To grasp the importance of what the twenty-first-century folksinger Rhiannon Giddens has been attempting, it’s miles essential to recognize about any other North Carolina musician, Frank Johnson, who turned into born nearly two hundred years earlier than she changed into. He became the maximum essential African-American musician of the nineteenth century, however, he has been almost totally forgotten. Never mind a Wikipedia page—he does no longer even earn a footnote in sourcebooks on early black music. And yet, after excavating the facts of his profession—from antique newspapers, diaries, travelogues, memoirs, letters—and after reckoning with the scope of his have an impact on, one struggles to give you a practicable rival.
There are several viable motives for Johnson’s dazzling obscurity. One may be that, on the few events whilst past due-twentieth-century pupils cited him, he became almost continually misidentified as a white guy, despite the reality that he had darkish-brown skin and turned into born enslaved. It may also have been impossible, and forgivably so, for academics to trust that a black man should have done the level of reputation and achievement inside the antebellum slave-holding South that Johnson had. There changed into also a doppelgänger for scholars to contend with: in the North, there lived, around the same time, a musician named Francis Johnson, regularly known as Frank, who is remembered because the first black musician to have his original compositions published. Some historians, encountering mentions of the Southern Frank, certainly assumed that they were simply catching the Northern one on some unrecorded excursion and grew to become away.
There is likewise the racial history of the port city of Wilmington, North Carolina, where Johnson loved his finest reputation. In 1898, a racial bloodbath in Wilmington, and the next exodus of its black residents, not simplest knocked loose the rules of a growing black middle class but additionally came near obliterating the deep cultural memory of what have been a few of the maximum important black cities within u . S. A. For extra than a century. The folks that might have remembered Johnson satisfactory, not simply as a musician however as a person, had been themselves violently unremembered.
A very last reason for Johnson’s absence from the historical record may be the most giant. It entails now not his recognition however that of the music he performed, with which he had become actually synonymous—a couple of era of Southerners might talk to popular dance music absolutely as “vintage Frank Johnson music.” And but, inside the course of the 20 th century, the cluster of styles in which Johnson specialised––namely, string band, square dance, hoedown––got here to be associated with the people music of the white South and even, through a bizarre warping of American cultural memory, with white racial purity. In the nineteen-twenties, the automobile magnate Henry Ford started out proselytizing (efficaciously) for a rectangular-dancing revival precisely because the song that followed it changed into not black. Had he regarded the deeper records of square dancing, he might have fainted.
As a visiting “Negro fiddler,” Johnson epitomized the one musical determine in American history who can virtually be known as “ur.” Black fiddlers are the trilobites of American musical records. A criminal record from the mid-17th-century details a dispute among Virginia households competing for the services of an enslaved guy who had performed the fiddle all night for a celebration on the Eastern Shore. After that, for greater than two hundred years, black fiddlers are everywhere in the written sources. Then, around the start of the twentieth century, they fade, unexpectedly and nearly absolutely.
Johnson was born within the overdue eighteenth century, maximum probably on a plantation owned via an own family named Hawkins, in North Carolina, close to the Virginia border. Early on, he turned into diagnosed as a prodigy who may want to master almost any tool, but his distinctiveness becomes the mess around—the tool most preferred for dances. His owners began hiring him out for events and dividing the profits with him, a not unusual practice. Sometime within the eighteen-thirties or forties, he has become loose. The best try at a biographical remedy of him, an article is written around 1900 via the Virginia newspaperman Frank S. Woodson, says that he offered his own freedom “on a credit,” using cash that he had made gambling tune. He then, in line with Woodson, bought the freedom of his wife, a seamstress named Amelia. His former master “threw in the five or six kids, all boys, for properly degree.” The boys became his band. Johnson and his wife tended to provide gifted sons.
What did they sound like? It is a profound frustration, for a person interested in early African-American music, no longer that allows you to listen to them. Johnson died ten years before the recording generation started out, and with the aid of then, his influence had grown diffuse. But a defining pleasant of his band’s sound is how a whole lot blending it concerned—what number of styles and instrumental arrangements. There have been brass instruments and wind units. Johnson’s sons performed horns of a wide variety. Frank, Jr., performed a snare drum. There become a bass drum. Cymbals. In 1853, a kettledrum was added. But there were also the gadgets we associate extra carefully with a “minstrel” band—fiddles and banjos. A fife-and-drum sound is cited in a Wilmington Daily Journal article published in 1858. Johnson’s band performed the whole lot immediately, transferring across a range of stylistic assaults, all geared for dancing. It appears impossible that its sound could no longer have approached, at times, proto-jazz.