Fiddle Hell and Racial Justice

Statement from the Organizers of Fiddle Hell Massachusetts
©2020 Fiddle Hell Massachusetts. All Rights Reserved.

Since its beginning, we have viewed Fiddle Hell as a warm, friendly, inclusive, and welcoming event. While we strive to cultivate this atmosphere, it is in large part thanks to attendees, instructors, and desk staff that many people have this experience. We have witnessed so many wonderful moments of people who don’t know each other saying hello, helping each other, and connecting musically and socially.

The growing societal awareness of racial injustice in recent months is long overdue. We feel we should have been thinking more, and acting more, relative to racial justice previously. We are hurt and outraged by the continued police killings and brutality long disproportionately experienced by people of color.* And we recognize issues around policing as one of the many forms of systemic racism that exists and creates stark disparities between racial groups in areas including income, wealth, health, imprisonment, education access, and daily treatment by individuals and institutions.

We care deeply about the lives, experiences, and perspectives of Black, Indigenous, Asian, Latinx, and all people of color. This is the case in all facets of life, and with regards to Fiddle Hell and the folk music community specifically.

We recognize that there are people in the Fiddle Hell community who experience day-to-day theharsh and very real impacts of racism and other prejudices. We stand together as a community in solidarity with all people of color. The six of us, as white people, feel both heartfelt passion and ethical duty to learn about, and contribute to, positive change relative to racial injustice. There is much more we can do as individuals, as a community, and in society at large. We know many in the Fiddle Hell community share in this perspective, and some are engaged in the work of racial justice in a variety of ways.

We are striving to make Fiddle Hell an actively anti racist, more inclusive, community experience for everyone. To start, we have identified a number of areas where Fiddle Hell could improve with respect to racial justice, and are taking steps to put these ideas into action. These steps are outlined below. If you have additional ideas or feedback, we would truly welcome them. We expect these to be ongoing areas of growth and we would love to hear your thoughts.

1) Welcome Statement – With racism prevalent at the individual and systemic levels, we recognize that it is insufficient to value diversity and equality without explicitly welcoming diversity of all kinds at Fiddle Hell. Notably, people of color do not have the privilege that white people do of feeling assured they will be welcomed at a given gathering, and we want to assure participants and instructors, and prospective participants and instructors, that Fiddle Hell strives to be a truly inclusive and welcoming place for people of all racial groups as well as all ethnicities, abilities, gender identities and/or expressions, sexual orientations, incomes, religions, and other identities. We have added a Welcome Statement to the Fiddle Hell website and Fiddle Hell Massachusetts Facebook group that conveys these values.

2) Participant Diversity – With regard to socioeconomic diversity, since early on, Fiddle Hell has provided scholarships to people who are unable to pay the costs of attending. We do not want finances to be a barrier to participation for anyone! We are grateful to those who have contributed to the scholarship fund over the years, and grateful to those who have needed and utilized it. With regard to racial diversity, however, we regret and acknowledge that we have not made specific efforts in the past to do outreach and publicity to those who might be non-white or otherwise underrepresented at Fiddle Hell. We are exploring ways to connect with people of color who might be interested in participating, including through the Black Banjo Reclamation Project. We recognize that active outreach is an important part of starting to mitigate the impacts that systemic racism at large and within the folk music community has had on the presence and participation of people of color over time. There is much work to be done in this regard, and we are very interested in ideas you may have on this as well.

3) Instructor Diversity – We have long sought to have Fiddle Hell instructors who reflect some of the gender, racial, and ethnic diversity of society at large. This is an area where we believe that we can and should do more. We are already taking steps to increase the diversity of our instructors in 2020 (online) and in future years as well. If you have instructor recommendations or ideas, especially those who may be from groups that are underrepresented at Fiddle Hell, we are always interested.

4) Instrument, Tune, Musical Style, and Dance History – Mirroring society’s systemic erasure and obscuring of accomplishments and contributions of people of color in every domain, the folk music and dance world has both not properly acknowledged the contributions and roles of people of color and has historically sought to ignore or cover these up. We all have an opportunity, and we feel, obligation, to not engage in even accidental cultural appropriation or erasure of the origins and evolution of the instruments and tunes we play, the styles we enjoy, and the evolution of contra, square, and other dance forms. There are many instruments with non-American cultural origins (including banjo, fiddle, and bones), many popular tunes with musicians of color as early sources (including Cripple Creek and Old Joe), and styles with strong connections to people of color (including old-time and Métis). There is also a complex history of dance music and calling (which draws from the music and calling of black slaves, and also owes some popularity in American culture to Henry Ford, whose documented motivations were partly anti-Semitic and racist). We have been expanding our knowledge in these areas and encourage you to learn independently through some of the resources in the second footnote, most of which are free and available online.** We are also excited to offer workshops during Fiddle Hell Online in November 2020 and each year in the future specifically addressing and exploring these topics.

