Smoky Mountain Air

Sepia Tones: Exploring Black Appalachian Music—E1: Bagpipes, banjos, ngonis, and gourds

April 28, 2021 Great Smoky Mountains Association Season 2 Episode 1
Smoky Mountain Air
Sepia Tones: Exploring Black Appalachian Music—E1: Bagpipes, banjos, ngonis, and gourds
Show Notes Transcript

On this special episode of Smoky Mountain Air, guest hosts Dr. William Turner and Dr. Ted Olson kick off an exciting new mini-series called Sepia Tones: Exploring Black Appalachian Music. Guests Loyal Jones, Sparky Rucker, and James Leva contribute to this lively conversation about the roots of Appalachian music and their own roles in preserving these musical influences.

Loyal Jones served as director of the Appalachian Center now named in his honor at Berea College. He established the annual festival of traditional music at Berea and the Appalachian Sound Archive. Jones is the author of numerous books of regional interest.

Sparky Rucker grew up in Knoxville, TN, and has become an internationally recognized folk singer, musician, and storyteller. He has been an educator, performer, and social activist and has been involved in the Civil Rights movement since the 1950s.

James Leva is a multi-instrumentalist playing the fiddle, guitar, and banjo, and he’s a singer and songwriter. His work with The Lost Tribe of Country Music transcends racial and generational boundaries as well as musical genres.

Dr. William Turner is a long-time African American studies scholar who first rose to prominence as co-editor of the groundbreaking Blacks in Appalachia (1985). He was also a research assistant to Roots author Alex Haley. Turner retired as distinguished professor of Appalachian Studies and regional ambassador at Berea College. His memoir called The Harlan Renaissance is forthcoming from West Virginia University Press in 2021.

Dr. Ted Olson is a professor of Appalachian Studies at East Tennessee State University and the author of many books, articles, reviews, encyclopedia entries, and oral histories. Olson has produced and compiled a number of documentary albums of traditional Appalachian music including GSMA’s On Top of Old Smoky and Big Bend Killing. He’s received a number of awards in his work as a music historian, including seven Grammy nominations.

Music selections in this episode:

  1. “John Henry” performed by Amythyst Kiah and Roy Andrade from GSMA's Big Bend Killing (
  2. “Careless Love” performed on guitar by Etta Baker, used courtesy of Berea Sound Archive (
  3. “Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss” performed by Ali Farka Touré with Lee Sexton and others from an informal gathering at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, used courtesy of Bryan Wright of Rivermont Records
  4. “We Shall (We Will) Overcome” from the Highlander Collection of the Southern Folklife Collection, Wilson Special Collections Library, UNC Chapel Hill; used courtesy of the  Septima Clark Learning Center at Highlander Center (
  5. “Come Sit By My Side Little Darlin’” performed by Bill Livers, Berea Sound Archive (
  6. “Jola Gambia” performed by Daniel Jatta and the Lost Tribe of Country Music, used courtesy of James Leva (
  7. “My Home’s Across the Smoky Mountains,” performed by Sparky Rucker at the Berea College Celebration of Traditional Music, 1981, used courtesy of Digital Library of Appalachia’s Berea College collection (

Sepia Tones, Episode #1
Hosts: Bill Turner, Ted Olson
Guests: Sparky Rucker, Loyal Jones, James Leva 

[Old-time guitar music and bird song]

Karen Key 00:06
Welcome to a special episode of Smoky Mountain Air. I'm Karen Key, and today we're happy to present our special mini-series, Sepia Tones: Exploring Black Appalachian Music. For this series, we're going to hand over the hosting reigns to the experts: Dr. William Turner, African American studies scholar and retired Distinguished Professor of Appalachian Studies and Regional Ambassador from Berea College, and Dr. Ted Olson, music historian and professor of Appalachian Studies at East Tennessee State University. This mini-series is funded through the African American Experience Project in collaboration with Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Dr. Turner and Dr. Olson spoke with guests Loyal Jones, Sparky Rucker, and James Leva on an online video chat.

[Guitar and banjo music and singing / "John Henry" by Amythyst Kiah and Roy Andrade from Big Bend Killing]

Ted Olson 01:09
Welcome to Sepia Tones: Exploring Black Appalachian Music. I'm your co-host Ted Olson. I'd like to introduce the other co-host of this podcast series, Dr. William Turner. We call him Bill. And, Bill, I'd like to introduce you, and I'd like to hear your take on what Sepia Tones is all about.

Bill Turner 01:29
Thank you very much, Ted. Sepia Tones gives me an opportunity to use one of those acronyms that comes on my email a lot—ICYMI. I think that stands for "in case you missed it." So Sepia Tones, just in case people missed it, is about the rich contributions that African Americans made to what we call Appalachian traditional music or bluegrass. And we think at the end of this podcast, for another acronym, many of our listeners will learn things, since we have, which will make them "SMH"—"shake my head." That's Sepia Tones.

