By Tim Sommer
Imagine a world before electric light. Imagine an America where the railway is new and radio is still a dream, yet the nights are full of music and dancing.
The music in the air, the soulful, heart-scratching sound of fiddle and washboard, emanates from the misty bayous and the shadowy Appalachian hollers; under the star-lit night, in a world lit only by kerosene, the seductive, sinewy songs rise from slave sheds, fishing shacks, big-city rooming houses, and everywhere in between. The music is born of deprivation, disenfranchisement, and disappointment, but it is still leaping with joy even if is just as often weeping with melancholy.
African American string band music is a tradition that pre-dates jazz, pre-dates audio recording, and was written about even before the Declaration of Independence was signed. African American strings bands were an essential part of daily life throughout the 18th and 19th century; they played for pleasure, played for church, played for dances, and played to relieve the enormous stresses of life on the plantation.
Henrique Prince is a violinist and vocalist in the amazing Ebony Hillbillies, a modern band that not only keeps the old traditions alive, but also makes them matter, both melodically and philosophically. They will be performing at the Parrish Art Museum on Friday, September 4.
“All of American music comes out of string bands,” says Mr. Prince. “The first real bands in America were string bands – banjos and fiddles and such – and everything comes out of that. So we’re still there – everything that happens in our music and in American music comes out of string bands, and that’s still in us. It goes to all these wonderful places that we know, and combines with all these things that we know, and we feel, and we understand, and that we dance to, and that’s what it is.”
String Band, music also served as an early breeding ground – perhaps the first in American history – for musical and creative integration. African Americans (both freemen and slaves) were introduced to the fiddle and other string instruments by Scottish and Irish immigrants to Appalachia and the rural south. It’s the sound of America, it’s an ultrasound of the birth of the pop century, it’s even a glimpse at the flesh and bones behind everything you hear on the radio today and everything you’ve ever danced to.
“The root of all those types of music comes out of string bands”, says Mr. Prince, who comes from an advanced jazz background but like many musicologists, has studied the string band form intensely. “String bands were the beginning of both jazz and country music, and folk music, too, all of that music came out of the same spot. We somehow touch all of that, it’s all there.”
“We sort of go back to the point where all of this comes together,” he continues. “We are sort of a dance band that somehow incorporates all those ideas of the music that came out from the stem of the string bands, who were the first real dance bands.”
“And we focus on dance,” adds Gloria Thomas Gassaway, enthusiastically; She is the vocalist and bones player in the Ebony Hillbillies. “We play music to both touch people and to make them dance. We want them to dance and enjoy it, as opposed to just sitting and listening to the music, we want them to get up and move. We want to touch their souls and make them move. And I will! If you show up there, trust me, you’re going to dance.”
The Ebony Hillbillies aren’t the only ones keeping the tradition alive; its also reverberates in the music of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, and it even resonates in the strum and twang of a thousand jam bands. One of the reasons sting band music is so important is that it laid the groundwork for jazz, mountain music, country music, and even the rhythms and melodies of contemporary pop. The DNA of the entire American musical experience can be found in string band genre.
“We have a combination of all of that. We touch on all the bases,” says Mr. Prince. “We touch on that Louisiana sound, we touch on the Mountain sound, we touch on the jazz. We have a combination of all that. And when you see the show, when you come to see us, you’ll hear all of those things, all of them, including modern day music. We took something very, very old, and made it very modern, and it’s important to keep that, and tell that story, and also to grab children, because they actually like it, without realizing the history and depth of what they are actually hearing.”
Joyous, athletic, ancient, modern, and eternal, the Ebony Hillbillies don’t just tell an important story about our country and keep an essential part of our musical heritage alive, but they entertain, magically, majestically, gracefully, and energetically. A pile of passionate, high-end musicians who apply their skill to filling this old tradition with beautiful new life, it’s likely you won’t see a more engaging, entertaining, and purely joyful band all year.
The Ebony Hillbillies’ latest album is Slappin’ A Rabbit, a live reckoning of their infectious, dexterous, ancient modernism. And you can hear the Ebony Hillbillies for yourself this Friday. Remarkably fresh and accomplished music that tells an important story about America, plus some BBQ — is there a better way to kick off the last holiday weekend of the summer of 2015?
“We always have a good time,” says Mr. Prince, recalling earlier visits to the Parrish. “That’s a nice, big space there at the Parrish Museum, a lot of space to run around and dance – kids dance, grown-ups dance, they dance on the grass, everywhere. Good food, a good time for everybody!”
The Ebony Hillbillies will play at the Parrish Art Museum on Friday, September 4th, 5 p.m. 279 Montauk Highway Water Mill, NY 11976 T 631-283-2118 F 631-283-7006. Admission $10, free for members. More info at http://parrishart.org/programs/SoundsOfSummer-EbonyHillbillies.