May 19, 2019


Rhiannon Giddens and What Folk Music Means: The roots musician is inspired by the evolving legacy of the black string band. (John Jeremiah SullivanMay 13, 2019, The New Yorker)

To grasp the significance of what the twenty-first-century folksinger Rhiannon Giddens has been attempting, it is necessary to know about another North Carolina musician, Frank Johnson, who was born almost two hundred years before she was. He was the most important African-American musician of the nineteenth century, but he has been almost entirely forgotten. Never mind a Wikipedia page--he does not even earn a footnote in sourcebooks on early black music. And yet, after excavating the records of his career--from old newspapers, diaries, travelogues, memoirs, letters--and after reckoning with the scope of his influence, one struggles to come up with a plausible rival.

There are several possible reasons for Johnson's astonishing obscurity. One may be that, on the few occasions when late-twentieth-century scholars mentioned him, he was almost always misidentified as a white man, despite the fact that he had dark-brown skin and was born enslaved. It may have been impossible, and forgivably so, for academics to believe that a black man could have achieved the level of fame and success in the antebellum slave-holding South that Johnson had. There was also a doppelgänger for scholars to contend with: in the North, there lived, around the same time, a musician named Francis Johnson, often called Frank, who is remembered as the first black musician to have his original compositions published. Some historians, encountering mentions of the Southern Frank, undoubtedly assumed that they were merely catching the Northern one on some unrecorded tour and turned away.

There is also the racial history of the port city of Wilmington, North Carolina, where Johnson enjoyed his greatest fame. In 1898, a racial massacre in Wilmington, and a subsequent exodus of its black citizens, not only knocked loose the foundations of a rising black middle class but also came close to obliterating the deep cultural memory of what had been among the most important black towns in the country for more than a century. The people who might have remembered Johnson best, not just as a musician but as a man, were themselves violently unremembered.

A final explanation for Johnson's absence from the historical record may be the most significant. It involves not his reputation but that of the music he played, with which he became literally synonymous--more than one generation of Southerners would refer to popular dance music simply as "old Frank Johnson music." And yet, in the course of the twentieth century, the cluster of styles in which Johnson specialized--namely, string band, square dance, hoedown--came to be associated with the folk music of the white South and even, by a bizarre warping of American cultural memory, with white racial purity. In the nineteen-twenties, the auto magnate Henry Ford started proselytizing (successfully) for a square-dancing revival precisely because the music that accompanied it was not black. Had he known the deeper history of square dancing, he might have fainted.

As a travelling "Negro fiddler," Johnson epitomized the one musical figure in American history who can truly be called "ur." Black fiddlers are the trilobites of American musical history. A legal record from the mid-seventeenth century details a dispute between Virginia households competing for the services of an enslaved man who had played the fiddle all night for a party on the Eastern Shore. After that, for more than two hundred years, black fiddlers are everywhere in the written sources. Then, around the start of the twentieth century, they fade, abruptly and almost completely.

Johnson was born in the late eighteenth century, most likely on a plantation owned by a family named Hawkins, in North Carolina, near the Virginia border. Early on, he was recognized as a prodigy who could master almost any instrument, but his specialty was the fiddle--the instrument most desired for dances. His owners started hiring him out for parties and dividing the earnings with him, a common practice. Sometime in the eighteen-thirties or forties, he became free. The only attempt at a biographical treatment of him, an article written around 1900 by the Virginia newspaperman Frank S. Woodson, says that he bought his own freedom "on a credit," using money that he had made playing music. He then, according to Woodson, purchased the freedom of his wife, a seamstress named Amelia. His former master "threw in the five or six children, all boys, for good measure." The boys became his band. Johnson and his wife tended to produce talented sons.

What did they sound like? It is a profound frustration, for a person interested in early African-American music, not to be able to hear them. Johnson died ten years before the recording era began, and by then his influence had grown diffuse. But a defining quality of his band's sound is how much mixing it involved--how many styles and instrumental arrangements. There were brass instruments and wind instruments. Johnson's sons played horns of all kinds. Frank, Jr., played a snare drum. There was a bass drum. Cymbals. In 1853, a kettledrum was introduced. But there were also the instruments we associate more closely with a "minstrel" band--fiddles and banjos. A fife-and-drum sound is mentioned in a Wilmington Daily Journal article published in 1858. Johnson's band played everything at once, moving across a range of stylistic attacks, all geared for dancing. It seems impossible that its sound would not have approached, at times, proto-jazz.

It is a genuine challenge to describe how prevalent Johnson was, how dominant. According to one source, he had "for half a century ruled with absolute autocracy the aristocratic ball-rooms of the South." By any calculus, he was one of the first black celebrities in the South. I have never come across an ostensibly "lost" figure who, once you know to look for him, turns out to have left behind such an obvious trail. Johnson went from being hard to find to being impossible to escape. Researching him was like writing a history of baseball and "rediscovering" a hitter named Babe Ruth. His music was so woven into the social life of the South that it would not be an exaggeration to describe it as a kind of ever-present soundtrack. Plantation balls, picnics, barbecues, sporting events, Renaissance-style "tilting" tournaments (they were big for a while), random town ceremonies (think cornerstone-layings), university commencements (for many years, he performed at Chapel Hill, and for at least some years at Wake Forest), state fairs, agricultural fairs, firemen's balls, military "muster days," moonlight excursions on trains and boats, extended summer bookings at resort hotels, society weddings, holiday parties (including an annual Christmas party in Wilmington, where his band performed for mixed audiences, "thereby creating a warmer fellowship between the races," according to the Wilmington Star), funeral processions, and political rallies. In 1840, "when the new Capitol building was completed in Raleigh," according to an item in an 1873 issue of the Hillsboro Recorder, there were "two successive nights" of dancing, with "the well-known Frank Johnson . . . furnishing the music." During the Civil War, his band often marched at the head of regiments and was called in to play at recruitment parties. According to a story recounted by Woodson, Johnson accompanied a Confederate brigade into battle, but turned around when the shooting started.

Johnson fell on hard times after the war, and, in the end, according to a 1901 piece written by someone with the initials A.M.W., he "moved about a pathetic figure--a sort of melancholy reminder of departed joys." His death, in 1871, was reported all over--in Cincinnati, in Chicago. One newspaper in Wilmington described the turnout for his funeral as "the largest, we think, that has ever occurred in this city, it being estimated that there were at least two thousand persons in the procession, including the colored fire companies in uniform, with standards draped in mourning, the colored Masonic fraternity in regalia, etc., the whole preceded by a brass band." Pine Forest Cemetery, where he was buried, is down the street from my house; I've spent countless days looking in vain for his grave.

Posted by at May 19, 2019 8:19 AM