A Celebration of Thelonious Monk's Life

Thelonious Monk in 1964
Sunday, February 17, 2019

On February 17th, 1982, Thelonious Monk passed away at the Weehawken, New Jersey home of jazz patron Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter after almost a decade of isolation. In the days following, tributes to his impact on the world of music poured out, culminating in a funeral service held at St. Peter’s Church in New York City, attended by hundreds of family members, friends, and loyal fans.

Famously quoted as saying “The piano ain’t got no wrong notes,” Monk pushed the boundaries of jazz, applying dissonance, improvisation, and minimalism in place of heavily arranged big band pieces, helping to usher in a new era – bebop. With nearly 70 original compositions, Monk’s innovation lives on today through his many works that are now standards in jazz repertoires. Below is an excerpt from the African American Music Trails of Eastern North Carolina Guidebook highlighting Monk’s connection to his birthplace.

In 1922, a young family with three children left Rocky Mount to begin a new life in New York. The middle child, Thelonious Monk, was four years old when they moved. One might imagine that because he left North Carolina at such a young age, he would have grown up with very little cultural connection to the state of his birth. However, the Monks were part of the Great Migration of African Americans who left the South and settled by the thousands in the more-industrialized, less-segregated Northern cities. Jazz scholar Sam Stephenson, in the Oxford American Magazine (2007), writes of how, even in the family’s Manhattan apartment, the culture of North Carolina and the South was ever present. 

Monk’s mother, Barbara Batts Monk, writes Stephenson, “was a North Carolinian through and through.  Her accent, the food she cooked, and, most profoundly for young Thelonious, the churches she attended with the family in New York were steeped in southern culture.” In May of 1970, Thelonious Monk made one of his rare return visits, traveling with his wife Nellie to Raleigh for a series of performances at the Frog & the Nightgown jazz club, Stephenson reports. Leroy Williams, a member of Monk’s band for the Raleigh shows, recounts the night the Frog’s staff presented Monk with a white homecoming cake ornamented with a fez in honor of Monk’s famous passion for odd hats. “It had icing that said, ‘WELCOME HOME TO NORTH CAROLINA,’ and Monk was very enthusiastic about it,” Williams says. “He was smiling, and he said, ‘Thank you.  I’m from Rocky Mount. Thank you.’ Monk loved it.”


This 1966 live performance of one of Thelonious Monk’s most famous compositions, “'Round Midnight,” features longtime collaborator Charlie Rouse on tenor saxophone, Larry Gales on bass, and Ben Riley on drums. Monk takes a solo at the 4:04 mark that offers up his signature stylings: understated and masterful, his left hand provides sparse, staccato accompaniment to a sometimes-twinkling-sometimes-stabbing right hand – a lesson in minimalism. To quote acclaimed jazz vocalist Sheila Jordan at Thelonious Monk’s funeral ceremony, ''We thank you for all the music you gave us, dear Thelonious Monk.''

Remembering Algia Mae Hinton

Algia Mae Hinton
Algia Mae Hinton by Mary Anne McDonald
Friday, February 8, 2019

Born in 1929, Algia Mae Hinton was a blues musician and buck dancer from Johnston County, North Carolina. Raised in a musical family that worked tobacco, Algia Mae Hinton grew up performing music with her community at what many would now think of as house parties. She was one of several excellent Piedmont blues musicians discovered during a movement to document folk artists across North Carolina in the 1970s. She went on to take her music to schools and performance halls around the world, and is remembered for her loving spirit, artistry, and signature move of buck dancing while playing guitar behind her head. She died on February 8, 2018.

This video features footage from the Alan Lomax Collection at the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress, Mike Seeger's film "Talking Feet," and Music Maker Relief Foundation. It also features a photo taken by Roger Manley. 

Throwback Thursday: Roberta Flack

Roberta Flack
Thursday, February 7, 2019

Roberta Flack is the only performer ever to win consecutive Record of the Year Grammy Awards, first for “The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face” in 1971 – and next for “Killing Me Softly with His Song” in 1972.

Trivia Tuesday: Lesley Riddle

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Lesley Riddle was an African-American musician and song collector who helped shape country music. Born in Burnsville in 1905, Riddle traveled the southeast with the famous Carter Family in the 1920s and 1930s, memorizing melodies and collecting songs that would become country music standards.

Director's Cut: The Menhaden Chanteymen

Menhaden fishermen from the Charles A. Farrell Photo Collection, State Archives of North Carolina
Friday, January 25, 2019


The North Caroilna Arts Council is back with a new music themed season of their podcast Arts Across NC called "Director's Cut." Over the next four episodes, Wayne Martin, executive director of the North Carolina Arts Council, will unearth a field recording from the archive he built during his 30+ year tenure with the agency. Each song represents a different region of North Carolina.

