From the first radio broadcast of musical notes to the childhood homes of internationally celebrated musicians like John Coltrane, many of North Carolina's music landmarks are noted by historical highway markers. We've complied a list of those highway markers below. A playlist featuring musicians honored by those markers can be found at the bottom.
Madison County is home to one of the oldest ballad singing traditions in America. In 1916 English folk song collector Cecil Sharp documented ballad singing in Madison County and remarked the region to be a place where “singing was as common and almost as universal practice as speaking.” It was there he found some of the oldest forms of British Isles balladry present in the United States.
Born in Ohio, Strayhorn’s musical prowess was honed at his grandmother's home in Hillsborough, where he practiced playing hymns on her piano. He joined Duke Ellington's band at the age of 22 and acted as his chief collaborator and arranger for nearly three decades. Strayhorn penned jazz standards "Satin Doll," "Lush Life," and most famously "Take the A Train." Modesty, coupled with Duke Ellington's love of the spotlight, limited his exposure, but as Ellington said of his friend and musical partner, “(he) had no aspirations to enter into any kind of competition, yet the legacy he leaves, his oeuvre, will never be less than the ultimate on the highest plateau of culture.”
During the 1920s-1940s, Durham was home to African American musicians whose work defined a distinctive regional style. Blues artists often played in the city’s Hayti community and tobacco warehouse district. Prominent among these were Blind Boy Fuller (Fulton Allen) (1907-1941) and Blind Gary Davis (1896-1972), whose recordings influenced generations of players.
Born and raised in Franklinville, N.C., relocated to Eden, N.C. in 1918, banjoist and singer Charlie Poole (March 22, 1892 - May 21, 1931) fronted the North Carolina Ramblers, a prolific string band group active during the 1920s. Their song "Don't Let Your Deal Go Down Blues,” recorded in 1925, sold 106,000 copies when there were only an estimated 6,000 phonographs in the Southern United States. Other famous recordings include "Sweet Sunny South," "White House Blues," and "Take a Drink on Me," which have been covered by the Grateful Dead, John Mellencamp, and Loudon Wainwright.
A self-taught guitarist, Libba Cotten played left-handed on a guitar strung for a right-handed player, leading her to develop a ragtime style of playing that became known as "Cotten picking." She penned "Freight Train" and "Shake Sugaree" in her pre-teens, but a series of life events caused her to give up guitar playing for 25 years. She rediscovered her playing while working as a maid for Charles and Ruth Seeger in the 1950s. Their son Mike Seeger convinced her to record her music, cementing her legacy and importance in the folk revival of the 1960s.
Fiddler and songwriter, regarded by some as the "greatest fiddle player to ever put rosin to a bow," Ervin T. Rouse (Sept. 19, 1917- July 8, 1981) wrote the widely recorded "Orange Blossom Special," considered the "unofficial anthem of bluegrass.” Famous versions have been recorded by Johnny Cash, Bill Monroe, Chubby Wise, Charlie McCoy, and Charlie Daniels.
Founder of Wings Over Jordan Choir and Negro Hour radio show and a promoter of traditional spiritual music and racial harmony Glenn T. Settle was born on Nubbin Ridge, N.C. in 1894 and spent the first six years of his life in North Carolina before his family moved north. Wings Over Jordan, an acapella choir Settle founded in Cleveland, Ohio, hosted a nationally broadcast radio show during the late 1930s and early 1940s that provided the nation unprecedented access to African American spiritual, musical and cultural leaders. The choir toured the nation and refused to perform for segregated audiences. The historic marker sits 2 miles southwest of Settle’s childhood home.
The James Adams Floating Theatre was the first and only traveling boat to bring live theater annually to ports between Baltimore and Savannah. The original traveling showboat of the Southeast, the James Adams was constructed in North Carolina and it sailed the southeast from 1914-1941. Edna Ferber wrote her 1926 novel “Show Boat” which launched the “show boat phenomena” into American culture after visiting the James Adams Floating Theatre while it was docked in Bath, N.C. She is believed to have traveled on the James Adams from Bath to Belhaven, N.C. in April 1925. Ferber’s novel, inspired in part by the James Adams, led to the 1927 “Show Boat” musical and its song “Old Man River,” and later the 1929 “Show Boat” motion picture and its 1936 and 1951 remakes.
