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The Root System

We were taught the South’s greatest music sprung up in specific places, like the Mississippi Delta or New Orleans or Appalachia. Our teachers didn’t dig deep enough.

A one-legged man named Earl Kincaid supplied the first thing that ever got me high. It wasn’t a drug. It was a jukebox.

Specifically, it was the jukebox inside the restaurant Earl owned in Blue Ridge, Georgia, on the shores of the lake that bears the same name as the town. Earl’s Lakeside Restaurant was my pop’s favorite spot for date night with my mom, and when I showed up in their lives, they brought me along. Soon as I stood tall enough to reach the coin slot, I was begging Dad for small change so I could play records. 

That jukebox played me the first songs I ever heard that weren’t about Jesus. “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)” by the Four Tops. “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” by Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. “We Can Work It Out” by the Beatles. “I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail” by Buck Owens and the Buckaroos. “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” by Marvin Gaye. “Rocky Top” by the Osborne Brothers.  “Ode to Billie Joe” by Bobbie Gentry. 

Bobbie Gentry of “Ode to Billie Joe” fame in 1968
Bobbie Gentry of “Ode to Billie Joe” fame in 1968

That jukebox got me hungry for music, and I never got full. Music became my love, my crutch, the thing I hid inside when nothing else could soothe me. And I got hungry to learn where it all came from. 

So I learned the standard origin stories of American music. 

Lesson No. 1: The blues, jazz, rock ’n’ roll, and country music happened because America happened. People with white skin came here by choice, and Black people were brought here in chains, but both carried with them songs and  instruments (or at least their knowledge of how to make them). When enslaved people needed a musical outlet for their pain, the blues happened. When the blues met the brass and wind instruments of European orchestras, jazz happened. When poor white immigrants headed south through the Appalachian Mountains, bringing their folk ballads from the British Isles, country music happened. Finally, when country music met the blues and Black church music, rock ’n’ roll happened.  

Lesson No. 2: The roots of all those forms of music are definitely in the South. Certain Southerners—specifically Mississippians and Louisianans—proud of these facts, decided to get highly specific about their own versions of American music’s origin stories. Which led to…

Lesson No. 3: The blues arose from one particular place in Mississippi. The Delta. That is where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in return for the gift of playing those bent notes that characterize the sounds that say to our ears: I am the blues. The blues belong to the Mississippi Delta. Everybody knows that, right?

And to…

The job of this story is to complicate your understanding of Southern music. So this story does not—must not—begin a century ago at a crossroads in the Mississippi Delta, where Robert Johnson bargained with Old Scratch.

Lesson No. 4: The intermingling of the blues and Europe’s sounding brass and clanging cymbals—jazz—happened where the gumbo of Southern culture is gumbo-iest: New Orleans. Little Louis Armstrong blew his cornet brilliantly in the school band at the Colored Waifs Home, then got free and brought jazz into the universe. Jazz belongs to New Orleans. Everybody knows that, right?

These stories are true, kind of. They are correct, but not entirely correct. 

A dozen years ago, when I first set off to report on and write about the culture of the South, I visited an old friend named John T. Edge, who at the time was the executive director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, which was founded at the dawn of this century to study the food cultures of the South. I’ve always thought of the SFA’s work—its symposia, its documentary films, its oral history collections—in the context of the table blessings I heard as a child. Many of those included this phrase: “and bless the hands that prepared it.” The SFA was formed to ensure that we in the South have knowledge of all the hands that prepared it. 

During that visit, John T. told me this: “To talk about food in the South is to talk about labor, who cooks it, who raises the crops. You talk about the expertise of the enslaved Africans brought into the Lowcountry of South Carolina, who were valued for their knowledge of rice culture. They were higher valued slaves because they knew how to raise rice. That’s why they were brought in from western Africa. So you serve rice, and you talk about the labor of Africans who made the wealth of the rice culture of the 18th and 19th century in South Carolina possible.”

His lesson was that we had to learn about and acknowledge all the hands—of every color and every background—who account for the food that distinguishes Southern culture. 

