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African American contributions to the Appalachian bluegrass of Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, Buck Graves, and others 


“All In The Family I,” by Appalachian artist Willard Gayheart, was inspired by a conversation in 2000 between the artist and Jack Tottle about major contributions of African Americans and other minorities to bluegrass, old-time and country music. A mural painted by Marianne Mylet and based on the sketch art, has been on display since 2002 on the first floor of ETSU’s Sherrod Library.

By Jack Tottle 


This is the final story in a three-part series by Jack Tottle on the evolution of bluegrass music — its origins, influences, and inspirations in Appalachia and beyond. 

 

History. Does it repeat itself? Sometimes. Kind of. 

 

Earlier this year, Texas-born Beyoncé’s country single “Texas Hold ’Em” made her the first African American woman to reach No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart. This came less than a year after white country star Luke Combs had a chart-topping hit with “Fast Car” written by Black female artist Tracy Chapman. 

DeFord Bailey, during the 1970s. (Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in The New York Times: “Beyoncé’s other single, 16 Carriages,’ released simultaneously on Feb. 11, also debuted at No. 9 on the Billboard country chart. The songs reached No. 2 and No. 38 on the Billboard Hot 100. ‘Texas Hold ’Em’ has already drawn more than 19 million streams, and ‘16 Carriages’ has 10.3 million streams.” 


All this serves as a reminder that the Grand Ole Opry’s first star was a Black artist, harmonica player DeFord Bailey. In 1981, after Bailey’s death, the Father of Bluegrass, Bill Monroe,

paid tribute to him by playing Monroe’s mandolin version of the harmonica master’s evocative “Evening Prayer Blues” at a memorial service for Bailey.  


A Tennessee Historical Commission marker in Smith County, Tennessee, the birthplace of Grand Ole Opry harmonica player DeFord Bailey. (Photo by Brian Stansberry, Wikimedia Commons.)

A number of other Black artists such as Charley Pride, Rhiannon Giddens, Dom Flemons, Linda 

Martell, Darius Rucker, Mickey Guyton and Kane Brown, as well as East Tennessee State University alumni Amythyst Kiah and Tray Wellington, have contributed a wondrous assortment of musical gems to the world of country, Americana, traditional, old-time music and bluegrass. 

Yet the music of bluegrass music’s founding generation owes a greater debt to African American music and culture than many would suspect.  

 

Weird sounds’ inspire


In the early 1900s, African American musician and bandleader W.C. Handy (1873-1958) heard a man in northeast Mississippi playing music like none Handy had ever experienced. “His face had on it the sadness of the ages,” Handy wrote in his 1941 autobiography, Father of the Blues. “As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of the guitar in a manner popularized by Hawaiian guitarists who used steel bars. …The singer repeated the line three times, accompanying himself on the guitar with the weirdest music I had ever heard.” 


So moved was Handy that he absorbed what he could and incorporated what he heard into his own music. The results were some of the most enduring blues of the 20th century. Handy was inspired to compose numerous tunes such as “Memphis Blues,” “Beale Street Blues,” and St. Louis Blues.” His songs became so widely played that Handy became known as The Father of the Blues. 


Several decades later, during the early 1930s in the Appalachian community of Tellico Plains, Tennessee, near North Carolina, something strikingly similar happened. A different African American man set his neighbor, a young white boy named Buck Graves, on a musical journey that by the 1950s would introduce the fresh sound of the Dobro into bluegrass music and inspire generations of brilliant musicians.  

Buck Graves

“There was an old sharecropper that lived next to us, Black man, his name was Buck Roper,” Buck Graves said to Tim Stafford and me about 1988. “I give him a lot of credit for some of the stuff that I do. I’d listen to him of a night, and we’d get all the wood carried in and the water, whatever you had to do, and I’d go and sit and listen to him. Get afraid to come back across the stream by myself — little ol’ feller.   

