Preserving the African influence on the music of the Southern Appalachians

African American musicians have played a pivotal role in the sounds we hear in many genres today and the sounds we will hear in the future.

SEVIER COUNTY, Tenn. – Music is a language that knows no barriers. He carries with him memories, a culture and a history. Southern Appalachian music has told the story of the people of eastern Tennessee and the Great Smoky Mountains for centuries.

African American musicians have played a pivotal role in the sounds we hear in many genres today and the sounds we will hear in the future.

James “Sparky” Rucker keeps the legacy alive. In addition to being a storyteller and historian, he has performed American folk music for approximately 52 years – traveling to various festivals and events across the region and abroad.

“I have done a lot to try to preserve the music of the Southern Appalachians, and in particular the African influence on this music,” Rucker said, adding that his research had focused on finding the origins of music and its origins. long story. rooted in African American culture and traditions.

“The music that comes out of black artists, black musicians, and southern Appalachian musicians is American music. It was created here in this country, not something we brought from another place, but it was a mix of African and native music and Scott and Scott, Irish and Irish. And it really is beautiful and unique music, ”he said.

Southern Appalachian music was born out of bondage.

According to Atalaya Dorfield, research assistant for the African American Experience Project in the Great Smoky Mountains, various West African cultures, religions and languages ​​have been forced to merge into small spaces on slave ships.

“Even for exercise, they were forced to get on the deck of the ship and dance… to entertain the white crew. So that’s where you start to see these Africanisms start to coalesce, ”Dorfield said.

The African American Experience Project works to document the history of the African American people in the Smokies. Dorfield said enslaved Africans were first brought to eastern Tennessee as early as the 16th century.

Southern Appalachian music was created when different cultures mingled, she said. Native Americans and Europeans were also aboard these ships with Africans, causing different practices and sounds to merge.

Once these people were in what is now the United States, the music began to adapt and change depending on where they were geographically and who lived there.

“The African American culture, the music started on the slave ships because they were forced to communicate in some way for us to combine languages, religions and cultures,” she said, adding that a times scattered across the country is “when we start to see different things develop and change.

“It’s definitely an intercultural genre,” she added.

In the late 19th and mid-20th centuries, the railway industry extended the music of the Southern Appalachians even further, bringing out even more nuances of sound. Meanwhile, many African Americans from the Deep South moved to the Appalachian region to find work.

“There are a lot of different stories of people like during breaks, or just the life arrangements they had for them, playing music,” she said.

Some people also traveled to the northern states, always taking music from the Southern Appalachians with them. As it spread and new genres developed like folk and country, the African American influence became less visible.

“The record industry in the 20th century didn’t want black people to play this music. They thought it was white music and they call black music “racing music” and align that with jazz and blues, ”she said.

Southern Appalachian music features several distinct sounds and unique playing techniques from African traditions.

The banjo is an object that serves as an example of this story.

Derived from several gourd string instruments from West Africa, a five-string banjo has four melodic strings in a drone string. The drone chain is the short chain at the top. It never changes, while the melodic strings allow the musician to play notes depending on the placement of the fingers.

Now a distinct sound in other genres like folk and country, the banjo was one of the things that accompanied slaves in the United States, Dorfield said. Even the top-down style of play was initiated by enslaved Africans.

“Once they get here, that’s when you start to see them adopt other characteristics of European string instruments, but the basics of the banjo,” she said, adding that this instrument shows how people took what they knew, and through intercultural practices, adapt it according to the geographical situation.

Rucker said that the banjo and the way it is played also serves as a commonality between different groups of people.

For the Irish, their main instrument was the bagpipe. Similar to a banjo, it has four drone strings and then a “chanter” that plays the melody, ”said Sparky Rucker.

“Suddenly you see these cultures have similar music,” he said. “They started listening to each other and looking at the instruments and ‘oh my god that’s basically played the same way’, and all of a sudden the rest of the week you would see them swapping instruments – let me play your banjo, let me play your ngoni, let me play your angklung, which is another similar instrument, ”he said.

The banjo has undergone various changes, eventually becoming the instrument we hear today in various musical genres.

The violin is another key sound.

“When you play the violin, you know, you put it under your chin and you play the precise notes and you play whatever Bach or Beethoven wrote. against their chin, ”Rucker said.

Keep history alive

Today, researchers and historians, through efforts like the African American Experience Project in the Smokies, seek to document this story. While music is only one facet of the initiative, the goal of the project is to educate visitors about the presence of African Americans in the mountains and in eastern Tennessee.

Dorfield said that often when people think of Southern Appalachian music, the African American influence is not mentioned. In fact, it wasn’t until the mid to late 20th century that people began to recognize that blacks were in these spaces as musicians, she said.

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“A lot of it is because historians, when looking at Southern Appalachian music, ballads and things like that, looked at European roots and not African roots,” Dorfield said. “We know that’s a big part of the story, but the stories aren’t told.”

This idea of ​​invisibility is one of the reasons the Smokies are leading initiatives to research and tell this story, said Antoine Fletcher, science communicator at the Appalachian Highlands Science Learning Center.

“I think of all the great creativity that has been lost because of this invisibility because African Americans for so long haven’t taken these instruments or these spaces invited them,” Fletcher said.

He said the teams had been researching since 2018, compiling in-depth analysis of the recordings and personal stories.

“We want to make sure that when people walk through gates, trees or anywhere Smokies, they not only learn about the history of the early white settlers but also African Americans, and that inspires them to advocate for the park.” “, did he declare. “Then we promote stewardship with these new audiences so this project is very difficult, but that’s a good thing.”

The next step is to convey all this information to visitors. Fletcher said they plan to install signs and displays throughout the park that tell these stories. He said they wanted it to be a way for people to engage in history and learn new things.

They are also planning a series of town halls to share information with people, Fletcher said. He hopes this will inspire community members to come to them with more information.

“I think this project is a pioneer for many upcoming projects in the National Park Service,” he said, adding that the effort to permanently document history will continue for years to come.

RELATED: ‘The Rest of the Story Had to Be Told’: New Podcast Series Aims to Explore Black Influence on Appalachian Music

While making the invisible story visible again is the primary focus, Fletcher and Dorfield also hope their research builds relationships with people from all walks of life.

“I didn’t grow up going to national parks,” she says. “I’m just thinking about how this project can connect African Americans to a park itself because nature is for everyone, and make national parks something that comes first to the minds of Afro people. -Americans going on vacation and knowing they’re part of that story too.

Telling this story that has been ignored for so long is something Sparky Rucker is also working to do as a musician himself.

“There has been this problem of people trying to deny the history of this country,” Rucker said.

“When you teach history, you teach all history. Don’t try to deny what is so obvious there, ”he said. “We don’t deny it because people who don’t know their history risk making the same mistakes again.”

Rucker’s mission is also to keep music alive.

He started out as an art teacher in Chattanooga, but now he and his wife Rhonda teach classes to help mentor the next generation of musicians and artists.

“There are a whole bunch of young banjo players and fiddlers who learned from these camps. It has been a blessing for us, ”he said.

If you would like to learn more about the African American Experience Project, or if you have a personal story you would like to share, you can visit their website. here.

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