“My job,” John T. told me, “is to complicate your understanding of rice. It’s to complicate your Hoppin’ John. That’s my job.” 

The story you’re reading is the result of that decision. The job of this story is to complicate your understanding of Southern music. So this story does not—must not—begin a century ago at a crossroads in the Mississippi Delta, where Robert Johnson bargained with Old Scratch. Neither does it start in the Appalachian Mountains when the Victor Talking Machine Company came to Virginia to record the Carter Family. Nor does it start with the peal of young Louis Armstrong’s cornet during his stay at a New Orleans juvenile-detention facility. 

It starts somewhere else, a place where many good Southern stories begin.

In the woods.

Louis Armstrong
Louis Armstrong

Talk a walk with me now into your favorite Southern forest. Your tendency will be to look skyward at the beautiful green quilt of leaves nature pieces together every year about this time. 

But don’t look up. Look down. Imagine what’s happening in the dirt underneath all those trees. The roots of different species intersect. It would be human nature to think about the roots of different species fighting with each other. After all, when different groups of humans have intersected—particularly in this region—we have tended to fight each other. But trees are smarter than we are. In the millions of intersections under that forest floor, trees of different species actually (with the help of some fungi) feed each other. 

Of course, it’s not that simple, but this isn’t a story about botany. This is a story about music. And what’s happening underground, when you think about it just right, is rather musical. It is harmonious. Folks who study forests have a funny term for this phenomenon: the World Wood Web. When I first learned about the World Wood Web, I wondered: have we been thinking about the origins of the South’s world-changing music all wrong? 

We’ve been told forever that it sprung up miraculously in certain spots—certain forests, if you will. Clarksdale. New Orleans. Bristol, Virginia, where the Carter was first recorded. We’ve been looking at destinations. But suddenly, I became more interested in intersections. Not just roots, but root systems. Not just one crossroads (sorry, Clarksdale), but ten-thousand crossroads. 

I knew I had to consult folks whose knowledge and consideration of Southern music went deeper and wider than the standard hotspots. Lucky for me, I knew a few people who knew a few other people who could help.

Captain Luke & Tim Duffy

Music Maker Foundation co-founder Tim Duffy and the late Captain Luke, one of the hundreds of unsung Southern musicians the foundation has supported over the past thirty years

My first stop was Hillsborough, North Carolina, to visit Tim and Denise Duffy, the co-founders of the Music Maker Foundation. 

Few people in America have spent more years tracing the roots of Southern music than Tim and Denise. Their Music Maker Foundation has for thirty years documented, collected, and recorded music that’s typically heard only at the community level. Blues players in Carolina juke joints, Black gospel music from tiny villages amid the tobacco fields, old-time string music from Appalachia and more. 

But Music Maker goes farther than the typical folklore-preservation outfit. Folklore programs at colleges and universities have, since the advent of sound recording, sent recordists into the field to hunt down music in isolated communities all over the South. In academic programs, the work generally stops after the music is recorded and cataloged. But from the beginning, the Duffys recognized that most of the unheard music is made by people in poverty. So Music Maker pledged to help the musicians it found monetize their art. The foundation not only records the music, but packages it into albums the musicians can sell to make money. They’ve put together worldwide tours for these unheard musicians and put them on music’s biggest stages, from European jazz festivals to New York’s Carnegie Hall and beyond. And if life happens to one of their “partner artists”—say, a tornado blows a roof off their house—Music Maker hires carpenters to fix it.

“Archie Shepp said, to all these New Orleans devotees, ‘You think jazz was invented here, but you guys are wrong.’”

I first met the Duffys and wrote about them several years ago, and afterward, we remained friends. After they came back to North Carolina from the first post-pandemic New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival two years ago, Tim Duffy called me up to share an experience from the festival.

The Duffys took in a set by Archie Shepp, one of the greatest living tenor saxophonists in America and one of her greatest jazz educators. On stage at JazzFest, in the very heart of New Orleans, the octogenarian sax legend told thousands of New Orleanians that what they believed about jazz was wrong.