Ted Olson 02:12
Question then comes, why are we doing this podcast series, Sepia Tones?

It’s an important series. It’s a series that Bill and I have discussed for months, and finally, thanks to the Great Smoky Mountains Association, we're able to do this series and have a conversation that needs to be undertaken–a conversation about why in the discussion and the appreciation of Appalachian music, why more African American artists haven’t been acknowledged for their genius and their contributions. And so that’s what this series purports to do. We look forward to conversations with some of the leading luminaries of Appalachian studies and Appalachian music. And these people will be from many walks of life, many different backgrounds, but what we all share in common is a love for Appalachia and belief that African American musicians, African American culture, needs to be part of the conversation. So, we encourage folks listening to this podcast series to envision a conversation around the dinner table about the important role that Black musicians and African American culture have played in creating this beautiful mix of this cultural blend that is known as Appalachian culture.

[Soft guitar music background / "Careless Love" performed by Etta Baker]

Bill Turner 03:31
In today's episode of Sepia Tones, we're going to talk to three extraordinary individuals who, in my own view, amount to the kind of giants to start off with. Loyal Jones, who for many, many years—at least 45—considered the dean of Appalachian studies, a long-time at Berea College, after whom its Appalachian Center is now named, the Loyal Jones Appalachian Center. So, Loyal's on with us today…

…along with James Leva. Recently I read in Bluegrass Today, a few years ago anyway, Leva had a piece called “All Over the Map.” And it really signifies his repertoire. Because he's a multi-instrumentalist, fiddle player, banjo, vocal repertoire. And he has done more, I think, to bring out the work of African and African American musicians in this field. James is deeply rooted in the Appalachian traditions, having learned from people like Doug Wallin, and he happens to be a professor of French Literature at Washington and Lee. 

My third guest is Sparky Rucker, the inimitable Sparky Rucker. Perhaps one of the most well-known of all African American folklorists, historians, and musicians. Those are our people we're going to talk to today, and I'm looking forward to it, Ted.

Ted Olson 04:54
Great, well, we'd like to thank all our guests for being here today. And we thought we'd start off by asking Loyal the following question for some more general perspectives of the basic issues that we're exploring in this podcast series, Sepia Tones. Loyal, how would you characterize the contributions of African Americas to the Appalachian cultural melting pot, that blend of cultures that we talked about? So, anywhere you want to take that, Loyal, we are all ears.

Loyal Jones 05:24
Well, it seems to me that music is the one thing that African Americans have influenced in Appalachia a lot, and I think there are lots of other things that they could have contributed if it were not for segregation and our preventing them or not paying attention to them. Just like the modern day, we have people talking about white Appalachia as if that's all is here. 

The music though it seems to me is the main thing, but I would think religion. I have a great respect for the Black church, especially in the Civil Rights. That's mostly out of Appalachia, but I think it is becoming more important now with the young people and people protesting such things as the Floyd killing. And in towns in Appalachia where there was great discrimination and problems in the past, I see some uniting, at least some protests and one thing or another that Bill has pointed out as well.

But I’m interested in our intermingling—something we do together, something we love and everybody loves music. And we traded all, you know, about hard times, and all sorts of things that were not very positive but also other things that were. And whatever we thought was beautiful, we adopted in one thing or another. So I’m so interested in what it is that we ought to be doing together. Our intermingling more and not talking so much about, "Well, I’m Scotch-Irish or I’m Irish or I’m something else," you know. 

I got sensitized by Bill with his book. He was gracious and asked me to write the foreword to his book. But I got to thinking that I’m part of the problem as well, because I've written quite a bit about Appalachia, and most of it is about white Appalachia, you know. And I think that's been our problem all down for all the scholars and all the people coming, we've neglected… 

So I’d like for us—even though I spent a lot of time helping to establish Appalachian Studies—we need to talk about we who have gone together here in this place and what we are like, and not whether or not we used to wear kilts or something. It seems to me that we've overdone that part of it.

[Laughter from others]

Bill Turner 08:23
Hey, Sparky, let me ask you a question related to something Loyal said there about this contribution of African Americans to Appalachian music in terms of fiddles and banjos and guitars and dulcimers. Why don't you reflect a little bit related back to what Loyal said…

Sparky Rucker 08:40
You know, I grew up in Knoxville, which is a river city which is down in the Tennessee River Valley, about 20 miles from the Smokies.

