African-American Fiddlers in Central Missouri

Map of Slave populations in Missouri, 1860, showing high populations along the Missouri river between KC and Washington, and north to  Hannibal, as well as in the bootheel.

Map of Slave populations in Missouri, 1860

In 1860, seven central Missouri counties in the area known as “Little Dixie” had slave populations of 25% or more; the geography of land along the river made it appropriate for cultivation of hemp, cotton, tobacco, and other crops demanding a high proportion of low-cost hand labor. Unlike the southern portions of Missouri, whose Anglo populations were largely upland English and Scots-Irish subsistence farmers emigrating from other mountainous regions like the Appalachians, the Missouri riverfront areas were settled by midland and tidewater southerners whose ancestors had been landholders and farmers in England, and who brought with them slaves for agricultural and domestic use.  A fascinating list of local plantations and background includes one which can be visited as part of a Missouri State Park.

Thus far, Missouri’s history is much like that of any other slave state. However, it is different in that unlike the deep south, all around the relatively narrow Little Dixie area were large swaths of land nearly entirely without black populations, slave or free, and without the economic and cultural background favorable to slavery. Partially as a result of the contrasts, Missouri was a fiercely contested and violent place to be during the Civil War.

Against a background of racism, poverty and the violent aftermath of the Civil War, free black culture and community coalesced in this narrow band along the Missouri River. Violence, from property damage to murder, was a reality for black citizens, and the years between 1865 and 1920 show a steady migration of what had been a primarily rural black population into the larger cities, particularly St. Louis and Kansas City in Missouri. However, many also stayed in central Missouri.

Photo of early classroom buildings on Lincoln University's campus

Early buildings on Lincoln University campus, Jefferson City, MO

Although many remained in poverty, and farm labor remained the most common occupation, black entrepreneurs also started businesses or carved out professions for themselves as ministers, doctors, and educators. In 1866, a group of African-American soldiers of the 62nd and 65th Colored Infantries gave a total of $6400 to found the institution now known as Lincoln University, with the express purpose of educating black freedmen.  It was only the 13th institution of its kind in the nation.

It’s no surprise at all that remarkable musicians emerged from this community, but it is sometimes a surprise for contemporary audiences to learn that some of these African-American musicians were playing what we’d call “old-time” or “traditional music.”

The word “traditional” can be somewhat misleading, because while it’s often used to mean Anglo-American traditional music, it can of course refer to any music passed from person to person as part of a larger community context. By that measure, African-Americans, both free and enslaved, were undoubtedly playing traditional music of their own long before adoption of Anglo-American instruments or repertoire. Before the days of recorded music, most music was traditional, in the sense that most musicians were unable to read and write music, so learned to play from their families, friends and neighbors. Travel was difficult, and communities were small, so individual musicians were in a sense a sampling of the sounds around them. Every culture and ethnicity has its own musical traditions, and, unsurprisingly, cultures living in close contact often swap motifs, rhythms, techniques, instruments and ideas, which is one way America wound up with zydeco and conjunto, as well as both black and white fiddlers.

African-Americans were living in close contact with Anglo-Americans, and certainly had the opportunity to swap tunes, but there are additional layers of cultural baggage tied up with black musicians playing Anglo-American traditional music. Enslaved musicians were often required by their white masters to play the music the masters desired—usually Anglo-American music—creating a population of black musicians with minimal choice in what they played. In the late 19th century, the huge popularity of minstrel acts, in which white performers in blackface portrayed “comedic” versions of rural black characters, further discouraged black musicians who happened to play fiddle or banjo music. Minstrel shows, full of ridicule for African-American culture, including its music and dance traditions, are partially responsible for the disappearance of those traditions (Marshall, 164-5).

Under the weight of history and prejudice, Missouri’s black fiddlers appear to have disappeared entirely, but they have left a significant legacy. There are tunes still played in Missouri and more widely that can be traced to these players. The players themselves are remembered by people young enough to be their great-great-great-grandchildren. Arguably even more important is the influence of Missouri’s black fiddlers and banjo players on the history of pop music, specifically through ragtime. Ragtime is considered to be a development by black musicians, transferring their interpretations of the fiddle and banjo music they played, much of it from Anglo-American sources but overlaid with their own interpretations, into piano music that mimicked the distinctive rhythms and open arpeggios common in that music. Ragtime often self-consciously referenced the structures and affectations of classical music (including ostentatiously discouraging improvisation and fast playing in the notes to sheet music) while maintaining as its home base the sound of down-home popular music, which at the time, to a large extent, meant fiddle tunes. Sedalia, Missouri, home of Scott Joplin, was the hotbed of ragtime’s development, and the new styles traveled up and down the Missouri River to St. Louis and Kansas City, where they were blended by local musicians with their own traditions to create a rich soup of styles that spread like wildfire through sheet music, piano rolls, and live concerts. Ragtime’s wild popularity coalesced to make it an important influence on up-and-coming pianists and bands who played the new jazz and dixieland styles as well as popular music all over the nation. The junction between ragtime and the styles that followed is just at the leading edge of the onset of widely available recorded music, and particularly radio, which made the music available to people all over America.  Pianists like “Jelly Roll” Morton, James P. Johnson, and their contemporaries are just a short hop from Sedalia-style ragtime, which is itself just a short hop from the black fiddle tradition that preceded it.

Photo of James P. Johnson at the piano

James P. Johnson at the piano

The influence of Missouri’s black traditional musicians may be significant, but the information available about them today is unfortunately small. The names and faces of an untold number have been lost to time and prejudice, but we are lucky to have a few of their tunes that have survived and continue to set toes tapping today: Katon’s Reel, Limpin’ Sal, and Iberia Breakdown come to mind.

Following is a list of Missouri’s black old-time musicians we’ve been able to compile:

  • Ace Donnell, Sr. – fiddle, Monroe City
  • Bill Burdick – fiddle, Jefferson City
  • Bill Driver – fiddle, Iberia
  • Bill Katon – fiddle, Tebbetts
  • Bud Price – Springfield
  • Bye Kelly – bass, Springfield
  • Cal Jefferson – mandolin, piano, Neosho
  • Fillmore Taylor Hancock – fiddle, tambourine, Springfield, Rolla
  • Howard Cave – fiddle, Callaway County
  • John Banks – fiddle, mandolin, Arrow Rock
  • John Henry (Bud) Summers – fiddle, Monroe City
  • Ola Gathright – fiddle, Wainwright
  • Tommy Johnson – fiddle, Granby
  • Walt Dougherty – Higbee

We would be delighted to hear from anyone who has any stories to tell about these folks, or any others we’ve missed—please visit our about page to get in touch!

Marshall, 164-5: Marshall, Howard. “Play Me Something Quick and Devilish: Old-Time Fiddlers in Missouri” (University of Missouri Press, 2012)