The Ebony Hillbillies
posted: October 13, 2009
Bill Salter on upright bass, Norris Bennett on banjo, mountain dulcimer and vocals, David Gibson on washboard (yes, those are shotgun shell casings on his fingers) and Henrique Prince on fiddle and vocals....
In Grand Central station on the shuttle platform, New York City commuters can be transported to a world of down-home celebration by the Ebony Hillbillies. When I asked Henrique Prince, the fiddle player and vocalist, to talk about what he calls Old Time music, he had a lot of history to share.

"I discovered a number of years ago the rhythmic possibilities of violin music, that there's a whole element of dance music to it. I love dance. I thought it would be wonderful to put together a band that did this old time kind of music, which is the truncation point of both country music and jazz. So I wanted to go back to that point where it was this wild sort of banjo fiddle music and had all this improvisation.

"No white man played a banjo before about 1820. The banjo comes from Africa and the original idea was that the slaves that were packed together on the ships used to die. It was believed that if they danced, it would keep their spirits up, but they wouldn’t dance to European music. So they captured, especially in the Gambia, iriti players -- an iriti is a one-stringed African fiddle.

"There's also the akonting, an instrument from Ghana, which is very similar in appearance to a banjo. It has a bridge on a skin made out of a big gourd, and a long neck and it has a short string also. So they captured akonting or ngoni players, and iriti players and they tied them to the deck.  And the Africans would dance to that music for exercise to survive.

"So these people got to the New World and eventually they would make the instruments here, out of gourds. There's a famous picture of a black banjo player by William Sydney Mount, a Long Island painter who painted a lot of black people. Anyway, the African musicians got here and the music got transferred to Europeans, among them some who were living in the mountains, King Williams people --the hillbillies -- and eventually the hillbillies took it for their own.

"Banjo playing goes back to the 1600s, and they were playing them with fiddle players. There are accounts of people seeing this in the 18th Century. Slaves lived close to the master and white people started picking up and getting closer to it and learning it.

"By the 19th Century, there began to be white banjo players. Dan Emmett was a white banjo player, lived in Mt. Vernon, Ohio, near the family of black banjo players, and he probably picked it up there. He probably learned the song, Dixie, which he was given credit for, from them. He was the first guy to take burned cork and put it on his face, and he had a band, basically recreating African American music on stage and it was all minstrel, black-faced thing.

"I learned Bach early and I just liked everything on fiddle. I sort of learned how to do it and didn’t know what it was. And over a period of time, I just learned more and started to track down things and I found out about Murph Gribble who was a player in a string bands in Eastern Tennessee in the ‘20s and ‘30s. Gribble, John Lusk, Nathan Frazier, these are all black players and the music was well known and well recorded by black bands like the Mississippi Sheiks, and a lot of string bands and jug bands, like Earl McDonald -- the guy who discovered you can make music in a jug, instead of a bass.

"All that music comes out of the black players. What happened was they were on black record companies and in the ‘20s, when The Depression happened, all those companies failed. And they never came back. But white companies came back and they segregated the music. They would only record white country players, and wouldn’t record black country bands; the only black players they recorded were those who did the blues. And that’s why the music’s been sort of segregated ever since.

"Tunes like The Yellow Rose of Texas, which was originally about a light skinned black woman, is a song out of a black minstrel show. But nobody associates that anymore.

"The earliest improvisational music in America is black banjo and fiddle music. The jazz band is centered around a banjo and a fiddle player. All of the earliest jazz bands had at the center a violin and banjo. In fact, Elmer Snowden, the guy who originally had the Washingtonians before Duke Ellington took over, was a banjo player. Snowden was the same name, by the way, of the black family of musicians who lived near Dan Emmett in Mt. Vernon, Ohio, that he learned from.

"But the later Snowden, I don’t think is related. Anyway, Elmer Snowden was originally the leader of  the Washingtonians, so it was very common for there to be banjo players and washboard players in jazz bands. Then, as the music got louder, as it got more modern, they kicked the banjo and the fiddle players out."

"If I could tell you what I feel about playing this music, I wouldn’t need to play it. Music does all that stuff that you can’t say."

This is part of my Overlooked New York series of portraits and interviews with impassioned New Yorkers.