I grew up in Church of God Sanctified Church. It was my granddaddy's church, and music played a big part in that. The old slave songs that we would sing those old songs without the piano player on the Wednesday night meetings—whereas on Sunday, everybody tried to be “so diddy,” as Howard Armstrong used to say. But on those Wednesday nights, that was when we didn't use the piano player, and we would just sing whatever song that sister so and so or brother so and so decided he wanted to sing, and everybody would do it acapella. 

I’m going to get off the question you asked, but I want to talk about the fact that the banjo was introduced into the mountains through basically the minstrel show,1840s. The five-tone scale of African American music, the black keys on the piano, you know—the three, the two, the three, where you could play the boogie woogie on those without ever touching a white key. That whole type of music began to appeal to the Southern Appalachian white, which were Scot, Scot-Irish, and Irish, but if you listen to that music from its origin points over in the British Isles, you'll hear some of those same musical tones—that five-tone thing. Because, you know, when the Celtic people swept across Europe, and a lot of them swept across North Africa and into the southern part of Europe, they picked up that whole idea of bagpipes and whatnot, which once again reflected back to an African root. So, there was a natural affinity for these people to understand each other's music, even though they were coming from different cultures. But there was something about the music that encapsulated everyone. And especially the banjo really caught on in the mountains, you know, and it was not necessarily the five-string banjo we think of today, you know. They were made from gourds. They were made from cigar boxes, cookie tins for the pot of the instrument. And things like the ngoni and the akonting that came over from West Africa began to modify and modify to what ended up being the five-string banjo. And that is where everybody's been able to sort of meet in the middle.

Because I know when we did that—I don't remember the year maybe Ted can tell me that—but the year that the Smithsonian festival decided they were going to have Scotland, Mali, and Southern Appalachia as the topic, and they were trying to basically show how all three of these cultures were very similar. And we actually saw that happen during the two weeks of the festival. The first couple of nights, people were sort of gathered—well the Scots would be off in one room drinking their single malt and playing their uilleann pipes, and the Southern Appalachians would be over, you know, playing the songs they played, and the West Africans would be playing their ngonies and playing their gourds. But all of a sudden, people started noticing, "Hey wait a minute, that ngoni is just like that banjo I play." And they started trading instruments—I mean you saw it happen during the week. It was it was a beautiful experience. I've never experienced anything like that before. And you know people seeing their common roots, and I think that's what makes Southern Appalachia so unique. It's a combination of all these things plus Native American influences as well, and that's why we have the richest culture in America.

Ted Olson 12:21
And that was 2003, Sparky, when that Smithsonian folklife festival exhibit happened. So, you know, that was that was so interesting to hear musicians from different backgrounds. The best performances it seemed like during that festival were at night in the hotel ballroom when everybody would gather from the different traditions and play together because those weren't on the stages. But that happened informally in the evening, and actually some of that was recorded.

Sparky Rucker 12:50
Oh, I didn't know that…

Ted Olson 12:51
Yeah, some of that was recorded.

Let’s play a little bit of one of those jams. This is the Appalachian tune “Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss.” Here’s the world-famous Malian musician Ali Farka Touré playing with Lee Sexton on banjo and two other musicians during the 2003 Smithsonian Folklife Festival at the hotel there in conjunction with that great event. This recording is courtesy of Bryan Wright of Rivermont Records.

[Lively music / "Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss" performed by Ali Farka Touré playing with Lee Sexton on banjo and other musicians]

Loyal Jones 14:36
I’d like to just comment on one other thing about the banjo that Sparky was talking about that the banjo was introduced as a minstrel song and by minstrels. And there was a, in my opinion, a spurious argument that the Black people could not have taught mountaineers to play the banjo because there weren't enough of them in the mountains to have done that. Well, my friend George Gibson, who's a great banjo picker from Kentucky and is now living near Asheville here, he's done a lot of research finding white banjo pickers going way back before the Civil War. And so, I think to sort of eliminate the Blacks as a source of teaching Appalachians by saying it must have been those blackface minstrels who did it… I just want to make a point of that. I take George's word on this more than the folklorists who've been writing about that, and I’d recommend his essay which is in a recent book on the banjo. 

Bill Turner 15:49
What do you think, James?

James Leva 15:51
You know that music had been Black and white for an awful long time. And all the old Appalachian musicians that I used to visit always had stories and tunes and songs that came from African American musicians that they've known. And then the more I got into it, you know, talking about some of the stuff y'all were talking about, the church music, I mean you know. Flatt and Scruggs, the gospel quartets that they do, that came, Bill Monroe started here in the Golden Gate Quartet, which was out of Norfolk Virginia, and that four-part acapella harmony—that is the basis of all that bluegrass gospel music, you know, from Flatt and Scruggs with Bill Monroe on down to now. So anyway, you know there's tons of stories about this, and Loyal talking about Black musicians teaching white musicians and people being skeptical of that, I mean Arnold Schultz—Bill Monroe said he learned more music from Arnold Schultz than anybody. Arnold Schultz was a Black man, and he was very respected as a fiddler, but his guitar style he taught to Ike Everly—that finger-picking style. And, who else did he—somebody else he talked about. Oh, Merle Travis. 

