By Geoffrey Himes/Paste Magazine
As the 20th century turned into the 21st, urban black music was the dominant force not only in American music but also in global music. In the year 2000, it was difficult to find any country in the world without its own hip-hop and R&B scene.
In that same year, however, rural African-American music seemed to be facing extinction. If that tradition had been allowed to disappear into the lifeless vacuum of museum cases, college classrooms and polite folk festivals, it would have been a great tragedy, for rural black music provided the seeds for not only urban black music but all American music.
Fortunately, this music—let’s call it Afro-Americana—is making a comeback. It has no commercial muscle yet, but its vitality can be measured by the ratio of new music being created compared to old music being revived. For the first time in decades, those proportions are tilting toward the future rather than the past.
It’s important to remember that when African slaves came to this hemisphere, they were leaving a rural society and arriving in a rural society. Their work, religion and music were inextricably entangled in plants, animals and seasons. They remembered how to make banjos from gourds, fifes from cane and drums from logs. But all that was spurned when most of those slaves’ descendants moved to Northern cities and Northern factories in the middle of the last century.
It’s easy to understand why they would shun music tainted by slave culture and want to invent something new. But in breaking its ties to the rural South, African-American music also weakened its ties to nature. And it left the millions of blacks who still lived in the rural South without a music that reflected their environment.
“A lot of black musicians,” Cassandra Wilson told me in 1994, “tend to downplay the rural element in our music. They act as if it’s unsophisticated, pedestrian, innocent, primitive—all words that conjure up something too difficult to deal with. When you’re part of a race with painful memories of what’s associated with the country blues—slavery and poverty and Jim Crow—you tend to avoid it. But ultimately you can’t dissociate yourself from it, because it’s so imbedded in every part of American music: jazz, R&B, funk, even country & western..
“There was a closeness to nature that we as African-Americans have lost. We have become dangerously urbanized. This environment is not healthy for anybody, but especially for us, because we can’t escape as easily as a lot of white people who can jump in the car and go visit grandma. Our children are surrounded by concrete, when nature should be the first instructor for the young. It’s important for kids to learn from insects, trees, animals, to get a sense of their own inner universe from the nature around them.”
Rural black music never died out completely, of course, and since 2000 it has been growing in power. Mississippi’s Wilson began introducing acoustic instruments, country blues and hillbilly songs into her recordings. North Carolina’s Carolina Chocolate Drops apprenticed themselves to several elderly black string-band musicians and pulled that tradition back from the grave with performances that were more about the present than the past.
Houston’s fiddler/accordionist Cedric Watson moved to Lafayette and revived the Gulf Coast’s moribund legacy of Francophone Creole music. Tennessee’s Valerie June took the white, suburban singer/songwriter genre and put not only a black spin on it but a rural one as well. Colorado’s Otis Taylor used the banjo and acoustic guitar to reclaim an African-American history that preceded the northward migration. Guy Davis, the son of actors Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, has written strong new songs in the Piedmont and country blues formats.
This resurgence in Afro-Americana has done more than diversify the color of the faces performing rural American music; it has reconnected that sound to its West African roots. While it’s true that the Americana musical river is equally indebted to the Anglo-Celtic tributary, channeled by other peasant immigrants, it was the African branch of the river, not the British, that had nearly dried up. To hear it flowing again is a major event in recent American culture.
We are now reminded of the crucial linkage between twang and the blue note. Twang, that hillbilly warble that destabilizes a note with emotion before returning to pitch, is just a variation on the blues, which flattens some notes and bends others for a similar effect. Both techniques are associated with rural culture, and that makes sense because sounds in nature do not adhere to a mathematically precise scale but shift through microtones. Rhythms too seem to fluctuate more naturally, less industrially.
“Growing up in a rural environment, it’s a slower way of life,” Valerie June told me last year, “so you have more space in your mind to dream more beautiful dreams. You say, ‘Let me create something,’ because you don’t have as many people to do it for you or to discourage you because they’re so good. You have to pull it up from your own well. Because it’s so still, you’re open to what the universe wants you to create. It’s like being in a meadow where you can go in any direction. When I’m at home, my life slows down; I’m on Tennessee time, as I call it.