 

“…He played a banjo. Had a bottle neck, a bottle on his finger. He’d mix blues with whatever he’d sing. I thought he was the greatest thing I’d ever seen. 

 

“It was old gut-bucket blues, more or less,” Graves said. “It didn’t sound like anything I’d heard. Son you could hear some weird sounds comin’ through that creek, I’ll guarantee you that!” 

 

Playing notes with a knife blade or a bottleneck, whether on guitar or banjo, allows the musician to play, in addition to the normal major, minor, or modal scales, an array of “in between notes” or “micro-tones,” and to execute sliding phrases, which noting with fingers does not allow.  Interestingly, both W.C. Handy and, decades later Buck Graves, were mesmerized by the unfamiliar sound, and each could only describe it as “weird.” In Graves’s case, it led him to master those sliding techniques on the dobro using a steel bar. 


As far back as the 1930s, Kentucky mandolinist Bill Monroe — later to be known as the “Father of Bluegrass Music” — began sowing musical seeds throughout rural America. These took root and blossomed throughout a wide swath of the nation, most notably along the rocky hillsides and fertile valleys of Appalachia. 

   

Bill Monroe, the “Father of Bluegrass Music.” (Photo courtesy of Archives of Appalachia.)

Although not fully appreciated until fairly recently, the Monroe music that his fans heard via radio broadcasts, recordings and personal appearances embodied a unique combination of both traditional European — primarily Anglo-Scottish/Irish — and musical concepts from African American music. (See “Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass — Black and White Music Intertwined” Appalachian Places, February 2024.)

 

The 1940s and ’50s saw an explosion of brilliant Appalachian recording artists whose music built on the foundation Monroe had created. These, however, were not just imitators. Each successful group had something new and distinctive to offer. Listeners encountered a wide range of fresh musical instrumental and vocal styles, as well as a variety of songs in which to immerse themselves. 

 

Foggy Mountain Boys 

 

By the 1950s and ’60s, two former members of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, were fronting the best-known band playing the style that became known as bluegrass. First recording in 1948, Flatt and Scruggs established themselves in numerous ways as distinct from Monroe. But like Monroe’s, their music drew on both Black and white musical traditions.   


Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys perform, in this photo and the one below, during a 1960s summer concert in Nashville. (From a Flat and Scruggs song and picture album, courtesy of Archives of Appalachia. Photos by Jack Corn.)

The bluegrass banjo, made famous by Scruggs, had evolved over time from an African instrument introduced to America by enslaved people. As American cultural icon and banjo player Steve Martin put it: “Before Earl, nobody played like he did. After Earl, everyone played like Earl — or tried to!” 

 

The basic pattern of the three-finger style that Scruggs employed so brilliantly represents, according to the late musicologist and musician Gunther Schuller, an adaptation by Black musicians of vastly more complex African rhythms to the 4/4 time signature so prevalent in America’s white musical heritage. This 1-2-1-2-3- 1-2-3 pattern, with variations, underpins bluegrass banjo playing, and is also utilized, at times, on other bluegrass instruments. It is likewise found in ragtime, jazz, and western swing. The actual moment of its transmission from Black to white musicians remains a mystery. 

 

Multi-instrumentalist Raymond McLain spent decades recording and touring the world with the McLain Family Band, and subsequently with Grand Ole Opry stars Jim and Jesse McReynolds. McLain was interested in the earliest history of three-finger banjo playing. He once asked affable South Carolinian Snuffy Jenkins, a pioneering pre-bluegrass banjoist, where he first heard anyone using this technique. Jenkins’ answer did not pinpoint a specific player. 

    

In my experience, the majority of musicians can be very specific about who was the first person to play a new and interesting style of music that captivated them and set them on a path to learn it. In 1988, Earl Scruggs told me, “I remember hearing Mack Woolbright playing “Home Sweet Home” sitting around at my uncle’s. He played three-finger style. I believe he recorded it. (See the 1927 recording of Charlie Parker’s tongue-in-cheek “The Man Who Wrote ‘Home Sweet Home’ Never Was a Married Man.”)   

