Music of Williamsburg



by Shlomo Pestcoe, Banjo Roots Research Initiatives

Music of Williamsburg” (DVD dir. by Alan Lomax, 1960,
, was an educational period docufiction ‘short’ produced by Colonial Williamsburg to present, through costumed historical reenactment, the various different kinds of music and music instruments that might have been heard on a single day in 1768 in Williamsburg, the capital of Virginia from 1699 to 1780. Appropriately enough, a recreation of the early gourd banjo would appear in the film along with other early African American folk instruments – the cane fife, the  jawbone, and the ‘goombay’ drum – to provide the music for a dance gathering of the portrayed enslaved blacks.

The idea of recreating a slavery-era gourd banjo for use in Music of Williamsburg was the brainchild of trailblazing folklorist Alan Lomax (1915-2002). He had been brought on board to program music for the film[2] appropriate to the African Americans  of Williamsburg (mostly enslaved, though there were some free black families), who “probably constituted about one-half” of the population of Virginia’s capital during the colonial period. [3] In this capacity, Lomax would assemble “a remarkable cast of talented folk musicians representing early Southern music, including the Sea Island singers [Bessie Jones, John Davis, Henry Morrison, Alberta Ramsay, and Emma Ramsay]; Bahamian drummer Nat Rahmings, who had come up from Miami; Mississippi hill country fife player Ed Young; Virginia Tidewater jawbone player Prince Ellis; and Virginia mountain multi-instrumentalist Hobart Smith.”

The talents of all of these tradition-bearers would be showcased in a major scene in the film showing the portrayed enslaved blacks coming together after dark for an informal social dance gathering, traditionally referred to in African American folklore as a ‘frolic’. As Bessie Smith Jones (1902-1984), the Sea Islanders’ lead singer, would put it in her reminiscences about growing up in rural Georgia during the early 1900s: “In those days we didn’t have parties – so-called parties – we had frolics.”

For the film’s suppositious recreation of an 18th century slave frolic, Lomax chose Reg’lar, Reg’lar, Rolling Under, a song that he had uncovered in his research that he posited as being “the oldest published black dance song from Virginia.”  He taught it to the performers, who embraced and ‘folk-processed’ the song, thereby making it their own:

“The Sea Islanders sang with slavery-era accompaniment; the [cane] fife, the one-headed drum, and a replica of the four-string, fretless banjo. Hobart Smith picked the bowl-shaped ‘slave’ banjo with abandon, Ed Young blew thrilling litany phrases on his cane fife, and Nat Rahmings played a drum of a type once used in St. Simons [the second largest of the Sea Islands off the coast of Georgia and the home of the Georgia Sea Island Singers] and still played in the Bahamas. I cannot swear to the authenticity of this reconstructed music, but the musically conservative Sea Island singers gave it their enthusiastic approval.”

As with the other three songs performed by the Sea Island singers in the film, Lomax made an audio recording of Reg’lar, Reg’lar, Rolling Under  in a separate session, which is what was used for the film’s soundtrack. Hobart Smith (1897-1965), a Euro-Appalachian traditional banjo player/fiddler from Saltville, Virginia, actually plays “the four-string, fretless banjo” on the soundtrack. However an unidentified black actor  is shown miming the action of playing the instrument in the scene.

Lomax’s choice of Smith to play “the bowl-shaped ‘slave’ banjo” begs the question: why didn’t he cast an actual black banjo player for the scene?  According to his biographer John Szwed, Lomax did try to find black banjo players locally in Virginia but to no avail. The few leads he had proved fruitless.

Actually, at the time there were several African American traditional 5-string banjoists close by in the Piedmont regions of North Carolina and Virginia, such as Dink Roberts (1894-1989), John Snipes, Odell Thompson (1911-1994), and John Jackson (1924-2002). Unfortunately, Lomax apparently was not aware of them then as they had existed far below the radar of  academia and the then burgeoning folk music revival until the early ‘70s.

He was, however, very well acquainted with Sid Hemphill (1876-1963), a blind African American multi-instrumentalist of the northeastern Mississippi Hill Country who played 5-string banjo, as well as fiddle, guitar, cane fife, and ‘quills’ (the African American folk form of panpipes). Lomax first field recorded him extensively in 1942 and then again in the summer of 1959, the year before the Music of Williamsburg was made. On both occasions, Hemphill was accompanied by his longtime musical partner, Lucius Smith (1889-?), who played 5-string banjo and drums. [11]  In 1960, when Lomax was scouting folk masters for the film, Hemphill would have been 84 and Smith, 71. Perhaps their advanced years and/or the states of their health accounted for Lomax’s decision not to bring them to Virginia along with their neighbor, cane fifer Ed Young,  to perform in Music of Williamsburg.


One Response to “Music of Williamsburg”

  1. REED MARTIN Says:

    I was a lucky kid – just had gotten my drivers license and moved to the big Washington, D.C. area – when Ralph Rinzler asked me to bring folks up to the Folklife Festival. I drove to the Georgia Sea Islands and brought the Georgia Sea Island Singers to the Folklife Festival on the Mall. As I recall – we never turned on the radio -because they sang most of the way between Georgia and The Mall.
    Great memories of three wonderful passengers.

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