5) Tune Names – On a related note, we have paid inadequate attention to tune names and lyrics that have racially offensive origins or meanings, or have African-American origins that we have failed to acknowledge. And we have erred in not providing anti-racism guidance to instructors in this area as well – until recently (for recent Fiddle Hell Online jams). We did not research tunes in this regard for the Fiddle Hell CD sets that we have released, and among the tunes we recorded without awareness of their history are “Golden Slippers” and “Turkey in the Straw.” “Golden Slippers” was an African American spiritual, which African American songwriter James Bland then turned into a “parody” that “enjoyed great popularity as a blackface minstrel song.”*** The melody of “Turkey in the Straw” dates back to approximately 1795 and an English song called “The Rose Tree in Full Bearing,” but the tune’s popularity in the U.S. came from its inclusion blackface minstrel shows in an 1820s version with racist lyrics titled “Zip Coon.” As Theodore R. Johnson, III, wrote in his piece on this for the NPR Code Switch podcast, “There is simply no divorcing the song from the dozens of decades it was almost exclusively used for coming up with new ways to ridicule, and profit from, black people.”**** We did not know these histories, but feel we should have done the research to learn them. Had we known, we would have explored the choices of not including these tunes, or including notes on these histories to contribute to the exposure and learning of these disregarded but highly significant histories. We are actively exploring ways to share further information about hidden histories and unattributed origins of tunes with Fiddle Hell participants through acknowledgements of them at Fiddle Hell sessions, future research and sharing of further history on these and other tunes, and sharing resources***** and other opportunities for learning on this topic.

While our heightened awareness of racial justice and inclusion at Fiddle Hell has been sparked by a growing movement for racial justice across the U.S, it is our intention and plan that these will be areas of ongoing focus and attention moving forward – not just now or this year, but continuing in years to come. We are interested in your feedback and ideas in any of these areas, and we look forward to continuing this important learning, growth, and discussion with you all as a community. You can reach us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

- Dave Reiner and Cindy Eid; Eric Eid-Reiner and Autumn Rose Lester; Andy Eid Reiner and Joy Adams
Organizers of Fiddle Hell Massachusetts

Notes and Resources

* The phrase “people of color” is seen by some as an inclusive phrase that recognizes that there are many non-white groups of people and suggests some degree of shared struggles, experiences, and identity by people who are not white.  While many non-white people do identify themselves at times as “people of color,” many have also raised concerns about this phrase.  These concerns include (a) the lumping together of experiences and identities and needs of different people/groups that are very distinct, and the sense that these words are meant to de-emphasize the specific, sometimes intersectional identities of non-white people; (b) the implication and perpetuation of the idea that white people are not “of color” or are raceless; and (c) the similarity of this phrase to the widely considered offensive phrase “colored people” that was in most widespread use from Civil War times to the late 1960s.  

For further reading in each of these areas, please see: 

(a) “Op-Ed: The Term ‘People of Color’ Erases Black People. Let’s Retire It” in the LA Times by Nadra Widatalla, a Black woman at https://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-widatalla-poc-intersectionality-race-20190428-story.html and “As a Black Woman, I Hate the Term ‘People of Colour’” in The Independent by Tolani Shoneye, at undefinedhttps://www.independent.co.uk/voices/black-women-people-of-colour-racism-beyonce-coachella-black-lives-matter-a8316561.html

(b) “Black and Brown People Have Been Protesting for Centuries.  It’s White People Who Are Responsible for What Happens Next” in Time by Savala Trepczynski, who identifies as “Black/white/afrolatina,” at https://time.com/5846072/black-people-protesting-white-people-responsible-what-happens-next/

(c) “The Journey from ‘Colored’ to ‘Minorities’ to ‘People of Color’” by NPR Librarian Kee Malesky for the Codeswitchpodcast at https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2014/03/30/295931070/the-journey-from-colored-to-minorities-to-people-of-color

** Below, you will find some important and fascinating resources for further learning on the roles of people of color and different cultures in shaping what we often think of as “American” folk music and dance.  This is far from a complete list, but it is a possible point of entry for learning more about the history of the styles, instruments, and tunes and songs that we play, sing, listen to, teach, and learn.  We recognize that for many of us, awareness of the roots of this music may be a new topic, and we are excited and committed to continue learning about this together as a community.  If you have found other resources that you would like to share, we would be glad to hear from you. 

- “20 Favorite Tunes from Old-Time Black Musicians” (some of the first 14 were composed by black people), compiled by Michael Mechanic from recommendations of Don Flemings (a multi-instrumentalist who identifies as Black and Mexican) in Mother Jones at https://www.motherjones.com/media/2017/12/20-favorite-tunes-from-old-time-black-musicians/

- “Addressing Racism as a Dance Community” and “The History of the Art We Love,” both by contra dance caller Dela Murphy (2020) – free at https://portlandintowncontradance.com/blog/facing-racism

- “The Afro-American Fiddler,” by Theresa Jenoure (2008 article in Contributions in Black Studies: A Journal of African and Afro-American Studies) – free at https://scholarworks.umass.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1035&context=cibs  