Sparky Rucker 17:21
It was Bill Williams also, out of Greenham, Kentucky. He was another one of those ragtime-style guitar pickers that they said Merle Travis learned a lot from. 

James Leva 17:31
But see—and that's the thing, it's like—music was beating around the corners of these walls of Jim Crow. The whole thing that this music was separately developed—that's just one I've never thought made any sense. It's ubiquitous, I think.

Sparky Rucker 17:48
Yeah, when I first started playing the festivals in Kentucky and in southwestern Virginia and over in North Carolina, just about every white performer that I ran into would try to tell me about the Black musician that they learned something from. I mean, I’m glad you mentioned Bill Monroe, because the first time I saw him at the Folk Festival of the Smokies at Kineauvista, Bill Monroe coming in “Oh, I love them blues. You know, people think it was the bluegrass, but it was blues grass.” He said, “It was a blues what influenced me,” and I mean it just totally blew my mind. JP Fraley would talk to me about the blues musicians that he learned songs from and whatnot. And like I mentioned Bill Williams over there in Greenup, Kentucky, supposedly learned from Blind Blake, who came out of Florida. Because you know, once the radio and records started being available, all of a sudden it was bringing in the influences from all over, where all of a sudden you can't say, "Well, I don't know what came first," because so many people were influenced by the—because as you mentioned, James, every musician I know including myself, if I hear a good musician, I want to learn something from him. 

James Leva 18:56
Exactly. That's it.

Sparky Rucker 18:59
I don't say, “Oh I’m sorry, you got the wrong genes.

James Leva 19:01
Exactly. Well, you know, and the funny thing is it also bounces the other way. Like, you knew John Jackson, and I remember John Jackson saying, “You know, I did not know that Jimmy Rogers was a white man until he died and I saw his picture in the paper.” And Howlin’ Wolf said—Jimmy Rogers was his boy boyhood idol—he said, "Oh, that Jimmy Rogers, he was playing that white man's blues before they called it country." And so, the thing is when they started that hillbilly records / race records, people heard music, you know, more music from other places, but it was also the beginning of the industry trying to categorize things and, you know, do what would make them the most money. And the music kind of started developing along different lines I think a bit.

Sparky Rucker 19:51
Right, well you know Johnny Shines used to tell me that Robert Johnson played all kinds of music, but when they came to Robert Johnson, they just said, “Play me your blues songs.” And then he snuck one in called “Hot Tamale and the Red Hots,” which was actually like a vaudeville kind of song. He snuck that in on the things, but you could tell that he played all kinds of music.

Howard Armstrong talked about that all the time. And when they traveled around, that they would go into an Italian neighborhood, they'd learn Italian songs, they'd go into a Spanish neighborhood, they'd sing some songs in Spanish, and whatnot. That's the way it's always been.

Ted Olson 20:26
I had a follow-up question maybe for Loyal, but please chime in Sparky or James. Loyal mentioned the idea of the African American church in Appalachia, but the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome” was kind of shared to the world at Highlander Center in Tennessee. And Loyal would you mind talking about “We Shall Overcome” and how that came out of Appalachia in a sense of how it was shared with the world in Appalachia?

Loyal Jones 20:58
Well, I certainly admired the people at Highlander—Myles Horton and of course Don West, who was the co-founder of the place, and Guy and Candy Carawan. But they did promote that particular song a long time before at various places. 

Those folks persevered through lots of trouble and were run out of two other places and wound up where they are now. They were those very stalwart and brave people who, Miles Horton for example, who just went on doing what they did, and they were perhaps the only ones doing it.

Sparky Rucker 21:49
Well you know, when some of those garment workers came up to Highlander when it was there in Monteagle, Tennessee, that was their first—when it was still called the Highlander Folk School—and they started talking about the songs they sang on the picket lines. And they had taken that song “I'll Overcome,” and they would sing that. And strangely enough getting changed to “We Shall” was mostly Pete Seeger's doing, you know. Because him being the scholar and it bothered him so much, he said, "Well you know actually it should be ‘We Shall Overcome.’ But Martin Luther King in the 40s and early 50s was at the Highlander, and that's where he first heard the song. And from the way I understand it he had left Highlander, and he was traveling north. He was in Ohio someplace, and he was in the car, and he said, “You know that song is still in my head. I can't seem to get it out of my head.” He said “That's a good song. Maybe we ought to start singing that one at all the meetings. That would be a good anthem for the Civil Rights movement.” And that definitely did come out of Highlander and through Zilphia Horton and Guy Carawan and Pete Seeger, and even Woody Guthrie had done some musical directing at the Highlander. So that's been very pivotal in terms of that song. 

