“A cracked violin, a dismal guitar and a wheezy bass viol”

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by Mike Seeger (excerpt from liner notes to “Early Southern Guitar Styles”):

 

The turmoil following the Civil War was transforming Southern life.

Industrialization was beginning, leading to urbanization and giving

former rural dwellers money in their pockets.

 

For those who remained on the farm, cash crops established their part

of the dollar economy.  Traveling salesmen and general stores were

becoming active in small towns. Towards the end of the century, railroads

and a postal system made possible mail order of almost anything,

including guitars.

 

Emancipation gave African Americans some measure of freedom of

movement and livelihood for the first time. It freed black musical creativity.

General consciousness of black music and singing could be less subject to

white interpretation than in the heyday of the minstrel shows…

 

Community-made music continued to be popular in rural areas, especially

throughout the South.  Musical tastes were evolving. Factory production

made possible the very inexpensive guitars that were offered by mail-order

houses and furniture or music stores from about 1890 onward.

 

The advent of the three-dollar guitar put the instrument into the hands of a player

for the equivalent of three or four days’ wages rather than the month’s required for

a Martin or Haynes. These instruments…could compete and mix with a banjo

or fiddle.

 

Evidence of working-class playing of these guitars is sparse during this

period.  I came across one intriguing, reliable report by writer Lafcadio Hearn

describing an African American string band consisting of “a cracked violin,

a dismal guitar and a wheezy bass viol” at a lively 1875 waterfront square

dance in Cincinnati.  I think it’s significant that this combination of

instruments appeared at an African American dance only a decade after

emancipation.

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