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Berea’s Celebration of Traditional Music & African American Experience in Appalachia

Ajay Kalra, 2006 Appalachian Sound Archives Fellow, profiles and analyzes African American performers at Berea's Celebration of Traditional Music.


African American Guitar Performers at the CTM image

Introductory treatments of playing styles, instrumentation, and repertoire arising from Kalra’s research and related audio files are available for African American CTM performers.

Etta Baker (1913-2006)

Etta Baker, photo by David HoltBorn in Caldwell County, NC, Etta Baker was one of the most influential of all traditional alternating-thumb style guitarists. Her melodic style, learned largely from her father Boone Reid, and featured on the influential compilation Traditional Music of the Southern Appalachians (Tradition, 1956) made this classic Piedmont guitar style one of the most influential on the 1960s folk revival. Her 1983 Berea performances predate her commercial recordings which started appearing only in 1991 and include three tunes she had not recorded commercially. Etta Baker last lived in Morganton, North Carolina, and died September 2006 at the age of 93 in Fairfax, Virginia, while visiting a daughter who had suffered a stroke.

Eugene "Buddy" Moss (1914-1984)

Buddy MossEugene "Buddy" Moss, born in Jewel, Georgia, has been hailed by blues scholars as one of the most influential of southeastern blues guitarists of the pre-WW II era. Unlike Etta Baker, Moss was a commercially successful Atlanta-based “Piedmont blues” guitarist who had a much more diverse stylistic palette. He was influential more on contemporary popular blues artists in the 1930s than on folk revivalists and is seen as a link between Blind Arthur Blake and Blind Boy Fuller. At his 1977 and 1978 CTM performances, Moss played both in a Blake-inspired ragtime guitar style and a more contemporary style with long sinuous upper-register licks that also differed from the delta-blues-and-ragtime synthesis he popularized and likely passed on to Blind Boy Fuller in the 1930s.

Robert "Bud" Garrett (1916-1987)

Bud GarrettGuitarist, singer, marble maker, and café, juke joint and record store owner, Bud Garrett was a central figure in Free Hill, Tennessee, one of a few settlements founded before the Civil War by freed slaves. Garrett started his playing career accompanying older community musicians who played banjos and fiddles at both black and white dances. Similarly, the songs toward which he later gravitated, in his case coming from the juke box and record store he operated, had an equal split between black and white sources. Documented at Berea in 1984, his adaptations of country, blues, and rhythm and blues were as distinctly his own as his amusing ditties about life in Free Hill.

Moses Rascoe (1917-1994)

Moses RascoeBorn in Windsor, North Carolina, Rascoe spent most of his adult life as a truck driver living in the Appalachian foothills town of York, Pennsylvania. He taught himself to play the blues from listening to records. When he started performing following retirement and was “discovered” in the late 1980s, he became a minor legend on the folk festival and coffeehouse circuit as one of the last remaining “rural” bluesmen. In Rascoe’s laid-back interpretations, the pre-war urban Atlanta blues of Blind Willie McTell and Blind Boy Fuller sat comfortably alongside the post-war urban blues of Jimmy Reed and older numbers from shared black and white music traditions such as blues ballads and Southern religious music. Eleven of the numbers Rascoe performed at Berea in 1989 are not available on commercial recordings.

Foddrell Brothers (Marvin, 1923-198? & Marvin, 1927-1995) with Lynn Foddrell

Moses RascoeThe Foddrell Brothers, born in the early 1920s in Patrick County, Virginia, started performing widely only in the later years of their lives and first performed at Berea in 1978. Both Marvin and Turner learned their individual variants of the classic melodic alternate-thumb Piedmont picking guitar style from their locally renowned father Posey. They applied it to a staggering variety of popular repertoire including Tin Pan Alley standards, various subgenres of country music, early Chicago blues, boogie-woogie, and even rock and roll. Turner’s son Lynn joined the group on bass for the 1982 and 1983 Berea performances and after his father’s death in 1995 continued to perform with a cousin Doug Turner to continue the family tradition. In addition to the Berea performances, several additional audio cuts of tunes and commentary by the Foddrells may be heard as part of the Ferrum College Blue Ridge Institute recordings in the Digital Library of Appalachia.

Nat Reese (1924-2012)

Nat ReeseBorn in Virginia, guitarist and singer Nat Reese spent most of his life in the coalfield region of southern West Virginia. He worked in the coal mines only eight years, but it was enough to leave him with black lung disease. As a result, Reese turned to his musical skills to make a living as a professional musician in coal towns. As playing the occasional house parties was not adequate to keep a musician in business, he learned to play Tin Pan Alley and swing jazz standards from sheet music. Although usually labeled the “West Virginia bluesman,” Reese has continued to display his affinity for the aforementioned popular genres throughout his career, both in his repertoire and his sophisticated approach to coloring the blues with passing chords.

Drink Small (1936- )

Drink SmallSmall, born in Bishopville, South Carolina, performed at Berea in 1980. He is a master of a number of African American guitar, keyboard, and vocal music traditions who is, still, not a staunch traditionalist in his personalized renditions of those heritages. A self-taught musician, Small can reference such African American greats as T-Bone Walker, Wes Montgomery, Pops Staples, Albert King, and even Jimi Hendrix in the course of a single guitar solo. Also well versed in a number of African American religious vocal traditions, Small excels at the nineteenth-century slave spiritual such as “Go Down Moses” rendered in his booming “Mississippi cotton fields moan.” Small’s Berea performances also document his talents as a proficient blues and boogie-woogie pianist.

James "Sparky" Rucker (1946- )

Drink SmallSparky Rucker, born in Knoxville, Tennessee, has made seven CTM appearances between 1976 and 2002. He was strongly influenced by both the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s and by a number of storytelling performers. These included his two preacher uncles and sociopolitical activists Guy Carawan and Pete Seeger. Adding to this his experience as a school teacher, Rucker, often accompanied on harmonica and vocals by his wife Rhonda, presents musical programs in American history, especially its chapters of minority experiences that are not often opened.

Although Rucker favored the delta blues initially, it is a rare genre in North American traditional music that has not found its way into his extensive repertoire. The historian and educator in him revels in opportunities such as the Celebration of Traditional Music where a seated, attentive college audience affords him the apposite atmosphere to challenge popular notions regarding racial issues appertaining to the music that he plays. Rucker, a consummate and witty storyteller, however, always has a firm handle on the requisite balance between edification and entertainment — the two stated goals of the CTM.