Yeah, I'll never forget the first time during the mass meetings in Knoxville, when I was still in high school, and people would start to sing that song. And you'd see some of the Black choir directors say, “Well that's not the way that song goes.” They'd start singing, “I'll Overcome”—and picking up the tempo of it—[singing] “I'll overcome, I'll overcome, I'll overcome someday; Down in my heart, I do believe, that I'll overcome someday,” which was the original way the song went. But Pete thought it should be “we shall” because to be all inclusive. I mean I understood where he was coming from.

[Organ music and group singing slowly / "We Will (Shall) Overcome" recording from Highlander Collection]

Ted Olson 24:29
The opportunity of bringing people together on stages and at festivals and at special events is extremely important because it allows people from different backgrounds to meet one another in a common space to learn from one another and to see that folks have a lot in common. And I myself learned a great deal by spending time with the great Virginia bluesman John Jackson in Washington, DC, at the festival of American Folklife in the 1970s. It made a big difference in my life. Had I heard Mr. Jackson only on record and over the radio, I would've of course loved his music, but I wouldn't have had that personal connection—that "a-ha" moment of realizing that his experience is something that means a great deal to all people and that we all share experiences in common. That Appalachian culture is a universal community membership, and we can all learn from one another. 

Bill, what are your thoughts about this idea of festivals and people getting together?

Bill Turner 25:29
A similar kind of thought, Ted, because I well remember when Hubert and James Sapp ran the Highlander Center, my wife and I were down there in the fall. And it was an occasion when Mrs. Rosa Parks from the Montgomery bus boycott days was at Highlander. And I was standing quite close to her, someone took a photograph. And all of the sudden, "We Shall Overcome"—people started singing it. And for me and my generation, I think many of us, "We Shall Overcome" was just as iconic as the National Anthem itself. It was like, if you could imagine, knowing what Mrs. Rosa Parks meant, and being in that space in that moment, and hearing people singing. And Guy and Candy Carawan at Highlander were leading the song that day. So, you're right it's quite an experience to be in a place where you're with these iconic people and these iconic songs are coming up. So, it was fantastic, and it was Appalachia at its best. 

[Light organ music / "We Will (Shall) Overcome" recording from Highlander Collection]

Bill Turner 26:39
Hey, Loyal, can you tell us about some of the people that came to your traditional musical festival at Berea College over the years?

Loyal Jones 26:46      
Yes, I need to say that Berea College was established by abolitionists. And they started the school before the Civil War. And it was integrated, the classes and everything, from after the Civil War to about 1904 when Kentucky passed the law forbidding the teaching of the two races together under the same roof. And I was in the first integrated class of Berea College in 1950 after the laws were passed forbidding segregation in the schools. I need to give that little background, and I’m so grateful that I went to Berea College, which I knew nothing about. There weren't Blacks in my community. I didn't grow up with Black people. I met some later, but Berea influenced me greatly. 

When I went to work for Berea College later to establish an Appalachian studies center there—the reason I wanted to do a festival, I had done a book on Bascom Lamar Lunsford, the North Carolina self-taught folklorist. And so, I wanted to do the same thing at Berea. And so, I got a little committee together, and it included people like Bradley Kincaid, who was born near Berea, and Jean Richie, and some other people. But the one thing I said we must do is to make sure that we have Black singers and musicians from the region. And so, among the people that that we did over the years were—I have to start off with Sparky Rucker, because I knew Sparky I think with the Southern folk revival group way before I went to work for the Council of Southern Mountains, and I—Sparky, didn't you work for the council for just a little while?

Sparky Rucker 28:53
Yeah, yeah, I did. 

Loyal Jones 28:55
Well, Sparky Rucker has had a great influence on me. He's just a great personality, a great musician and everything, and so I made sure that he was the first person we invited to be on the festival at Berea. So, I want to pay great tribute to him. Nat Reese from West Virginia, he's a blues singer. Ed Cabbell, Homer Walker, the Foddrell Brothers, Buddy Moss, Etta Baker, and Bill Worthington are just some of the people I remember. But we had Black musicians every year. I’m afraid they were usually one or two, or, we did have some gospel singers and so forth and in groups and everything, but that was an important part of the festival. And it's still going.

Sparky Rucker 30:00
Did you ever have Bill Livers there?

Loyal Jones 30:04
I had Bill, yeah, we had Bill Livers there, yeah.

Sparky Rucker 30:07
Fine fiddle player.

