African-American Fiddlers on Early Phonograph Records


Excerpt from “African-American Fiddlers on Early Phonograph Records”
by Marshall Wyatt (

In the antebellum South, slave fiddlers provided music at plantation balls and other entertainments for whites, and were often encouraged by their masters to play for the dancing of fellow slaves as well. Black musicians absorbed the polkas, marches, jigs and reels of the European tradition, but applied syncopated rhythms and minor tonalities derived from Africa. They were often granted privileges denied to field slaves, including a chance to travel when their services were required at other venues. Solomon Northup, a free man from New York who was kidnaped and sold into slavery in Louisiana, later described how his ordeal was mitigated by his ability to play the fiddle. In his book Twelve Years A Slave, published in 1853, Northup wrote:

“Alas! had it not been for my beloved violin, I scarcely can conceive how I could have endured the long years of bondage. It introduced me to great houses- relieved me of many days’ labor in the field- supplied me with conveniences for my cabin- with pipes and tobacco, and extra pairs of shoes, and oftentimes led me away from the presence of a hard master, to witness scenes of jollity and mirth. It was my companion- the friend of my bosom triumphing loudly when I was joyful, and uttering its soft, melodious consolations when I was sad. It heralded my name around the country- made me friends, who, otherwise would not have noticed me- gave me an honored seat at the yearly feasts, and secured the loudest and heartiest welcome of them all at the Christmas dance.”

Many slave fiddlers played European instruments, but others used homemade devices fashioned from gourds, much like the African banjo, only bowed instead of plucked. It is likely that some slaves imported from areas of West Africa took more readily to the European violin because of their experience with native instruments that resembled the fiddle, such as the goge. The goge, common throughout the savannah belt, consists of a calabash resonator covered with reptile skin and a single string made of horsehair, played with an arched bow. Fiddles made from gourds or even from sardine tins or cigar boxes, were current among blacks in America during slavery, and even into the 20th century. As late as 1935, the obscure “Dad” Tracy from Memphis recorded for the Bluebird label playing his homemade fiddle, performances that display the instrument’s remarkable versatility.

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One Response to “African-American Fiddlers on Early Phonograph Records”

  1. Says:

    I really appreciate you taking the time to go through all of this.
    I”ve been a hunter for some time now and haven’t had this explained properly to me

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