To some onlookers – those not steeped in music history – Earl White is a puzzle.
White, 67, is a Black man who plays mountain music, one of a very few Black old-time fiddlers.
When performing on festival stages or sidewalks, drawing from his vast mental library of fiddle tunes, White often gets questions and comments from white and Black listeners alike.
“I can recall going to festivals, especially the Galax Fiddlers’ Convention and Mount Airy and being approached numerous times by someone saying, ‘I’ve never seen a Black person playing the fiddle,'” White said. “And from the Black community, having people say, ‘Why are you playing that stuff?’ Not being aware of the rich history and contribution of this music that came right out of the Black community.”
White’s pride in the essential – if little recognized – contribution of African Americans to old-time music, plus the “fiddler’s high,” keeps the Floyd County resident performing, teaching young musicians, educating anyone who will listen, and searching for new tunes to play.
Farm life, the typical topic of old-time lyrics, is something White knows firsthand. He grew up in Newark, New Jersey, where his father was a plumber and butcher, but spent his summers on his grandparents’ farm near Greenville, North Carolina, tending tobacco, corn, cotton and peanuts. He valued his roots in the rural South. “When I grew up and it was time to go to college, that’s where I wanted to be,” he said. He enrolled at East Carolina University in Greenville.
He was introduced to clogging by a housemate, Dudley Culp, who had learned a few steps at the Old Fiddlers’ Convention in Galax. “He kept doing it and eventually everybody in the house was doing it. After getting booted out of the house because there was so much noise, we found a space in the Parks and Recreation building. We were doing a combination of clogging and square dancing.”
The Green Grass Cloggers’ first gig was in December 1971. Soon the group was getting so much work that White dropped out of school to become a professional dancer, or, as he says, a “starving clogger.”
“We started getting hired for primarily the big bluegrass festivals, and we danced with all the big bluegrass bands. And we were leaving a festival on the way to another festival, and we saw a sign that said ‘Galax, Virginia, home of the World’s Largest Fiddler’s Convention,’ and of course we stopped there. Now in most circles that we had been a part of, there was no old-time, it was all bluegrass. In between the bluegrass jams in one section of this festival site, there was this really unusual and unfamiliar sound. So we decided to go and find that sound. We met a band called Swamp Root and met some of the people from the Highwoods String Band. These were old-time musicians. And when we heard these people play, it was an instant marriage between the Green Grass Cloggers and old-time music.”
Group members soon learned to play the music they were dancing to.
Bluegrass vs. Old-Time and the Fiddler’s High
“Old time music was the music of the people,” said White. “People basically played for their own personal enjoyment. It was more closely associated with Scottish-Irish music. That, in combination with the fact that a lot of black slaves who had an opportunity to escape the plantations … found refuge in the Appalachian Mountains. The people that took them in were the Native Americans and … people of Irish descent. You had that blending … you had the African influence on the Scottish-Irish and vice versa.
“The old-time music was not a performance-oriented music. Whereas bluegrass, when it came on the scene, it was flashier, it was jazzier, and it became more performance-oriented. Another big difference was in the banjo … most of the old-time music is played with an open-back banjo, and you play in the style we call clawhammer [strumming the strings with the fingernails]. But with bluegrass it’s mostly in a three-finger – some people call it Scruggs-style – and the banjos generally have a resonator attached to the back.
“Another difference from the fiddler’s standpoint, and as a fiddler this is a big one for me, if you listen to Irish music, a lot of the Scottish music, the fiddle is basically carrying the tune and all the other instruments are backing it up. Which is also true of old-time music. In bluegrass, the fiddler gets maybe a 20-second, 40-second spiel, and it’s more or less going around to hear the individual voice of all the different instruments. I prefer the old-time aspect. There’s a thing called the fiddler’s high. There’s that point where you’re playing and you feel like you’re really one with your instrument. I can’t get there in 40 seconds!”
“A bunch of people on the Green Grass Cloggers started playing banjos,” White said. “I started initially playing guitar, backing up the banjos. Then in 1975 my friend got me a fiddle. When I got that fiddle it basically became an appendage. I took it everywhere. Every opportunity I had to play, I played it. I formed a variety of different bands. I started getting hired to play the music more than I was getting hired to do the dancing.”
And so White became that rarity – a Black old-time musician.
It wasn’t always this way. Well into the early 20th century, string-band music was popular among musicians of both races.
One reason for the decline of old-time music among African Americans was a change in Black dancing styles. “When square dancing – the Blacks called them frolics, the whites called them hoedowns –when that started to fall out of favor, the musicians had to look at a different way to present themselves,” White said.
Marketing decisions made in the early days of the recording industry also had an effect. Companies decreed that “hillbilly” (string band) records were to be marketed to whites, while “race records” (blues) were marketed to African Americans.