Loyal Jones 30:09
Yeah, Black fiddle player. Well, he was one of the people who played with white people. There was more integration in music than anything else, although it was sparse. Jim Booker from Kentucky played with the Kentucky Partners, which was a white band, and his two brothers would join in as well. And since it was on record, and they weren't seeing them, it didn't matter. They didn't know that they were Black, the listeners didn't. But we had a wonderful time at Berea and had some great musicians, and one of the things I wanted to do there was to establish a sound archive. 

The archives at Berea College hold all of the festival. We recorded all of it through the years and videotaped it and gave each musician a half an hour or so to talk about their music and how they learned it and who they learned it from and so forth. So, the archives at Berea College are very important. You hear the person as they actually sounded, and I think that's important.

Sparky Rucker 31:30
Well, what I also like is the fact that it's accessible on the web to actually hear and download some of the mp3s and some of the video clips. It's marvelous. 

Bill Turner 31:43
Let’s listen to some music from the Berea archives created by Loyal Jones. This is Bill Livers performing “Come Sit By My Side Little Darlin’” from the Berea Traditional Music Festival back in 1975.

[Fiddle and guitar music and singing / “Come Sit By My Side Little Darlin’” performed by Bill Livers and other musicians]

Bill Turner 33:07
Hey, James, tell us a little bit about The Lost Tribe of Country Music and what you did in France, in Paris. Give us a little background on that.

James Leva 33:15
I was doing music for some theatrical productions, and I used to go out and have a drink afterwards with this French guy. And I’d try out the little white liquors that they had in different parts of France, and I’d ask them, "How'd you make that?" And they just used, you know, whatever fruit or whatever they had in that area. And he invites us over to play for his big to-do anniversary. And so that's where we met Larry Skoller, he heard us playing and so that's why we just like we went back to France many times because he kept booking us. And I got to talking with him, and he came to visit me in Virginia as well, and we'd talk about the music. And I would just start telling him how people are crazy with when they say this is all, you know, white music, you know. 

When we'd talk about this stuff, he goes, “You know, nobody knows this about country music.” He said, “We should put something together,” he said. “Do you know anybody that you could get?” And I'd played the Black Banjo Gathering at App State a couple of times, and I'd met Jerron Paxton. I’d made a record with some Cajun musicians, and I’d met Cedric Watson down there. And they're young African American musicians who are just extraordinary musicians, great musicians. And they also have that old time thing of “it's the music, it's the music.” And so they play all kinds of music. And they play it very well. I wanted them to be part of this, and I had met Daniel Jatta from Gambia. He's an akonting player. I met him when he was over here one time, and we played some together, and so we got him in there playing the akonting, telling about it in Gambia. You know, fiddle tunes are dance music, you know. And so I always had a dancer in my band. And so we got some great dancers for this. One of them, Matty Gordon, who had been in Riverdance and all that kind of stuff, he did this great little piece on the how the Black and white dancing styles mesh to make Appalachian style dancing. It was hilarious, but it was true, you know. He'd say, "Well, these Scots-Irish come in here and they're dancing ‘up, up, up, on your toes, on your toes, on your toes!’ And then these African American dancers come in there and they're ‘get down, get down, get down!’ And then he kind of mixed it all together and does this really great flat foot clogging thing, and people really enjoy watching the dancing. And it kind of is the drums for the music. So, I was just real pleased with the—and then I had my band Purgatory Mountain with Danny Knicely and Al Tharpe. My daughter Viv was 16 at the time. And so that's kind of how we put it all together. And Larry got a French TV crew interested in it, and that's why you've got all that video on the website. If anybody wants to check it out it's

Ted Olson 36:27
It's extremely important to make connections between American music traditions and roots in the Old World. Very well illustrated roots in Europe, of course, for Appalachian music, but clearly there are many profound influences coming from African traditions that have been celebrated in The Lost Tribe to Country Music as well as at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. So, we acknowledge the European roots of Appalachian music. We need to pay equal attention to the African and the other cultural influences. Here are some African musical traditions celebrated by the musicians who are part of the collective known as The Lost Tribe of Country Music.

[Akonting music and singing / “Jola Gambia” performed by Danial Jatta and The Lost Tribe of Country Music]

Sparky Rucker 38:08
Before we leave, I would like to read a list of names of some of the musicians that I was aware of. And some have been mentioned, but I’m just going to read the list…

Bill Turner 38:16
Oh, fantastic.

