Notes On Black Musicians in East Kentucky


My research of banjo history in Knott County, Kentucky, and the surrounding area is on-going. Listed below are a few notes regarding African American musicians in east Kentucky.

Old-Time Kentucky Fiddle Tunes by Jeff Todd Titon, published in 2001 by the University Press of Kentucky. This book contains information about Manon Campbell, a Letcher County fiddler:

"Manon Campbell, who was born in 1890, recalled Will Christian, an outstanding African American fiddler of his father’s generation who played for dances in southeastern Kentucky."

W. M. Christian was 48 (born ca 1872) in the 1920 Knott County census. He lived in the African American community at Redfox. Noah Christian of Redfox was 8 in the 1920 Knott county census. Preacher Clarren Williams of Redfox said Noah played banjo "a little bit."

African Americans from Redfox in Knott County  compiled a genealogy that includes a black lady born ca. 1885 in Perry County, Kentucky. She is described as being able to play the banjo "til the cows come home."

Early Letcher County census records indicate these African American musicians all had ancestors in Kentucky well prior to the Civil War.

Josiah Combs, in Folk-songs of the Southern United States describes Cullie Williams as being a "great banjer picker." Cullie Williams was 40 (born ca. 1880) in the 1920 Knott County census, and lived in Redfox. He killed his wife sometime in the 1920s and was sentenced to life in prison, but was later pardoned. I learned a song about Cullie killing his wife when I was a boy. At that time I did not know that Cullie was African American, or that he was a banjo player.

Coy Morton of Whitesburg, Kentucky, is a relative by marriage. He has played banjo for more than 70 years. He described a family of African American musicians playing near the jail in Whitesburg, Kentucky, ca. 1929. He believes this family included a father, mother, son and a daughter. He remembers the family playing banjo, guitar and fiddle. It was a tradition at one time for musicians in the mountains to play near the courthouse and jail during special events.

Leonard Roberts, in Sang Branch Settlers, quotes Tom Couch (b. ca. 1860, d. 1956), a Harlan County banjo player, saying that one of his forbears started the tradition of picking and singing by making himself a banjo from an old gourd. The banjo playing Couch family members do not mention African Americans in regard to the banjo. However, the Couch family folktale # 143 in Sang Branch Settlers is about Sambo and Golder, who were slaves. Sambo and Golder were sent out horse hunting by their King:

"And he had him a gourd and he made him a banjer out of it. Well, when the [King] sent Sambo to hunt for Golder he found him under a rock pickin' on that old banjer and a-singin' ..."

Doris Ullman photographed a young black fiddler at or near the Hindman Settlement School in Knott County ca. 1930.

The liner notes to the Addie Graham LP, Been a Long Time Traveling, June Appal Recording 020, describes her encounter with an African American banjo player in Magoffin County, Kentucky. This fine LP will hopefully be reissued as a CD in the near future.