- “The Afro-American Transformation of European Set Dances and Dance Suites,” by John F. Szwed and Morton Marks (2001 article in Dance Research Journal) – free at https://www.cambridge.org/core/services/aop-cambridge-core/content/view/CF98A351EAAE010965FCB2349E42E229/S0149767700010238a.pdf/afroamerican_transformation_of_european_set_dances_and_dance_suites1.pdf

- “The Anti-Semitic Origins of Henry Ford’s Arts Education Patronage,” by Emery C. Warnock (2009 article in the Journal of Historical Research in Music Education) – available with institutional journal access or paid, including from https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/The-Anti-Semitic-Origins-of-Henry-Ford's-Arts-Warnock/7fa264f08bba0d6d5a905a1ba6fab65c934a1202

- “The Banjo and African American Musical Culture,” by Tony Thomas (a photo essay published online in 2014 by the Oxford African American Studies Center, an online resource maintained by Oxford University Press and Harvard’s Dubois Center)  https://oxfordaasc.com/page/focus-on-the-banjo-and-african-american-musical-culture/the-banjo-and-african-american-musical-culture

- “The Banjo: America’s African Instrument,” by Laurent Dubois (2016 book) – for sale at https://www.amazon.com/Banjo-Americas-African-Instrument/dp/0674047842/

- “The Banjo’s Roots, Reconsidered,” by Greg Allen on NPR’s All Things Considered (2011) – free to listen or read at https://www.npr.org/2011/08/23/139880625/the-banjos-roots-reconsidered

- “Black Instrumental Music Traditions in the Ex-Slave Narratives,” by Robert B. Winans (1982 article in the Black Music Research Newsletter at Fisk University) – free at https://digitalcommons.colum.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1015&context=cbmrnews

- “Community and Connection,” Rhiaannon Giddens’ Keynote Address (on race, music, history, and community) at the 2017 IBMA Conference – free and transcribed at https://www.nonesuch.com/journal/rhiannon-giddens-keynote-address-ibma-conference-community-connection-2017-10-03

- “Fiddling as an Avenue of Black-White Musical Interchange,” by Paul F. Wells (2003 article from the Black Music Research Journal) – free at http://latinamericanstudies.org/slavery/BMJ-2003.pdf

- “Historical Narratives of the Akonting and Banjo” (2014 article in Ethnomusicology Review) – free at https://ethnomusicologyreview.ucla.edu/content/akonting-history

- “Hoedowns, Reels, and Frolics: Roots and Branches of Southern Appalachian Dance,” by Phil Jamison (2015 book) – for sale at http://www.philjamison.com/hoedowns-reels-and-frolics

- “Medicine Fiddle,” by Michael Loukinen (1991 film about Métis music and dance) – free at https://www.folkstreams.net/film-detail.php?id=178

- “The (Mis)Representation of African American Music: The Role of the Fiddle,” by Jacqueline Cogdell Djedje (2016 journal article from the Black Music Research Journal) – free at https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/journal-of-the-society-for-american-music/article/misrepresentation-of-african-american-music-the-role-of-the-fiddle/63166A546740B55B8D3E845ACEB33C7C/core-reader with a fantastic reference list for further reading

- “Notable Folklorists of Color,” an online exhibit as presented at the American Folklore Society in 2019 – free at https://notablefolkloristsofcolor.org/notable-folklorists-of-color/

- “Rhiannon Giddens and What Folk Music Means,” by John Jeremiah Sullivan (2019 New Yorker article) – free at https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/05/20/rhiannon-giddens-and-what-folk-music-means

- Smithsonian Museum’s online resources on African American music – free at https://www.si.edu/spotlight/african-american-music

- “Square Dance Calling: The African-American Connection,” by Phil Jamison (2003 article in the Journal of Appalachian Studies) – free at http://squaredancehistory.org/items/show/1908

 *** Citation and further reading: “Oh, Dem Golden Slippers” by Jack McCarthy, in “The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia,” Rutgers University – free at https://philadelphiaencyclopedia.org/archive/oh-dem-golden-slippers/

**** Citations and further reading on “Turkey in The Straw:”

- “Recall That Ice Cream Truck Song? We Have Unpleasant News for You,” by Theodore R. Johnson III for the NPR Code Switch podcast – free at https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2014/05/11/310708342/recall-that-ice-cream-truck-song-we-have-unpleasant-news-for-you

- “Turkey in the Straw,” by Stephen Winick for the Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center & Veterans History Project – free at https://blogs.loc.gov/folklife/2014/05/turkey-in-the-straw/

- “Old Zip Coon/Turkey in the Straw,” by Franklin Hughes at the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, Ferris State University – free at https://www.ferris.edu/HTMLS/news/jimcrow/question/2018/may.htm

***** Resources related to tune histories and names:

- “The Music I love Is a Racial Minefield,” by Michael Mechanic in Mother Jones – free at https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2017/12/the-music-i-love-is-a-racial-minefield/

- “Old Tunes, Troublesome Titles,” by Isa Burke in No Depression: The Journal of Roots Music – free at https://www.nodepression.com/old-tunes-troublesome-titles/