Sparky Rucker 38:17
John Homer Walker out of Mercer County, West Virginia, banjo player; Cece Richardson, up in the Charleston area, West Virginia; Bill Williams, I mentioned him, Greenup, Kentucky, guitar player; Howard Armstrong, who played fiddle, mandolin, and guitar; Ted Bogan, who is not really Southern Appalachian, but he influenced because of his playing with Howard Armstrong; Carl Martin came out of Big Stone Gap, Virginia, guitar and mandolin; Earl Gilmore, who is a piano and guitar player coming out of Southwestern Virginia over there; James Leslie Riddle, out of Burnsville, North Carolina, guitar; Theodore Nutter, West Virginia, guitar; Bill Livers, Owen, Kentucky, fiddle; Walter “Brownie” McGhee from Knoxville, Tennessee, my hometown; his brother Sticks McGhee, who did “Drinking Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee, Drinking Wine,” that was his hit thing came out of Knoxville; Nat Reese out of Salem, Virginia, guitar; Joe Thompson out of Orange County, North Carolina; his father John Thompson, fiddle player; Walter Thompson, his uncle, banjo player; Nate Thompson, his brother, banjo player; Odell Thompson, his cousin, banjo player; Peg Leg Sam Jackson, who was once again not from Appalachia but he was based in there and he influenced a lot of people, harmonica player; the Foddrell Brothers; Dan Womack, banjo player—in fact Ed Cabbell recorded him—he did an album, one side was Dan Womack and the other side was Homer Walker; Etta Baker and her family—that was a, oh man, a fabulous family of musicians, fiddle players, banjo players, guitar players, and of course Etta Baker played both guitar and banjo; and John Jackson, although they classify him as Piedmont. But once again, you can't just stick people in one little area, you know. Musicians will go any place if you're going to feed them and give them a little drink and give them a little money, taste of money. They'll go anyplace.

So, I mean, it’s just a plethora—and you know I’m using that word, I don’t know what it means, but it sounds good—a plethora of musicians coming out of the mountains.

Bill Turner 40:28
A cornucopia! A bunch of them, passel, huh?

Sparky Rucker 40:36
A goo-gob!

[Laughter from Sparky Rucker and Bill Turner]

Ted Olson 40:40
Well, the only other thing I was thinking, we are of course, this podcast is sponsored by Great Smoky Mountains Association. Sparky, because you grew up in kind of the foothills of the Smokies, you know, in Knoxville or near, would you comment a little bit about you know Black contributions to Smoky Mountain music and maybe just focus on what you know from growing up in Knoxville? And you mentioned some people, you know, Howard Armstrong and Brownie McGhee and that sort of thing. But approaching the Smokies kind of from a large-scale perspective encompassing much of East Tennessee, would you care to say just a few things about kind of the African American musical environment that you grew up around?

Sparky Rucker 41:27
Well once again, though, you know, Knoxville being the city that it was, the Black community mostly lived in the projects that were started during Roosevelt’s administration. And there was something called Red Summer. Are you familiar with that?

Ted Olson 41:42
Yeah. It was uh 1919, correct?

Sparky Rucker 41:45
Right. And Knoxville was one of the major cities that had the explosion of—there was a lot of racial violence, to the point of them bringing out the militia to calm it down. And because you had a lot of people who were veterans of World War I, Black veterans, that when the people turned the machine gun on the Black demonstrators, they took the machine gun nest and turned it on the militia. There was so much violence that nobody wanted to talk about it anymore. I never understood it. It was something that the older Black people would whisper about that had happened. And it was basically swept under the rug. And a lot of people said that that was the reason that during the Civil Rights movement why it was so peaceful in Knoxville was because that had happened back in 1919.

You know, I’m a veteran of the Civil Rights movement. That's where I stopped playing rock and roll and started playing acoustic music and delving into the older songs and starting to try to learn about my cultural history, you know. Like I mentioned before we started the podcast, that I grew up in the Church of God Sanctified, my grandfather's church. He was the bishop of the Church of God Sanctified church. And so, I had this musical influence that was mostly the old slave songs and whatnot, but then when I started playing the music, I started incorporating that into all of my concerts. I said I’m not just going to be a blues singer, but I’m going to do all ranges of Black music because I want people to hear that rich heritage. 

But growing up in terms of what I could hear, you know, I knew of Brownie McGhee and Sticks McGhee and later on got to be very good friends with Brownie after Sunny passed. A lot of times he would get me hired to be his opening act, and so I did get to know him quite well and touring with the Southern Folk Cultural Revival project that was started during the Civil Rights movement. I got to meet Bessie Jones and Johnny Shines, and some of those musicians. And these are people who had actually come through Tennessee. But you know, and I was learning in the early 60s— 61, 62—about this rich heritage. Because you know, I grew up listening to James Brown and people like that, you know. He had a radio station in Knoxville, and that was you know—people say, “Well why don't you know about this music?” I said, “Well I only listened to the Black station." That was, you know, listening to all that music that came in, and there would be these shows that would come in. 

