When The World Is On Fire: The Black Roots of American Folk Music

Queen Esther
5 min readJan 12, 2021

Because the Scots-Irish of Appalachia didn’t invent Americana. Or the banjo.

Queen Esther, UpSouth. Photo by DM Gillock

I have strong memories of folk music swirling through my Southern, unapologetically black childhood. Music class in elementary school meant clapping on the one and three, singing along with Burl Ives recordings and doing the hokey pokey, and learning songs like Oh, Shenandoah and The Blue-Tail Fly without an understanding of the history of violence that gave birth to them. (Jimmy crack corn, indeed.) There were folk museums to explore, and abysmally picturesque, fun-filled field days to be had that found quite a few of us zipping around a Maypole when we weren’t square dancing. Of course, these programs were in place at a time when school funding in America included movement, playing an instrument and learning about music. White flight had only begun to take hold of our suburban enclave in Atlanta, GA when we arrived, so I absorbed quite a lot of this Folk curriculum before a shift occurred, and certain advantages disappeared along with our white neighbors.

I grew up in the South at a time when freeform FM was what you expected when you turned on the radio, so songs from The Weavers to Pure Prairie League were in there like everything else. Hee-Haw — a variety show that we watched as a family — was standard fare. Roy Acuff, Roy Clark and Buck Owens were singin’, pickin’ and grinnin’ in our living room every week. There were hazy summer days in South Carolina’s Lowcountry that were buoyed by an endless array of sing-songy gospel and twang oozing out of my great-granddaddy’s favorite AM stations, incorporating itself effortlessly into the sonic wallpaper of my childhood.

My Folk experience began in the black church. In my family, church wasn’t a place to go because it happened to be Sunday or Easter, or someone’s wedding day. Historically, the black church was where you found your spiritual family, a sense of community and — in the wake of the Civil War and Reconstruction — much-needed solidarity. As Jim Crow laws took root and black people began to nurture and consolidate our burgeoning economic and political power, white Southerners became home-grown terrorists, hell-bent on reasserting white supremacy and preventing us from voting. They turned their murderous rage upon black folk in the form of riots that destroyed our homes and neighborhoods, sundown towns that meant abandoning our property or facing certain death and mob violence that resulted in mass lynchings. In some cases, entire families perished. It’s no coincidence that the Civil Rights Movement began in the black church.

Daddy was born in the Deep South in 1917, one of 12 siblings who, along with their mother, made the Great Migration North to Brooklyn, NY. In the 70s, he opted to make the Great Migration in reverse with his young family, relocating to Atlanta, GA — a city led by Maynard Jackson, the first black mayor of any major Southern metropolis — at a moment when the city’s Black Arts Movement and the National Black Arts Festival that followed it meant full immersion in a wave of cultural nationalism that completely saturated my soul. Rooted in the black church, my Folk yearnings were fulfilled with an abundance of art and music from the entire African diaspora.

Many songs that we sang in church were of old — unwritten, passed down from one generation to the next, sung by African captives. There was always someone singing these old songs somewhere around the house, humming them as they worked, as they tended the garden, as they went about their day, as they watched over us when we were children, as they drove to and fro, running errands and looking in on the sick and afflicted and such. The songs never seemed to stop.

I can remember, all too easily, what would happen time and again when my great-grandmother’s voice would leap out of her while the congregation sat in silent contemplation. She was a slight, bespectacled woman who understood plants and herbs, and could make things grow with her hands. She was full of faith and had what my grandmother (her daughter) described as “that good nut brown skin.” When she sang, she was transformed into a powerhouse. Her voice was strong, piercing, deliberate. She sounded as though she were wounded and crying out from depths I could hardly fathom. Suddenly, everyone would answer her in a cacophony that shaped itself into a roar, a roar that was so powerful, it shook the wooden pew we sat in. We would sing that way, back and forth, her calling and everyone in church responding, for what seemed to last for an eternity.

Nowadays, a folky moment will rear its sweet nostalgic noggin unexpectedly — when it’s time to sing a Pete Seeger song, when someone waxes poetic about hearing Bob Dylan in the Village, or when some talking head references an all-American (white) music touchstone that is presumed to be out of my (black) reach — with the tacit understanding that this is something that is apart from my black culture. Nothing could be further from the truth. Folk (from the German word volk, which means people) — synonymous with American roots music — is tangled up in the blues, with African music traditions as its DNA.

Ultimately, it was the recording industry that divided us. When it was time to market music, they decided that this meant defining people by what they wanted to sell them and not who they were as individuals. A sonic line that mirrored the racial divide already established by Jim Crow was drawn — race music for black people and hillbilly music for white people — buoyed by the fictitious marketing ploy that Folk music came from Europeans who settled in Appalachia with a banjo on their collective knee. If you listen beneath the surface of that well-manicured lie, you’ll hear that many of the first hillbilly songs were religious hymns, field hollers, and songs written by black people. Woodie Guthrie’s This Land Is Your Land came from the Carter Family song Little Darling, Pal of Mine, and that came from the hymn When The World Is On Fire, written by a black minister. This gospel song was probably brought to them by Black guitarist Lesley Riddle, who spent decades visiting black homes, churches and social gatherings for songs that the Carters turned into hits.

Listen closer and you’ll find a strong black presence in music that is presumed to be “white”. That banjo — so carefully positioned in Appalachian lore and synonymous with folk, country and bluegrass — is from Africa, the direct descendant of the akonting of Senegal, and played with the same technique. Early hillbilly recordings included black jazz musicians and vocalists — and in some cases, black hillbilly artists — almost from the very start. Its beginnings were diverse, interracial and robust. That’s none other than Louis Armstrong and his wife pianist Lil Armstrong accompanying Jimmy Rodgers, the father of country music, on the classic Blue Yodel #9. And why not? Before this marketing plan was implemented, everyone was free to play, listen and dance to whatever music they liked.

Imagine that.

This article first appeared in a Philadelphia Folksong Society newsletter — Summer 2020.