© 2024 WEKU
Lexington's Radio News Leader
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Two KY musicians connect African American music to mountain music of Appalachia and Kentucky

Ways To Subscribe
Dr. Kathy Bullock discusses connections between African-American music and mountain music of KY and Appalachia.
courtesy Kathy Bullock
Dr. Kathy Bullock discusses connections between African-American music and mountain music of KY and Appalachia.

Components of Black music like the blues, spirituals, and work songs influenced parts of the mountain music of Kentucky and Appalachia.

Singer and educator, Kathy Bullock and Kentucky fiddler and historian, John Harrod talked about a few aspects of the music.

Dr. Bullock sits at the piano in her Berea, Kentucky home and sings the traditional spiritual There is a Balm in Gilead. Bullock is a Professor Emerita of Berea College and workshop clinician who travels the world teaching about African American music. Since February is Black History Month, Bullock said it's a good time to talk about the impact Black music has had on U.S. culture including the mountain music of Kentucky and Appalachia.

“African-American music emerges out of the African American culture. And I like to talk about it as a culture that evolved from people of African descent who were brought to this country and had a shared experience here for hundreds of years but there are some generalities that remain from this shared experience. One of the ones that we can see most clearly is the music that emerged. The music is really core or foundational to all American popular music. You name it. It can find its way back to coming out of the early spirituals and blues or being strongly influenced by it,” explained Bullock.

The work songs, the blues, and the spirituals are three genres that Bullock believes influenced Appalachian Culture. She said There is a Balm in Gilead is a song of hope and healing that was one of the many thousands of spirituals that came out of the African-American community.

“And these spirituals were sung in the Appalachia communities as well as other communities all throughout the south. I would dare say wherever there were large communities of Black folk, these songs would have been sung,” said Bullock.

Currently, Bullock said she’s working on a project researching Black Music in Appalachia.

“It wasn’t until I came to Berea College from Washington D.C. my home that I said, wait a minute, there’s something similar going on in these fiddles. And I’m thinking Appalachia is one part of the universe and African-American is another and I found out there’s so many connections. Now the musicians knew this all along," said Bullock.

Bullock points to the family of June Carter Cash, the well-known Carter family of Virginia. Bullock says the Carters were heavily influenced by African-American guitarist, Lesley Riddle.

“Lesley Riddle was a Black musician of North Carolina and he toured around with the Carter family and helped them when they were finding tunes and playing tunes himself. And Maybelle Carter, who was known for a special way of playing the guitar. She says she just watched Lesley Riddle and did what he did,” said Bullock.

Owen County musician John Harrod has played the fiddle for over 60 years. The 78-year-old historian spent the 1970s, 80s, and 90s documenting old-style traditional music in Kentucky, particularly fiddle music. Harrod said so much of what we think of as mountain music has a Black origin.

“These different traditions from Europe and Africa, mixed and really created new forms of music. Even Bluegrass today which we think of as white mountain music or white southern music, there are a whole lot of Black elements in Bluegrass music, in the bended notes, the flat notes, the syncopation, the different rhythms going on at the same time. All of that was Black. Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass music spent his youth following around an older Black gentleman, Arnold Shultz who played both the guitar and the fiddle. Bill Monroe always said that the Blues was a big part of his music,” explained Harrod.

Kentucky fiddler plays a tune at his home in Owen County, Kentucky.
Cheri Lawson
Kentucky fiddler plays a tune at his home in Owen County, Kentucky.

Harrod has binders full of the names of fiddlers from all around Kentucky.

“We have the names of a number of Black fiddlers from the mountains. Down in Wayne County, there was Shell Coffey, Cuje Bertram. Up in Letcher County, there was Will Christian. I recorded a man named Sammy Bowles up in Lewis County. So just about everywhere there was this background of Black fiddlers and banjo players," said Harrod.

John Harrod and Kathy Bullock have shared a glimpse of the history behind the influence African-American music has had on the mountain music of Kentucky and Appalachia. Dr. Bullock said it’s important to her to have these discussions all year and definitely during Black History Month.

“I think that it gives us the opportunity to stop for a minute, reflect collectively about this component of our heritage because Black American Music is American Music,” said Bullock.

** WEKU is working hard to be a leading source for public service, and fact-based journalism. Monthly supporters are the top funding source for this growing nonprofit news organization. Please join others in your community who support WEKU by making your donation.

Cheri is a broadcast producer, anchor, reporter, announcer and talk show host with over 25 years of experience. For three years, she was the local host of Morning Edition on WMUB-FM at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Cheri produced and hosted local talk shows and news stories for the station for nine years. Prior to that, she produced and co-hosted a local talk show on WVXU, Cincinnati for nearly 15 years. Cheri has won numerous awards from the Public Radio News Directors Association, the Ohio and Kentucky Associated Press, and both the Cincinnati and Ohio chapters of the Society for Professional Journalists.
Related Content