One of the last Black fiddlers of the old tradition was Joe Thompson, born in North Carolina in 1918. He laid the fiddle aside for much of his working life, but revived his career in the 1970s. At first he saw only white faces among other musicians.
Earl White was performing at Merlefest, a music festival in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, when an organizer brought Thompson to watch him. “When I looked over you would have thought the guy was going to die or have a heart attack,” White said. “He looked like he had seen a ghost. He said, he literally thought he was the only and the last Black fiddler in the world. A style of music and merriment that was so prevalent in his community was basically dying off.
“So when I went to visit him, what he said was, that he had one grandchild who showed any kind of interest in what he was doing. Otherwise all the other young people just had no interest in it whatsoever.”
Among the few young Black musicians to take up string band music in recent decades, and probably the best-known, are the Carolina Chocolate Drops. “All those guys took workshops from me at the Swannanoa Gathering,” held annually near Asheville, White said. “They were just kids when they took my workshop and then the next time I saw them they were the Carolina Chocolate Drops.”
Caught! Fiddling while driving
White spent long hours in the car as a traveling respiratory therapist, and it struck him as a good use of time to put fiddle tunes on the car stereo and practice while driving. He steered with his knees.
“So there I was, barrelling down [Interstate] 81 coming from New York on my way to Virginia and I just had my stereo blasting and had my fiddle and was playing. (Incidentally my fiddle style used to be more long-bow. What I found was … if you put the window down, then it was hard to hear yourself, so I would keep the window up, and as a result my bowing style shortened.)
“Well, there I was barrelling down Route 81 and unknowingly, the faster the tune, the faster I would drive. So I happened to look over once and there was a patrol car next to me. And a guy just looked at me and said, ‘Pull over.’ At which point I was shaking in my boots ’cause I figured he was going to make sure I got put under the jail, meaning a long sentence.
“At that point he saw me and all I could do was put my fiddle on the seat. Well, he walked up and he says, ‘Now son, please tell me I didn’t just see you playing the fiddle.’ And I couldn’t lie. And he shook his head and said, ‘Just get out of the car.’ So I get out of the car, start following him to the patrol car and he says, ‘No, no, stop, just bring your fiddle ’cause I don’t even know how to write this up.’ And usually when they stop someone, they call their buddies in the area in case they need backup. So he said, ‘Just bring your fiddle.’
“I walked over to his car with my fiddle. And he opened his intercom and he says, ‘Play me a tune. I need to know whether you can really play that thing or not.’ The tune I played was called ‘Devil in the Straw Stack.’ And when I was done, I could hear the other guys on his radio over the intercom clapping. And he looked at me and says, ‘Well, by God, you can play that thing. But I got to give you a ticket for something.’ So he gave me a ticket for defective equipment. I thanked him very much and he says, ‘Now, I been driving this route for some 40 years. If I ever see you doing this again I’m going to make sure you get put under the jail.'”
But White didn’t quit fiddling while driving until he married Adrienne.
When White started a family, he decided he needed more reliable income, and went back to school to become a respiratory therapist. But he never gave up on music. While living in Charlottesville, he had annual music gatherings at his house.
“I had this friend who would come up from Floyd every year, Tina Liza Jones. She would say, ‘You gotta check out Floyd!’ So, 10 years ago now, I had been a traveling respiratory therapist for a while, but something was just drawing me back to this area. For one thing, it has the highest concentration of string band festivals and gatherings. I started looking, and I met my [current] wife and told her what I was going to do, asked her if she wanted to be a part of it. Ten years ago we found a 72 acre farm in Indian Valley.” In 2016 White retired from respiratory therapy and moved to the farm with his wife, Adrienne Davis.
White and Davis are bakers and musicians. They sell sourdough organic bread, pastries and bagels in Blacksburg, Floyd, Christiansburg, Roanoke and Bent Mountain. White teaches private lessons, runs music camps at his farm, hosts the Old-Time Jam at the Floyd Country Store, and instructs at Common Ground on the Hill, a folklife center in Maryland.
“Earl really represented something important, which is that Black musicians and dancers were at the very center of the founding of this music,” said Walt Michael, an old-time musician and director of Common Ground on the Hill. “Earl went on to become quite a fiddler and mined a lot of the old tunes from both black and white musicians. He keeps it well played and definitely true to tradition.”
Said White: “Every opportunity I get just exposing it, and teaching through whatever medium I can, to just heighten people’s awareness of the fact that old-time music is not a Black music, it’s not a white music, it was always pretty much played together.”
Earl White’s album, “Earl White Stringband,” is available on Spotify, Apple Music and Amazon Music.