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Coming up in Alabama in the rural south of the teens and twenties, my father had to make a quick get-away to stay a couple of paces ahead of the local sheriff and the white robed posse. He hit the rails and began a long hobo journey first in the South and later up North. Somewhere in there he learned to play the harmonica. The harp was a great instrument for a traveling man whose modest possessions amounted to little more than a "bindle" and a few clothes. He evidently became quite a good player, playing in road camps or in line at the factory gates waiting for what little work was available. Sometimes he was able to put together a meal based on a couple of tunes. Other times he worked in back-breaking jobs everywhere the train would take him. It was in the depth of the depression that he made his way.
When I was 10 or 11, my father pulled out his harmonica and let loose with a couple of blues, followed by the train song. At the end of his set, he played the famous "Fox & Hounds." If you want to hear the song, go to your favorite download spot and search on "Sonny Terry." At the end of this song, my brother and I cracked up. To this day, I hold to our story that it was simply nervous laughter. It was something I had never heard before and Pops was so crushed that he never played the harp again in front of us. "Fox & Hounds," like "Turkey in the Straw," were endurance tests. The whooping helped the player pull off a kind of circular breathing.
In any case, after a good deal of trying and apologies on my part, Pops did relent and teach me how to get a sound out of a harmonica, how to bend notes, and how to pick notes out of the air. He said, "Look, it's simple. If you can whistle it, you can play it." To this day, I keep a harmonica on my desk. I just ripped a decent version of "Come on in My Kitchen." It is something you never forget.
In the 60' s and 70's, I, like many in The Movement, came across the Cultural Nationalists. This wing of the Black Nationalist movement, among other things, was into wearing long 'fros, dashikis, and insisting that the only authentic African American music was descended though the drum. Everything else was "handkerchief-head" music. That was very wrong and very narrow minded because our music sits on the confluence of many traditions. Many times all we had was the voice, a harmonica, a tambourine, or a set of bones. I guess their saving grace for the race was that a subset of these folks invented Kwanzaa.
"To my point," as Tavis Smiley likes to say, it is refreshing and quite beautiful to see the Carolina Chocolate Drops in ascent. Such a rich blend of music choosing from the roots, then the stem and the flower of our rich tradition. Wresting our beloved banjo, bones, and fiddle from the precipice of extinction and submersion in other cultures.
Gentlemen and lady, please know that this 59-year-old African American is part of your audience. I say this because both Terry Gross and Tavis Smiley seemed to question you on this demographic point. Doesn't your music cater mainly to white folks? For anyone with an open ear and a love of traditional American music, your eclectic brand of black roots music fills a long forgotten gap. Many of us have a secret love of this music. Sometimes, it is hidden like a quilt in the blues. Y'all keep on keeping on. We are listening.
My father died when I was 14, leaving a tremendous hole in my heart. It is ironic that toward the end of his life, he contracted TB, sucking the air from his lungs, making it impossible to force enough wind through a harp. When I reached high school, I fronted a band--singing and playing harmonica. To this day, I can still pick out a tune just by whistling it. Sometimes, I tune my guitar to Dm and dash off some Skip James
I just love your music. Keep on keeping on.