Black Fiddlers is a documentary film about African-American musicians whose contributions to a national cultural identity have yet to be fully recognized. Organized as a book of short stories with a common and unifying thread, Black Fiddlers navigates space and time, from the Atlantic shores to the Pacific, from the Colonial period to the American Civil War, in search of Black men and women, free and enslaved, who contributed with their music to the American musical soundscape.
In eighteenth-century Richmond, Virginia, the filmmaker finds Sy Gilliat (1756-1820), AN acclaimed virtuoso enslaved to Lord Botetourt, Governor of the Virginia Colony. Gilliat performed European opera melodies and a wide variety of dance tunes for the Virginia aristocracy. However, Gilliat’s fame transcended the Governor’s mansion, and his music also filled the rooms of Richmond’s taverns and dance halls where diverse audiences would gather to hear one of the best-known musicians of the day.
As our team of researchers and musicians move westward in search of other fiddlers, we find Eston and Madison Hemings in Charlottesville. They were the mixed-race children of Thomas Jefferson and the enslaved Sally Hemings. After their manumission following Jefferson’s death, Eston and Madison pioneered a musical tradition in Charlottesville that could still be glimpsed in the first performances of The David Matthews Band on West Main Street where Eston and Madison lived before moving West to Chillicothe, Ohio. It is in Ohio, however, where the musical legacy of Jefferson’s Black children still resonates loud and clear.
In Mount Vernon, not far from Chillicothe, Black Fiddlers’ director Eduardo Montes-Bradley learns of the legend of The Snowden Family Band, a multigenerational clan of Black musicians. The Snowden’s talents have been recognized and celebrated in recent years through the recordings of The Carolina Chocolate Drops and Rhiannon Giddens.
“It was the violin playing and not the gold”
As the crew resumes the journey in search of Black fiddlers of the past, their attention is momentarily diverted to Wilmington, North Carolina, and the sounds of Old Frank Johnson’s fiddle. Old Frank enjoyed an extraordinary reputation for almost half a century, and according to some he was the James Brown of his time.
Back on the road, the Black Fiddlers team hears the echoes of Lewis Alexander Southworth (1830-1917) and the sweet melodies he played to entertain gold diggers, “loose women,” and pioneers in the mining camps of Oregon. “It was the violin playing and not the gold”, he said, that ultimately paid for his freedom. Southworth was a musician, pioneer settler in the frontier, exemplary citizen, and an early champion of voting rights. Pictorial evidence of Southworth’s later years shows him dressed in a dark suit and worn dusty boots, sitting in a rocking chair and gazing at a portrait of Lincoln hanging over the mantle next to his violin. In another photograph, the bridge of his nose crinkles with a smile that extends to his eyes. He holds his violin, a dear companion and witness to the extraordinary transformations that had taken the United States from the early years of British, French, and Spanish colonialism through Emancipation following the Civil War.
Black Fiddlers, narrated by Benjamin Hunter and produced in collaboration with distinguished scholars and performers, is not just a documentary, it’s a road movie aspiring to provide the first comprehensive account of America’s rich musical history as told by Black fiddlers of today.