhiannon Giddens returns to her home state of North Carolina to explore the lives of two black fiddlers – Joe Thompson and Frank Johnson. Johnson was one of the first black celebrities in the Southern states of the USA. Born into slavery, he bought freedom for himself and his family on the back of his profits as a musician. More than 2,000 people processed through Wilmington, North Carolina for his funeral in 1871. Though he died before the start of the recording industry, his music was passed down through generations of black fiddlers in the region. The last of these fiddlers was Joe Thompson, who taught Rhiannon countless songs.
Featuring Iris Thompson Chapman, Phil Jamison, John Jeremiah Sullivan, and Dr. Lewin Manly.
Presented by Rhiannon Giddens
Produced by Tom Woolfenden
A Loftus Media production for BBC Radio 4