Folklorist digs deep into the origins of ‘Hillbilly Music’

Joe Wilson traces the roots of traditional American music to Africa, Europe

By April Wright, Reporter Monday, August 16, 2010

“There’s no short answer to explain how “hillbillies” invented American music, local music historian,” Joe Wilson told a crowd at Chestnut Creek School of the Arts during the first of several lectures at the school.

It’s “all the pieces of the truth that fit together” — and about an hour of lecture time — that allows him to tell the story of where hillbilly music came from.

The Hill Billies, from the Galax/Hillsville area, are credited with coining the term “hillbilly” and an entire genre of music in the early 1930s.

“When people ask where the music comes from, it’s not that simple,” said Wilson. “It’s not complicated, either, but you can’t watch one documentary in an hour and get the full answer.

“Some think the Carter family invented hillbilly music. And while Bristol had an important recording session there and was named the birthplace of hillbilly music because Congress passed an act, that’s only part of the truth,” said Wilson.

It goes back much further. Mountain music has roots in England, Scotland and Ireland. In the early years, during the King James era, boats by the thousands came to America and landed in Philadelphia, bringing the fiddle to these shores.

At the same time, Germans were bringing to this country a passion for vocal music, and became some of the best fiddlers.

Africans also sailed across to America — albeit wearing shackles on their ankles — and brought with them the banjo.

Population pressures pushed these different cultures into Virginia. As they were all seeking land, they joined together to create a melting pot of these different cultures.

From those cultures, the Blue Ridge became an American blender, said Wilson.

“It was the excitement of learning that it spread through the area and became family music,” said Wilson of how these cultures were the start of mountain music.

“So it was that Europeans, Tidewater African-Americans and Anglo-Americans met in the Blue Ridge and became more comfortable with each other…,” said Wilson in his book, A Guide to the Crooked Road: Virginia’s Music Trail.

“All brought music with them. Violins were expensive and rare, but all these people were singers. The travellers from Ulster had ballads and ditties galore, and the Germans had a rich tradition of religious singing. Musical concepts from many places met, and new blends emerged.

“Virginians of all classes danced to fiddle and banjo for the first two centuries on these shores,” he said.

Hillbilly music started from contributions made by people right here in the Twin Counties, Wilson believes.

Al Hopkins, a musician from Gap Creek, and his brothers organized a vocal quartet with string instruments. In 1924, Al was in Galax assisting his brother Jacob, a physician, with office work.

Al, Jacob and banjoist-fiddler John Rector met in a barbershop — located next to where Barr’s Fiddle Shop is located today — where the barbershop’s proprietor and fiddler Tony Alderman, held jam sessions.

Earlier that year, Rector travelled to New York with Fries mill worker Henry Whitter to record. Whitter had become the first musician from the region to record when he travelled to New York.

Rector thought that his barbershop band could do better, so the band, the Hill Billies, made a trip to New York to record.

‘Round Town Girl HILLBILLY (John Rector banjo) John Whitter Virginia Breakdowners
recorded in 1924

So, the first band to be a major commercial success in what was to become country music was organized in a Galax barbershop, and “hillbilly” music was named for it.

The band performed at the White House for President Calvin Coolidge and became a household name from touring and performances on the radio in New York and Washington, D.C.

Hill Billies leader Al Hopkins began broadcasting in 1922 when radio signals reached all over the nation.

Cluck Old Hen (1927) The Hillbillies – Charlie Bowman(fiddle), Al Hopkins(vocal) and the Original Hillbillies from 1926.

The famous Victor recording sessions were held in Bristol. Among those recorded there for the first time were Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, founding icons of country music.

But those sessions also recorded an array of other musicians from the Blue Ridge area.

“No one knows how many musicians this area has produced,” Wilson said, “but the small community of Coal Creek, which is only 12 miles in length, has led to noteworthy recordings from 31 bands.

“People in Southwest Virginia,” Wilson said in his book, “still prefer homemade music to the mass-marketed music.”

The Galax Old Fiddlers‘ Convention,” he noted, “draws as many as 50,000 people without hiring a single star and with little advertising.”

Mountain music is now “best kept by people who play at the fiddlers’ convention,” Wilson told the crowd. “This area has more musicians per acre than any other place.”

Wilson, a founding member of the Crooked Road — Virginia’s heritage music trail — said the organization started with just nine counties and is now up to 19 in Southwest Virginia, including Grayson, Carroll and the City of Galax.

Musicians in this area “keep the spirit and values of a place better than its historians,” Wilson said in his book. “They are participants in a musical community, not spectators, and music is a part of their lives, not an industry controlled from some distant place. Most of these artists make no speeches, but they are the keepers of the true vine.

“The music that was developed by poor immigrants, slaves and indentured servants,” Wilson said, “has survived the movements of time and has resisted becoming an international fad.

“Now, nearly 400 years old, it is still influencing America and is in a state of vigorous health,” he said. “In seeking to explain the popular culture of this nation and how it came to dwarf European popular art, the deepest musical roots are found in fiddle and banjo music.

“Old Europe and Old Africa are combined in it. It may be the constant combining and recombining of black and white culture in American musical arts that keeps them so vigorous and vital.”