Alas! had it not been for my beloved violin,
I scarcely can conceive how I could have
endured the long years of bondage.
It was my companion—the friend of
my bosom triumphing loudly when
I was joyful, and uttering its soft, melodious
consolations when I was sad.
- Solomon Northup
From the early 1700s to the Civil War enslaved and free Black fiddlers performed the music for dances and house parties hosted by elite plantation owners at their farms and town houses in the American south. For the Black community Black fiddlers played a very different role. Black fiddlers combined the European dance music they performed at these high-visibility White social events with ballads and songs, church hymns, African melodies and rhythms and their Caribbean variations to create a distinctive fusion music that served to bind together Black experience in the American south. In their music we hear a soundtrack of slavery. When Black fiddlers moved west and north in the 1800s their soundtrack became a national music, a music so attractive, so popular, that after the Civil War it was mainstreamed and diluted.
But it has not been lost. Early Black fiddler traditions have been passed down from one generation to the next. Some early Black fiddler music has been revived, most notably by the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Other music has been discovered by scholars, and it awaits fresh performance and its rightful recognition. We have recruited a talented cast of Black fiddlers and a diverse team of academic and independent scholars, including, Jacqueline DjeDje, Kip Lornell, John Sullivan, Benjamin Hunter, Rhiannon Giddens, Justin Robinson and others. Script development has been thoroughly collaborative, sharing information almost daily. Through this back-and-forth we have forged relationships of trust, and this trust has enabled candor and debate about vexing moral questions regarding artistic independence, the social responsibility of musicians and music historians, intellectual (or artistic) property, and past and present discrimination in the American cultural or music industry.
Benjamin Hunter, whose Seattle-based Black and Tan Hall nonprofit has pioneered the use of music for community development, will be the onscreen film narrator. On location interviews and sessions with Hunter and other team members, supplemented by previously uncollected archival portraits and photographs, will serve as chapters in a big story. The Black fiddlers story makes possible the framing and sharing of hard questions about social justice through music and a correction of the historical record. Black Fiddlers will demonstrate that enslaved and free Black fiddlers were independent artists; that, paradoxically, it is Black fiddlers at the low end of the social ladder who have access to all musical traditions in colonial America and the early republic; that their “soundtrack of slavery” is a musical model of integration, and perhaps of reconciliation and forgiveness as well; that a fusion music once thought to begin after the Civil War begins, in fact, much earlier, as soon as there is a Black experience whose harsh discordances and cross-cultural networks seek musical ordering and expression. With bold-face talent and distinguished scholars Black Fiddlers has the potential to reach audiences across the lines of race and gender, age and class.
HERITAGE FILM PROJECT + EARLY MUSIC ACCESS PROJECT present BLACK FIDDLERS
a film by EDUARDO MONTES-BRADLEY Executive Producer DAVID McCORMICK
Associate Producers JEFFREY PLANK
Development made possible with a gift from
The Joseph & Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation
Early Music Access Project and Individual Contributions
With the Collaboration of
BENJAMIN HUNTER RHIANNON GIDDENS JACQUELINE C. DJEDJE JUSTIN ROBINSON
JOHN J. SULLIVAN DAVID McCORMICK IRIS THOMPSON CHAPMAN TERRY JENOURE MARSHALL WYATT KIP LORNELL
NICOLE CHERRY PABLO FARIAS LOREN LUDWIG HOWARD & JUDY SACKS
THE EBONY HILLBILLIES LOREN LUDWIG MARY C. LINGOLD DAN FOSTER
Written and Directed by