African Roots of the Fiddle and Cultural Exchange in Our Appalachian Mountains

Accustomed to the one-string fiddle in West Africa (Dje Dje), by 1690 in Accomac, Virginia, a black "fiddler was playing for the dances of whites." During the 1700s, blacks became the primary dance fiddlers in the South. In New Orleans, by 1819, blacks had also become the first dance callers and began to replace dancing masters (Jamison 2016, 172; 44-45). Also from NO, the grandfather of renowned TN mountain fiddler John Lusk had passed down a handsome violin and explained that during the 1840s, he had been trained, in the "center for black fiddle music in New Orleans," to be proficient in white dance repertoire, as well as the "sukey jumps" or "kitchen dances" of blacks (Wolfe). Like NEA Heritage Fiddler Joe Thompson, the grandfather and Lusk were two of many black fiddlers who had double repertoires that reflected white as well as black taste. In the 18th C, Scots and Irish musicians brought additional songs and the recently standardized fiddle into the mountains amidst Germans, African, and Cherokee. Black fiddlers also moved into the mountains and contributed to cultural exchange. Enslaved Monk Estill played fiddle for Daniel Boone and others to dance in Boonesborough and won his freedom by 1784. Samuel Mess Johnson escaped from a Maryland plantation on a white horse, and in a log tavern on the first navigable path into the Northwest Territory, by 1798, the future King of France declared "Black Mess" played "the strains of the sweet music from the violin."