 

Numerous top banjo players have since repeatedly described the unforgettable moment they first heard Earl Scruggs’ playing style and how it changed their lives. 

Jenkins, however, was strangely vague about where he first heard 3-finger style banjo. He told McLain, “There were some men around here that played that way.” When pressed on the subject, all Snuffy would say was “just some men.” While it certainly doesn’t prove these were Black musicians, the Carolinas, since slavery times, had been home to a disproportionate number of African American banjo players.   

 

“I like bluegrass so much because of the blend of Black and white musical influences. The blues and the Scotch-Irish fiddling. So much of American music we owe to Black people — such as Robert Johnson or Lesley Riddle (Maybelle Carter’s African American blues guitar teacher). It’s too bad a lot of people don’t want to give Black musicians the credit they deserve.” 

 

— Rob Ickes,

15-time IBMA 

Dobro Player of the Year.

 

Introducing the Dobro 

 

In 1955, a 28-year-old Graves joined Flatt and Scruggs. Rechristened for the stage as “Uncle Josh” Graves, he introduced a new and distinctive sound into the world of bluegrass. His original blues-laden Dobro style was at first somewhat controversial among fans of the Foggy Mountain Boys. However, he would come to inspire a new generation of young Dobro players led by the prodigiously versatile and imaginative Jerry Douglas. 

    

During our 1988 conversation, Graves talked at length about the influences that, from childhood, had shaped his novel approach to the Dobro. 

 

“My daddy was the kind of guy who’d drink some,” Graves said, “and maybe once a month he’d throw a party for his friends. ’Course you have some kind of entertainment — they was comin’ to the house. He’d hire these two Black people. One played a tater bug (round-backed) mandolin — that big-bodied thing. The other played guitar, an old Silvertone.   

 

“He’d hire them to come and do the parties for him. He had them a jug. He had that hid in one place and another for his friends in another place. I hung around them. I sat and listened to them all the time. They were doing just straight ol’ blues. You wouldn’t call it Delta blues — I guess it’s what I call gut-bucket, lowdown kind, which is my favorite. They’d go out, I’d go out with them and talk with them. Become pretty good friends and learned a lot from them, too, really. 

 

“You know (listening to) Monroe helped me a lot,” Graves said. “A lot of his stuff I liked on the mandolin, back in the early days. When you paid attention. (you’d hear him) hit some licks on that mandolin, you know, and it’s blues. Like on “The Old Crossroads” (a gospel song) and stuff like that you can hear those licks. And I like that sound. I guess you pick it up different places, wherever you go. But blues has always been my favorite type of music.” 

  

“There used to be a radio program here (in Nashville), Herman Grizzard, late at night. “I’d sit when I was home, had my earphones I could plug in, wouldn’t disturb anybody with the radio being on. Take a tape machine sometimes, tape that stuff he played.   

 

“One night, Hank (“Sugarfoot”) Garland, a great guitar picker, said, ‘I'm gonna tell you something. I know what you been listenin’ to.’ I said, ‘What are you talkin’ about?’ He said, ‘you listen to Herman Grizzard every night that you can, don’t you?’ I said, ‘Yeah. But you learn things.’” 

 

Grizzard was a white radio DJ who played records by Black blues artists on Nashville’s WLAC. “Who were your favorites?” I asked Graves. 

  

“(Lightning) Hopkins. And I liked Jimmy Reed,” Graves said without hesitation. “I loved his stuff. But Hopkins was my favorite. I got all kind of stuff on him.” 

   

When Graves joined Flatt and Scruggs, he found that he didn’t have to leave his beloved blues behind. To the contrary, the band’s bluegrass music already had plenty of blues in it. Scruggs’ tasteful bending of blues notes (primarily minor 3rd to major 3rd) provided the “twang” that bluegrass fans fell in love with.   