“He said, to all these New Orleans devotees, ‘You think jazz was invented here, but you guys are wrong,’” Tim recounted. “‘All African American music started when all the slaves were brought into the East Coast, and we formed the first African American musical traditions. And then when we were sold down the river, to clean up the swamp down here, we brought a lot of our music with us down here.’

“And so,” Tim concluded, “that made me think.”

Jazz legend Archie Shepp
Jazz legend Archie Shepp

One reason Shepp’s argument piqued Duffy’s interest was recent experience. For the previous few years, Music Maker had been uncovering and documenting a rich, multigenerational tradition of Black gospel quartet music—“jubilee music,” as one of its practitioners, Bishop Albert Harrison, joyfully declares—in eastern North Carolina. That, Tim believes, “is arguably one of the greatest Pan-African musical communities in the world, with this gospel quartet tradition that holds remnants of slave hollers, work songs, and all the essentials.”

How that tradition arose and endured in the farm country of eastern Carolina is a story unto itself. But most notably, it didn’t fit into well into the standard narratives of American music. So Duffy started thinking back on all the different musical adventures that have driven the development of his foundation. For the past thirty years, Music Maker’s discoveries have come because Tim, his wife and co-founder Denise, and other foundation staffers have traveled the South. Their method is taxing, but simple: ramble around, searching for unheard music.

Duffy’s first ramble began in the late 1980s when James “Guitar Slim” Stephens, the blues player whose work Duffy documented as a graduate student in the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s Folklore program, told Duffy that to understand the blues, he had to find an obscure guitar player, Guitar Gabriel, who lived somewhere around Winston-Salem. When Duffy finally found Gabriel in 1991, it opened the doors to a whole world of players who upheld the Piedmont blues tradition, a finger-picking style that had next to nothing in common with the Mississippi Delta blues, except for the pain that beats in the heart of all blues.

In the thirty years since, Music Maker has rambled down countless paths where they have found homegrown, regionally specific styles of gospel, the blues, folk, and string-band music all over the South—each with its own particular origin story. The work has proven, to Duffy’s mind, that Southern music isn’t a product of place. After all, he’s found unheard Southern music in hundreds of places, and he’s been doing it for three decades.

James “Guitar Slim” Stephens (photograph by Axel Kustner/courtesy of the Music Maker Foundation)
James “Guitar Slim” Stephens (photograph by Axel Kustner/courtesy of the Music Maker Foundation)

Perhaps, then, it is better to focus on people rather than geography. And perhaps better still to focus on the circumstances in which Southern people have found themselves over the course of centuries. Music responds to circumstances: new love or bad luck, uplift or violence.

I wanted to learn how people moving through this region found themselves in different circumstances—in harmony, yes, but also in conflict. That desire took me to Montgomery, Alabama. I wanted to visit that city’s Legacy Museum, built by the nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative and opened six years ago to tell the truth about America’s history of racism from, as the museum’s tagline says, “enslavement to mass incarceration.”

Every visitor to the Legacy Museum immediately confronts a set of animated maps of the world. On these maps, a series of black dots begins to travel from West Africa to the Americas. Each dot represents one ship filled with people kidnapped from their African homes and brought in chains to live the rest of their lives in slavery. The first dots begin traveling in the mid-1500s, and they land in the Caribbean and on the eastern coast of South America, primarily Brazil. In 1619, the first black dots reach North America, landing at Jamestown (population seven hundred at the time) in the British Colony of Virginia. As the animated map moves forward in time, the pace of importation speeds up dramatically. Swarms of ships land on North American shores, first to the north, but then overwhelmingly to the south of Jamestown. 

The importation went on for two more centuries until the United States government banned the importation of slaves in 1807. By then, to put it bluntly, in the raw economic terms of the South’s slave traders, the nation had plenty of stock—a self-sustaining population of over four million enslaved Black people.  

