Women of Color recognized in old-time music exhibit

Amethyst Kiah at Women in Old-Time Music Exhibit

Women of Color recognized in old-time music exhibit
May 16
05:53 2023

By David Winship

Women have been the conduit of music’s cultural heritage, whether by singing songs while working around the house, teaching songs to youngsters at their knees, or teaching how to play instruments. This influence is recognized in an exhibit at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum in Bristol, Virginia, in its current special exhibit, “I’ve Endured: Women in Old-Time Music.” Women of color, in both historical and contemporary contexts, get their due as the exhibit displays highlighted contributions by traditional folk singer Elizabeth Cotton and the musicians of Our Native Daughters – Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah, Alison Russell, and Leyla McCalla.

Elizabeth Cotton, 1895 – 1987, grew up in the North Carolina Piedmont, where she learned to play the banjo and guitar left-handed and began writing songs. In her adult years, she worked in the household of Charles Seeger, a well-known musicologist and father of traditional musicians Pete, Mike and Peggy Seeger, who heard her singing and playing guitar and brought her to public attention. 

Best known for her song “Freight Train,” Cotton was an important figure in the folk revival of the 1960s. She continued her influence in touring performances for the remaining decades of her life, appearing at the Newport Folk Festival and the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, as well as receiving a Grammy in 1985. She is included in the photo documentary “I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America” as one of 75 influential African American women.

Following her successful embrace of the heritage of Black string bands with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Rhiannon Giddens gathered three additional women banjo players to form Our Native Daughters, which produced an album of original music reflecting trials, tribulations and joys of Black women. The project garnered awards and recognition following its release on Smithsonian Folkways Records in 2019, providing a springboard for solo careers of the individual artists and allowing recognition of the importance of the banjo as an African roots instrument. 

The banjo’s place is important in Black history as the instrument that Africans brought on slave ships to America to carry on their musical heritage. Following white appropriation of the instrument during minstrel days, Our Native Daughters have re-asserted the place of Black stakeholders in the banjo’s heritage impacts.  

“I’ve Endured: Women in Old-Time Music” exhibit is in place through December 31, 2023, at The Birthplace of Country Music Museum. The museum is located in Bristol, Virginia, and is open Tuesday – Sunday, 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. and Sunday 1–5 p.m. The museum is an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution. Bristol is about a three-hour drive from Winston-Salem. 

David Winship lives in Bristol, Tennessee, and is a retired public-school educator. He researches and presents programs about traditional Appalachian music. He is a member of the Appalachian Community of Poets and Writers and Winston-Salem Writers.

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Tevin Stinson

Tevin Stinson

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