Pre-bluegrass versions of Flatt’s famous “G-run” are found on earlier recordings by Black players, including Bobby Leecan and Robert Cooksey’s 1927 “Washboard Cutout,” (played in the key of C), and the hot, up-tempo guitar break — likely played by Black sideman Oscar Woods — which concludes Jimmie Davis’ 1930 “Bear Cat Mama From Horner’s Corners.”   

 

Flatt constructed guitar breaks around the G-run for the band’s blues progression vocal on its 1951 “Don’t Get Above Your Raisin’” (later a 1981 country hit for Ricky Skaggs) and for Scruggs’ jazzy banjo instrumental, “Foggy Mountain Special.” 

 

Flatt and Scruggs’ repertoire already included several other songs with blues structures: “Doin’ My Time,” “Head Over Heels In Love With You,” “Six White Horses” (with Flatt’s bluesy guitar break), “Lonesome Road Blues,” and “Bugle Call Rag, a jazz composition that Scruggs reworked for the banjo.   

 

Scruggs’ classic instrumental “Reuben” is remarkably similar to African American Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “Jack O’Diamonds.” Scruggs’ “Mama Blues” is an inspired adaptation of a harmonica tune played by the Grand Ole Opry’s DeFord Bailey. 

 

“What’s the Matter Now,” a great favorite by the Foggy Mountain Boys mandolinist and powerful tenor singer, Curley Seckler, borrowed heavily from Black blues artists. 


“Well, I’ve always enjoyed the blues,” Scruggs told me in 1988, an assertion born out by the pains he had taken to encourage Graves, and to work with him on adapting his bluesy dobro to Scruggs’ fast-paced trademark banjo tunes. The band would go on to record more blues like “Steamboat Whistle Blues,” clearly derived from the Memphis Jug Band’s haunting “K.C. Moan” recorded in 1929. 

 

Other such Flatt and Scruggs blues standouts include “Big Black Train,” Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith’s “Florida Blues,” and blues previously recorded by the A.P. Carter Family: “Coal Miner’s Blues,” “Worried Man Blues,” and “Cannonball Blues,” a tune that highlights Scruggs’ lovely fingerpicked blues guitar work. Graves himself contributed additional bluesy instrumentals like “Steel Guitar Blues,” “Maggie Blues,” and “Foggy Mountain Rock.” 

 

Blues, however, were not the only concepts from Black artists that appealed to early bluegrass players. Flatt and Scruggs also performed a few songs containing an African American ragtime chord progression — called the circle of fifths — reminiscent of pieces recorded previously by Black artists. These include “Old Salty Dog Blues” (reworked by the Morris Brothers from Papa Charlie Jackson’s “Salty Dog”),  “You Are the Rainbow In My Dreams,” “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down,” and “I Know What It Means To Be Lonesome.” 

 

Other Flatt and Scruggs favorites with antecedents in Black music include “Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms,” “Let the Church Roll On,” “No Hiding Place Down Here,” and “John Henry.” 

 

African American folk music 

 

African American folk culture as a source of bluegrass song lyrics may come as a surprise to some listeners. However, there are many examples. (Lyrics from two such examples cited here include a racial slur that, although commonly used during the periods in which the songs originated, is offensive. While the songs are historically important, the offensive portions have been omitted for this article.)

 

Alabam’ 

  

Now some folks say that a tramp won’t steal, But I caught three in my cornfield 

     I’m on my way, I’m goin’ back, to Alabam’. 

One had a bushel, the other had a peck, One had a roastin’ ear tied around his neck 

     I’m on my way, I’m goin’ back, to Alabam’. 