Watching the animated map in the Legacy Museum, you see the boats head to North America like swarms of flies. Each of those ships represents two things: first, a boatload of evidence of America’s original sin, and second, a boatload of people who would, over time, be integral in creating the American musics we celebrate today.

Malinda Maynor Lowery, the Cahoon Family Professor of American Studies at Emory University in Atlanta
Malinda Maynor Lowery, the Cahoon Family Professor of American Studies at Emory University in Atlanta

I have always believed that to understand Southern music, you had to understand the music and instruments enslaved Africans brought with them, and how they mixed with the European music that came here with colonists.

Malinda Maynor Lowery told me I had not dug nearly deep enough into history.

Lowery is the Cahoon Family Professor of American History at Atlanta’s Emory University. She is also the former director of the Center for the Study of the American South at UNC-Chapel Hill. Her roots are in Robeson County, North Carolina, where the piney woods and dark swamps along the Lumbee River have for many centuries been home to the Lumbee tribe, which today, with over 50,000 members, is the largest Native tribe east of the Mississippi River that lacks official recognition from the federal government.

She is a Lumbee, and throughout her career has studied and documented the contributions of her people to American culture. She talks about how the history of the slave trade—and what happened when it ran up against the culture of Native American tribes—formed American culture.

“The really concrete example for me is the landing of a Spanish ship that left Hispaniola with African slaves and some Spanish colonists intending to set up shop in what became South Carolina,” she says. “This is in 1524, so this is way before The Lost Colony. And because it's the Spanish, not the British, it's been left out of the story of American history. But when these colonists arrived, the African people they brought here in chains mutinied. And many of them mutinied by running to live with Native communities that were very much present in that area of South Carolina. The only reason the Spanish went there was to try to exploit the Native people who were there, to enslave Native people, as well as to continue the enslavement of the African people they had captured. And so that mutiny took the form of running away, but it also took the form of African and Native people joining together to dismantle this emerging colony. And what songs were created out of that moment? How did these people learn from one another if not by music, if by not using their innate tools?”

This was four centuries before sound recording, so we will never hear their songs. But the implication is clear: music was how enslaved Africans and Native Americans learned to communicate with each other. 

Europeans who wanted to build an economy in North America on the cheap, by enslaving and exploiting people who did not look like them, could do exactly that—and America is still reckoning with the aftermath of those Europeans’ original sin. But from the forced integration of cultures came music and other art forms that still, every minute of every day, thrill people all over the world.

“The oppression that went into that, the violation of sovereignty and human rights, and the violence that went into the creation of the United States can't undo the periods or the moments of sheer possibility created by African and Native American people,” Lowery concludes. “And we're still experiencing that sheer possibility.”

“It doesn't require white people to note that something is happening in order for us to understand that music was here, culture was here. In every way, shape, and form of people creating something, creativity was here.”

Lowery emphasizes that the true roots of American music reach back far beyond the establishment of the United States in 1776, beyond the beginning of the North American slave trade in 1619 (or 1524, as she notes), and even beyond Christopher Columbus’s “discovery” of America in 1492. 

“Thousands of years of cultural development took place leading up to 1492,” she says. “And because there were not Europeans here to write down what they heard, I think sometimes historians or even more casual observers get lost in that. It’s like the ‘if a tree fell in the forest’ question. Yes, scientifically, the tree makes a sound. It must make a sound. Furthermore, there are also animals and plants that are there to hear the sound. “It doesn't require white people to note that something is happening in order for us to understand that music was here, culture was here. In every way, shape, and form of people creating something, creativity was here. And so the rabbit holes I go down are the same ones you're asking about: how regionally specific can we get with what was developing there? Because again, just by virtue of what was available in the way of methods of making music, that's going to vary from place to place. What gets popular, what becomes popularized, what people pick up on and run with, that's creativity, that's music. And that's going to vary from place to place and population to population.”