And my mother told me about Ma Rainey coming through with these tent shows that she would see. Of course, she said she thought Ma Rainey was a revivalist, because they had the tent, you know. That was when you had a tent, you must be having an old-time revival. She didn't realize that Ma Rainey was in there singing blues. And then I later found out that Brownie McGhee had traveled with the Rabbit Foot minstrels along with Ma Rainey during that time, so that that's circling back to what we talked about earlier about the minstrel show being a big part of this. And I remember Silas Green from New Orleans coming through every summer, which was a remnant of an old minstrel show that became sort of a burlesque show that would come and play at the fair every year in September—the East Tennessee State Fair. There would be a carnival part of it, and there would be this music, so it was always there. 

It was always an influence that I was able to draw from when I was growing up. And never ever thinking I would end up doing this for a living, you know. Because you know how your parents always want you to go on and be a doctor or be a scientist and whatnot, and God said, “No, this is your key. I’m going to shut this door for you, but I’m going to open up this window.” And thank goodness that The Civil Rights movement came along and steered me into doing what I do for a living now because that's why I was able to meet so many fine musicians like you, James, and people like Loyal, and people like Bill and Ted, and all of the musicians that I mentioned from that list. Every one of those people on that list I got to know. And thank goodness to be a link in this chain.

James Leva 46:11
You know that's the thing at the bottom of it is, the whole story of it is people seeing people as people through music. Not as this or that category, not as that kind—them, us. The only us is people who love music and make music and share it and appreciate the other ones that share. And by the way, James Brown's daddy was a banjo player. [laughs]

Bill Turner 46:39
Well, I think this has been great, and I appreciate you guys coming on with us. Ted, you want to round us out there, buddy?

Ted Olson 46:45
Well just thank you from the bottom of my heart. I mean, this has been a great conversation. It's good to see you all, and we'll keep in touch for sure.

[Guitar music and singing / "My Home's Across the Smoky Mountains" by Sparky Rucker from the Digital Library of Appalachia's Berea College collection]

Valerie Polk 47:16
Thank you to guest hosts Dr. William Turner and Dr. Ted Olson, who will be bringing us this podcast mini-series, Sepia Tones, over the next several months. 

Karen Key 47:25
Dr. William Turner is a long-time African American studies scholar who first rose to prominence as co-editor of the groundbreaking Blacks in Appalachia. That book was published in 1985. He was also a research assistant to Roots author Alex Haley. Turner retired as Distinguished Professor of Appalachian Studies and Regional Ambassador at Berea College. His memoir called The Harlan Renaissance is forthcoming from West Virginia University Press in 2021.

Dr. Ted Olson is a professor of Appalachian studies at East Tennessee State University and the author of many books, articles, reviews, encyclopedia entries, and oral histories. Olson has produced and compiled a number of documentary albums of traditional Appalachian music, including GSMA's On Top of Old Smoky and Big Bend Killing. He's received a number of awards in his work as a music historian, including seven Grammy nominations.

Valerie Polk 48:32
Special thanks also to guests, Loyal Jones, Sparky Rucker, and James Leva. Loyal Jones served as director of the Appalachian Center now named in his honor at Berea College. He established the annual festival of traditional music at Berea and the Appalachian Sound Archive. Jones is the author of numerous books of regional interest. 

Sparky Rucker is a folk singer, musician, and storyteller. He has been an educator, performer, and social activist and has been involved in the Civil Rights movement since the 1950s. 

James Leva is a multi-instrumentalist playing the fiddle, guitar, and banjo and a singer and songwriter. His work with The Lost Tribe of Country Music transcends racial and generational barriers as well as musical genres.

Music featured in this episode includes "John Henry" performed by Amythyst Kiah and Roy Andrade from GSMA's Big Bend Killing; "Careless Love" performed on guitar by Etta Baker, used courtesy of the Berea Sound Archive; "Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss" performed by Ali Farka Touré with Lee Sexton and others from an informal gathering at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, used courtesy of Bryan Wright of Rivermont Records; "We Shall (or We Will) Overcome" from the Highlander Collection of the Southern Folklife Collection, Wilson Special Collections Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, used courtesy of the Septima Clark Learning Center at Highlander Center; "Come Sit By My Side Little Darlin'" performed by Bill Livers, used courtesy of the Berea Sound Archive; "Jola Gambia" performed by Daniel Jatta and the Lost Tribe of Country Music, used courtesy of James Leva; and "My Home's Across the Smoky Mountains," performed by our guest Sparky Rucker at the Berea College Celebration of Traditional Music in 1981, from the Digital Library of Appalachia's Berea College collection. 

Karen Key 50:38
Our theme music is from Old-Time Smoky Mountain Music, GSMA's Grammy-nominated music collection available at Bird recordings by Mark Dunaway. Thanks for listening! 


Great Smoky Mountains Association supports the perpetual preservation of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the national park system by promoting greater public interest and appreciation through education, interpretation, and research.