    

In 1960, “Alabam,’” as sung by country star Cowboy Copas, graced the nation’s country music charts for 12 weeks, peaking at No. 1. Between verses Copas inserted his own very bluegrassy acoustic guitar solo built around variations on the “Lester Flatt G-Run.” Four years later, Jim and Jesse McReynolds would record their pure bluegrass cut of “Alabam’” highlighted by Jesse’s silken mandolin crosspicking and the brothers’ flawless vocal harmony. 

  

A previously enslaved Black woman, Kitty Hill, knew almost identical lyrics from her days on the plantation, perhaps a century earlier than Cowboy Copas’ hit: 

 

Some folks say that a  won’t steal; 

I caught two in my corn field;   

One had a bushel, one had a peck 

An’ one had roas’n’ ears round his neck. 

 

The principal difference is, of course, that in this version the thieves are presumably enslaved individuals. 

 

Another bluegrass classic and its antecedent:  


In 1922, Black chemist and folklorist Thomas Washington Talley published a collection titled Negro Rhymes, which reveals how elements from Black culture spoke to the lives and musical sensibilities of the first bluegrass musicians. The rhymes he collected came from a variety of sources in the Southern Black community, many from around Middle Tennessee. Many were remembered from the 1800s. Other scholars of African American folklore, such as John Work, Frank C. Brown, Eileen Southern, and others, have turned up additional pieces of the puzzle from various localities in the South.   

 

In some cases, the bluegrass lines below closely echo the Black versions. In some, the bluegrass versions represent a polishing or expansion of the earlier idea. Either way, it is fascinating to see how much there is in common between the two. Certain tunes may have debuted on the black-face minstrel stage. Looking over the examples below, the links between bluegrass and earlier African American songs and rhymes are hard to miss. 


(In several of the songs below, past scholars used unconventional spellings in an attempt to represent dialect in the lyrics, which can represent offensive racial and class stereotypes. The worst of these spellings have been removed from the tables.)



Some may view the use of African American motifs in bluegrass songs as nothing more than troubling theft from Black culture. However, it should be noted that early bluegrass songs also borrow heavily from — or co-opt in their entirety — numerous folk songs by white people, including ballads and tunes from the British Isles.   

 

The first generation of bluegrass artists wrote and adapted hundreds of songs and tunes which captured the lives and concerns of Americans of their era and earlier. Their recordings, major portions of which remain available online, serve as templates for today’s musicians and as windows into a not-too-distant time in American history. The focus is not primarily on the upper reaches of society, but on the daily challenges facing the working men and women whose efforts came to facilitate much of America’s prosperity. In today’s world where conspicuous wealth and power have come to dominate so much of the nation’s attention, bluegrass music can be a refreshing alternative.  

 

Musicians in general listen across musical boundaries and, upon hearing something they like, adopt it or draw inspiration from it. That numerous stories and kindred emotions find homes across racial divides reflects the remarkable breadth of experience shared by so many Americans regardless of race.  

 

For anyone who cares about the lives and concerns of the rural Americans from whom so much of our nation sprang, bluegrass provides endless insights in a delightfully accessible musical form. We are fortunate indeed to have recordings of the remarkable first generation of bluegrass musicians. 

 

Jack Tottle is a bluegrass artist, songwriter, author and educator who founded the East Tennessee State University Bluegrass, Old-Time, and Roots Music Studies program in 1982, which he directed until his retirement in 2007. He has performed and recorded with some of the most respected artists in bluegrass. 

 

For further reading:  

  • Mellon, James (ed.), Bullwhip Days — The Slaves Remember, Avon Books, New York, 1988. 

  • The Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore,  Duke University Press 1952. 

  • Southern, Eileen The Music of Black Americans W. W. Norton and Company, New York 1971.    

  • Talley, Thomas W. (Author), Charles K. Wolfe  (Editor) Negro Folk Rhymes , 1991.    

  • Work, John W. American Negro Songs: 230 Folk Songs and Spirituals, Religious and Secular (Dover Books On Music: Folk Songs) 1998.  

 

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