29 October 2022

Jake Blount on Black music - and bluegrass

The BIB editor writes:

Smithsonian Folkways Recordings released last month the album The new faith by Jake Blount, who conceived it as 'a field recording from the future'. He has now recorded for the Vox YouTube channel a nine-minute video, entitled 'Why this instrument explains Black American folk music'. 'This instrument' is the banjo, and banjos (including Blount's own) are often on screen. The first two minutes of the video deal with the banjo's passage from being identified with black people to its present identification, through bluegrass, with white people; the second two minutes deal with the musical segregation ('hillbilly'/ 'race') imposed by the recording industry; and the rest with African American musical traditions and their application in the album. It's a concise and well presented exposition.

About a minute into the video we hear a snatch of the music of Murphy Gribble (banjo), John Lusk (fiddle), and Albert York (guitar), whom Blount introduces with the words:

They were a black string band, they recorded in the 1940s, and by most definitions they're actually an early bluegrass band, but for a variety of reasons I would consider their race to be probably the main reason they aren't really embraced as part of the bluegrass story.

Whatever definition might allow them to be seen as 'an early bluegrass band', it would clearly not be that definition which actually explains why bluegrass music is called 'bluegrass': because it either is, or derives from, or resembles in its basic characteristics, the music of Bill Monroe & his Blue Grass Boys. On 14/18 Aug. 2020 I wrote on the BIB that Gribble, Lusk, and York

... were a fine old-time string band, full of vitality, but do not sound like any bluegrass band I (or, I'll bet, you) ever heard. Why are they not mentioned in bluegrass history? For the same reason that the white musician J.C. Sutphin isn't mentioned; they didn't play bluegrass.

I would similarly resist any suggestion that Charlie Poole & the North Carolina Ramblers might be considered 'early bluegrass'. If you want an example of fast, fancy 5-string playing from the 1940s, which in some ways is closer to bluegrass than the playing of Murphy Gribble or Charlie Poole, but which no one would ever consider calling 'bluegrass', try this.
Jake Blount includes very rewarding lists of resources on black stringband music on his website; for instance, all the recordings of Gribble, Lusk, and York can be heard here. Listen and form your own conclusions.

© Richard Hawkins

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