“If rural black music is overlooked it’s because we as colored folks overlook it ourselves. The world recognizes what we present of ourselves, and we lost touch with rural life. We moved in a new direction, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s cool to make music with machines, but there are still some people who still like to pick a banjo. I guess it’s more popular to talk about urban life. We don’t talk about it much in our circles.”
September’s Americana festival in Nashville made a point of highlighting this Afro-Americana movement. Taj Mahal was given a Lifetime Achievement Award; Mahal, Wilson and June each performed at the Ryman Auditorium Awards show with the house band led by Buddy Miller and Ry Cooder. A Mississippi Night showcased both elderly Hill Country bluesman Leo “Bud” Welch and college student Shardae Thomas.
Thomas got her start in music as a little girl, playing with her grandfather Otha Turner in the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, perhaps the most African-sounding ensemble in America. The late Turner taught his granddaughter how to cut a length of cane and carve it into a playable fife. Thomas had such a fife with her in Nashville and blew one ancient, piercing melody after another through its fibrous holes, backed only by T-Model Ford’s grandson Stud Ford on marching snare drum and Jim Dickinson’s son Luther Dickinson on marching bass drum.
Less than two weeks later, the North Mississippi Allstars, led by Luther and Cody Dickinson, were in Baltimore, and Thomas was now in their band, playing the fife and singing in a one-of-a-kind soprano that had grown up not only on fife-and-drum picnics in the hills of North Mississippi but also on R&B radio. At her shows she sells a solo album, Shawty Blues, produced by Cody, but her rapidly evolving talent has already left those sessions far behind. She is going to play a big role in how Afro-Americana is going to develop.
Dom Flemons, who last November left the group he co-founded, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, has a new solo album, The Prospect Hill. For his new solo career, Flemons has adopted the moniker American Songster, a word also used by Mance Lipscomb, Gus Cannon and Leadbelly to indicate that they sang more than just the blues and gospel; they sang Tin Pan Alley pop hits, early New Orleans jazz, twangy hillbilly numbers, fiddle tunes, children’s songs, work songs and story ballads—they did it all. But they did it with an African-American sensibility, as Flemons does here.
Prospect Hill includes a Sonny Boy Williamson blues, a Hank Williams honky-tonker, a rockabilly rave-up, a Piedmont harmonica showcase, a folk lament, a trad-jazz number, a bawdy novelty song and an American Indian dance—even a fife tune. Flemons does them in small, mostly acoustic combos, often with Guy Davis as a key collaborator, with transparent arrangements where you can hear the playful humor on the fast songs and the lonely ache on the slow ones. Flemons earns the right to call himself a songster.
The most exciting Afro-American release of the year, however, is Queen Esther’s The Other Side. Born and raised in South Carolina and Georgia, she too absorbed every kind of Southern music, rural and urban, before moving to New York to focus on blues, jazz and theater. On this new album, however, she unveils her obvious affection for and mastery of country music.
She sings Steve Miller’s “Jet Airliner” (by the Creole songwriter Paul Pena) and original gospel and rockabilly tunes, but the bulk of the album is devoted to hard-country numbers that could have been taken from a Connie Smith or Lee Ann Womack record but were in fact composed by Queen Esther herself. These are ballads and two steps about romantic crises, and the strategic unsteadiness in her glowing voice suggests not the cool self-assurance of an urban sophisticate but the heart-on-a-sleeve transparency of a small-town innocent. Her songs are so sturdily constructed that her powerful delivery of Wanda Jackson’s “My Big Iron Skillet” and Charlie Rich’s “I Feel Like Going Home” sounds like more of the same.
Backed by two of Cassandra Wilson’s best musicians—guitarist Marvin Sewell and fiddler Charles Burnham—as well as Raphael McGregor’s steel guitar, Queen Esther ties the loose strands of black and white churches, juke joints and honky tonks, blue notes and twang into knots too tangled to be untied. She reminds us that each half of the phrase, Afro-Americana, helps the other.