The “American Songster,” Dom Flemons, historian of American music and founding member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops (photograph by Timothy Duffy)
The “American Songster,” Dom Flemons, historian of American music and founding member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops (photograph by Timothy Duffy)

By this time, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that focusing on the Mississippi Delta or New Orleans or Appalachia as the birthplaces of the South’s music was just wrong. Provably incorrect. It just didn’t fit the timeline. Consider this: from the time of the mutiny Lowery describes, it would be another two centuries before the city of New Orleans was even founded. Another fifty years would pass before European immigrants came in significant numbers to Appalachia, and another fifty before white settlers first came to the Delta to fell the forests and plant crops. 

But one thing’s for sure: new music was created when the various cultures met and cross-pollinated, and the influx of white immigrants and enslaved Africans can all be traced back to the Eastern Seaboard, just as we saw on the maps inside the Legacy Museum. 

The origins of Southern culture and music clearly begin along the Eastern Seaboard. And that’s a great place to bring the “American Songster,” Dom Flemons, into this discussion. Flemons, for the uninitiated, was a founding member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, who won a Grammy Award when they shook up the music world by reviving the lost sounds of African American string-band music. From that launching point, Flemons became one of our foremost experts on American songs and the history of their origination. 

Flemons consistently comes back to the idea that if you want to follow the musical roots, you must always follow the movement of people. He makes a powerful case that the innovations in American music that have captured the world’s attention trace back to the shores of Virginia and the Carolinas, where enslaved Africans arrived en masse.

“You have a culture that goes into the colonial period that is much older than the Mississippi Delta…. You’re talking the 1840s before the Mississippi Delta really becomes a factor in the grand scheme of things.”

“I would generally make a note of how far back the history goes in places like North Carolina, specifically because you have a culture that goes into the colonial period that is much older than, let's say, the Mississippi Delta,” Flemons says. “They clear the land out in  the 1830s, because that was when they actually had removed the Native tribes, and then you start to have actual settlements and then cities. So you're talking the 1840s before the Mississippi Delta really becomes a factor in the grand scheme of things.”

If you’re going to search for musical roots in North Carolina, he says, you have to think first about boat travel. 

“You're going from North Carolina into South Carolina, and you can loop the United States on the outer parts of the land, but not the inner parts of the land,” Flemons says. “So then the train becomes an important part of a music like the blues because the train is what really sets people on an inward path.”

Imagine our nation limited only to travel by foot, horse or boat. The distances people could cover by the first two were limited, and boats, of course, could travel only on water — around the seaboard or into the interior along rivers. That leaves us with relatively few points of intersection for the travelers. Then the trains come along, with countless depots built at stopping points, each of them an intersection where travelers could meet each other. 

Perhaps the greatest lesson taught us by the story of Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil at the crossroads of U.S. Highways 61 and 49 is that the intersection itself is the most important factor. Musical magic occurs when people of different cultures, carrying different instruments, cross paths with each other. Musical evolution can only begin at the crossroads. 

But not just that one legendary crossroads in Mississippi. I had to look at tens of thousands of crossroads, wherever travelers met, crossing paths in the woods, at port cities on our rivers, at railroad depots, or towns along the highways.

When Flemons made this clear to me, I finally understood what the World Wood Web was telling me: trees thrive where roots intersect, and music thrives where the people who make it cross paths.

Mountain music pioneer Dr. Ralph Stanley
Mountain music pioneer Dr. Ralph Stanley

Glenn Hinson believes that if you want to understand what happens at musical crossroads, you must look at the instruments that converge at those intersections. He also believes you must understand what circumstances music makers are in when they arrive at their crossroads. And finally, he believes you must understand the purpose behind the music people make, what drives their desire to create. 

Hinson is an associate professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s Department of American Studies, who for over forty years has studied folklore, ethnography and what he calls “African American expressive culture.”

“If I were to look at the roots of Black American music along the Eastern Seaboard, I would begin with the realms of rhythm and song and wordsmithing,” Hinson begins. “In so many areas along the Eastern Seaboard, enslaved Africans were denied the ability to re-create and perform with their musical instruments. So while there were attempts to re-craft in many areas the musical instruments of West Africa, both the stringed instruments and the drums and the varieties thereof, early Black codes across the South restricted that music making dramatically.”

