Continuing with my series about Black contributions to music, I am highlighting a genre especially important to those of us who are Southerners: bluegrass. This genre of music is another that is often dominated by White men, but it has been influenced by Black musicians who are typically not recognized for their achievements.
Many features of Appalachian bluegrass were influenced by or originated from African musical traditions, brought to America by African slaves. A key feature of bluegrass music is its instrumentation, including the fiddle, banjo, guitar, and more. The four-stringed banjo actually originated in Africa, most likely West Africa. In the 18th century the banjo and music inspired with themes of freedom and religion contributed to the spread of African-American music like gospels and spirituals, which was especially influential to the sound of music in the South. Black people in America were the first to learn and perform with the banjo. Another facet of bluegrass, “thumbpicking” or “thumb style” of guitar, popular in the bluegrass genre, is credited to Black instrumentalist Arnold Schultz. Schultz influenced both the bluegrass genre and many white guitarists. Another influence to bluegrass is the vocal tradition and tunes. Much of the powerful, emotive lyricism and vocal traits originate from African musical influence, and the dance tunes famous in bluegrass are very similar to those of the African musical tradition. There are also many European contributions to the genre, but the African, particularly West African, influences on bluegrass are just as essential.
Bluegrass is such a unique genre of music and is especially important for Southerners and the Appalachian region. It’s important to recognize its roots and the incredible influence of Black musicians and African musical traditions which have shaped the genre.
To further your understanding, check out these quintessential Black bluegrass artists: Joe Thompson, Victor Wooten, Kaia Kater, and Rhiannon Giddens.