Known as "The Father of Country Music,” Rogers (September 8, 1897 - May 26, 1933) worked as a switchman for the Southern Pacific Railroad, which also earned him the nickname "The Singing Brakeman.” Rodgers moved to Asheville in 1927 and launched his musical career performing weekly on WNCN, Asheville's first radio station. He was one of the first three inductees into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Notable Recordings include "Blue Yodel No. 1," and "In the Jailhouse Now"
Jazz saxophonist and composer, Coltrane (Sept. 23, 1926 - July 17, 1967) is one of the genre’s most influential performers. His work spanned avant-garde to bebop. Born in Hamlet, his family relocated to High Point when he was three months old, where he lived until the age of 17. Coltrane was a graduate of William Penn High School where he played clarinet and saxophone. He relocated to Philadelphia after graduation where he began to perform professionally with jazz giants Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Johnny Hodges, and fellow N.C. native Thelonious Monk. He passed away unexpectedly at the age of 40 after a short battle with liver cancer. His can be credited for bringing avant-garde jazz to the mainstream, and his influence lives on in modern jazz recordings today.
Bandleader, radio & TV Personality. Born in Rocky Mount, North Carolina and educated at UNC-Chapel Hill, Kay Kyser (June 18, 1905 – July 23, 1985) and his big band had 11 number one records in the 1930s and 1940s. From 1939-1949 NBC Radio broadcast “Kay Kysers Kollege of Musicak Knowledge,” a nationally loved music and quiz show. Kyser retired from show business in 1950. This historic marker sits 50 yards from his childhood home in Rocky Mount, N.C.
Born in Raleigh, Lamar Stringfield (October 10, 1897 - January 21, 1959) was a classical composer, conductor, flautist, and folk music anthologist. He studied composition under Nadia Boulanger in Paris and returned to N.C. in the 1920s to conduct orchestras around Asheville. Stringfield founded the North Carolina Symphony in 1932 and the Institute of Folk Music at UNC-Chapel Hill in 1930. He published a book of arrangements of Appalachian folk music and contributed music for The Lost Colony, the nation’s longest-running symphonic outdoor drama.
Lesley Riddle (June 12, 1905 - July 13, 1980) was an African American musician whose influence and collaboration with the Carter Family helped shape country music. Born in Burnsville, N.C., an auger injury at a young age required his leg to be amputated, leading to him taking up guitar. Riddle traveled the Southeast with AP Carter, acting as a 'human tape recorder', memorizing melodies of folk songs so they could record them in the now famous "Bristol Sessions," considered by many the "Big Bang" of modern country music.
We love the beach and we love music in North Carolina. In 1905 developers constructed a large pavilion on the shores of Wrightsville Beach intended to present big bands and exhilarating dance parties that overlooked the glittering seashore. At its peak, the massive pavilion accommodated 3,000 people, each drawn to the Lumina for a glamourous night of entertainment. Legend has it the shag – perhaps our state’s most famous dance – was created at the Lumina. The pavilion was demolished in 1973.
On May 27, 1942, a group of 44 African American musicians broke the U.S. Navy's color barrier by enlisting at general rank. Until then, African Americans were only allowed to serve in the Navy as cooks or stewards. Their historic enlistment predates the June 1, 1942 date cited by the military as the official integration date of that branch. Many enlistees were students at Dudley High School and North Carolina A&T University in Greensboro, N.C. Their barracks were 1/4 miles west of the historic marker in Chapel Hill, N.C.
The Outer Banks are home to the first flight of the Wright Brothers and the first successful radio broadcast of musical notes. In 1902 Reginald Fessenden - an inventor and one-time assistant of Thomas Edison - transmitted the first musical notes ever relayed by radio waves. The notes were received on Roanoke Island, 48 miles north of his Buxton-based research station.
Jazz pianist and composer. Known for his improvisation, minimalism, and dissonant melodies, Monk (October 10, 1917 - Feb 17, 1982) is the second-most-recorded jazz composer of all time. His most famous contributions to the jazz-standard repertoire include "Blue Monk," "Straight No Chaser," and "Round Midnight," the most recorded jazz standard of all time.
Established in 1922, WBT is the oldest broadcast station in North Carolina and the second oldest in the South. With a first air date of March 22, 1992, WBT long-boasted that it could be heard from “Maine to Miami” after sundown, and it is known for popularizing “hillbilly” or country musicians who regularly performed live in the studio.
William Gaston (1778-1844) wore many hats: politician, lawyer, and poet being among them. Born in New Bern, N.C., Gaston served as Speaker of the North Carolina House in 1808, and later as a United States House Representative for North Carolina. In 1840, Gaston penned “The Old North State,” a poem that was later set to music, and officially declared the North Carolina state song in 1927.