Those restrictions, he argues, resulted in enslaved Africans developing music that was “radically different from early white American music.”

From that era of restrictions, he says, we must “look at where those songs started or what sort of settings they were in. There were songs of worship, songs of work—lots of songs of work—songs of comfort, and songs of play. So that you had worlds of West African song that provided both connection and comfort on these shores.”

The restrictions white planters put on the music their Black slaves could make fell away as the planters began to see that music as entertaining. Let the slaves play at the parties, and it’ll entertain all our friends, right? Then, in the wake of the Civil War and the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which declared that “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude…shall exist within the United States,” more and more musical intersections happened.

“Ralph Stanley and Earl Scruggs may never have known any Black banjo players. You can see how they wouldn’t have. But that doesn't mean, if you look at the history of the banjo, it doesn’t lead back. It does lead back.”

You can talk to Wayne Martin, the executive director of the North Carolina Arts Foundation, who has studied the state’s traditional musics for forty years, and he will guide you through the path of the banjo. He’ll tell you how this African instrument enabled enslaved people to express their pain through music, and how that coalesced into African American string-band music of the sort that Dom Flemons has worked so hard to revive. Martin will tell you about how the African American music then hit the ears of white Appalachian players. 

“Things hop around and come back in ways that are hard to describe,” he says. “I can't draw a straight line back from Ralph Stanley to African-American string bands. By the time Ralph Stanley was growing up, for all I know, the people in the county where he'd grown up may have forced all the people of color out, because that happened a lot. Ralph Stanley may have not grown up with very many people of color around him. And he learned the clawhammer style (of banjo playing) from his mother. Ralph Stanley and Earl Scruggs may never have known any Black banjo players. You can see how they wouldn’t have. But that doesn't mean, if you look at the history of the banjo, it doesn’t lead back. It does lead back.”

Dolphus Ramseur, who manages the Avett Brothers, has studied the music of North Carolina through his entire career, and he will show you how the economics of the state created musical intersections. 

“North Carolina was a poor state,” he says. “And whenever you have poor regions, people look inward to entertain themselves. And then you mix that with being a very religious state, and you have a thing where people start singing in the church very early on.” The circumstances of poor folks in the North Carolina of the early 20th century dictated that they created new musical offshoots simply out of the need to create their own entertainment. Ramseur will also tell you how larger economic forces brought along the spread of the Piedmont blues style. 

“One thing that was definitely key to Piedmont blues was tobacco,” he says. “All of the blues musicians would follow the tobacco circuit from Wadesboro to Durham and Winston-Salem. And on payday, they all would be sitting out, playing on the street corners right outside the facility where people were paid.”

Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt
Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt

The point is this: although the music of certain Southern places feels magical, there was never any magic in the places themselves. The magic was in the people who crossed paths there. Places are just destinations. Magic happens along the rivers and rails and highways people traveled to get there, at the intersections—the boat landings, the train depots, and the crossroads. It happens anywhere people of different backgrounds and cultures and colors cross paths, as along as they have voices and instruments.

From the earliest days when African and Native and European cultures met, whether by force or by accident or by choice, new music sprang up. Many paths began along the Atlantic shores, but over time, they led to thousands of destinations.

A frequent contributor to Salvation South, Charles McNair, said to me last year, “There isn’t a South. There are 10,000 Souths.” Similarly, chasing the roots of Southern music will never lead you to a single place. It will lead you to thousands. At any one of them, you can learn how culture triumphs over prejudice. When any two people cross paths, beautiful music can result, as long as they have songs in their hearts.

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Salvation South thanks the Music Maker Foundation and its founders, Tim and Denise Duffy, for underwriting this story’s creation expenses. We are grateful to them for their steadfast friendship.

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Chuck Reece is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Salvation South, the weekly web magazine you're reading right now. He was the founding editor of The Bitter Southerner. He grew up in the north Georgia mountains in a little town called Ellijay.

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