"These pieces that I've chosen are part of the fabric of who we are as a people," says Wayne. "They are pieces that tell the story of North Carolina."

Up first is the song "Going Back to Weldon," performed by the Menhaden Chanteymen in 1988.

There was a time when a stinky, oily fish ruled eastern North Carolina. From the late 1800s through much of the 20th century, menhaden sat at the economic epicenter of Beaufort, North Carolina. Year in and year out, generations of working class men and women caught, processed, packaged and shipped menhaden, also known in North Carolina's Core Sound region as shad. As the town grew alongside the burgeoning industry, so to did a new style of work song developed by African American men who often handled the back-breaking work of hauling in thousands of pounds of fish. These songs- called chanteys - outlived the industry itself and today we share the story and music of the Menhaden Chanteymen.


Subscribe to Arts Across NC on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher and SoundCloud.

It Started as a Prayer

 Reverend F.C. Barnes
Reverend F.C. Barnes
Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Born in 1929, Reverend Faircloth C. (F.C.) Barnes was a gospel recording artist from Rocky Mount, N.C. His debut record Rough Side of the Mountain, a collaboration with with Reverend Janice Brown, reached #1 on Billboard’s Gospel Albums chart in January 1984. The North Carolina Arts Council profiled Reverend Barnes, and the hit-song, in the African American Music Trails Guidebook. The following excerpt is from the book.

The Reverend F.C. Barnes and Reverend Janice Brown met at Rocky Mount radio station WSRV, while hosting a gospel show together in the late 1970s. Their recording career started when they made a home reel-to-reel recording of “It’s Me Again Lord” to play on their broadcast. Listener response was so ecstatic that the station manager encouraged them to make a studio single so that he could legally play it on the air. Shortly thereafter with the single in regular rotation at WSRV, the duo was picked up by AIR/Malaco. They went on to release eight albums on the southern soul, blues, and gospel imprint between 1979 and 1988.

Rough Side of the Mountain was penned by Barnes after some car trouble on his way to a revival. After the song’s release in 1984, it occupied the number one spot on the gospel charts for more than a year, went gold, and earned Barnes and Brown a Grammy nomination. Here’s Reverend Barnes had to say about the song:

“Rough Side of the Mountain was a prayer. It was initially a prayer. I was going to Tabor City, North Carolina for a revival, about 175 miles from here. That evening, when I got below Lumberton, North Carolina, on Highway 74, something got wrong with the car. I don’t know what it was, never have known, but it just started slipping and shaking. They had just put the new part [of Highway 74] out there then, and for 20-some miles there were no stores, no nothing out there. And I said, Lord, if this car cut off out here—there was no service stations, no nothing—I don’t know what in the world I’m going to do. So I start praying to the Lord and [told] the Lord how hard it was times coming up, trying to do this and that, little money, car wasn’t doing too well, and still trying to do the work of God. And somehow or another, it struck me in my mind, “It’s rough, it gets rough out here.” Nobody in the car but me. I just was talking, and I started praying, “Lord, having it so hard,” and not only the car thing being in my spirit, but other things I’ve run into before, and this and that—everything.

And I said, “Lord, you just know that I’m trying to do what I know. A lot of people are trying to do the will of God like they were sailing smooth. I’m doing the will of God, but with everything I put my hand on, it’s something else.” And like I was telling, there was two sides: they’re going up on the smooth side. I’m going up on the rough side. And I prayed that prayer. I got stuck in the prayer, and I don’t know when the car stopped skipping. When I come to myself, the car had stopped skipping, was running smooth going down the road. But when I got to the church, the Deacon had already called my house because it was time for service and I wasn’t there. But the words of that song wouldn’t leave me, and that prayer wouldn’t leave me. So I goes back, after service. I go to my room and it wouldn’t go away, so I just started writing. So when I got back to Rocky Mount, I told Janice, a lady that sung with me, that I had a song that we need to learn. So we called the musicians. We started singing the song, learned the song. Wasn’t thinking about no hit or no nothing. This was not the purpose of it. The song was a prayer and it was true, and not just something with words made up. And we put the song on the album.

For white, black, everybody that heard it, [“Rough Side of the Mountain”] seemed to be in their life. And they took it for their life, coming up on the rough side of the mountain, when I got to hold God’s hand, it doesn’t matter. A lot of people quit when it gets rough, but I didn’t quit. And the song had a meaning to it, but I didn’t write it to nobody but myself. I wasn’t thinking about the public.”

Happy Birthday Libba Cotten!

Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten
Saturday, January 5, 2019

American blues and folk musician Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten was born on January 5, 1893 in Carrboro, N.C. Perhaps best known for teaching the world “Freight Train,” Cotten grew up near the railroad track which inspired her to write “Freight Train” at age 11, two years before she went to work as a domestic worker.

Married at 17, Cotten spent years moving around the country with her husband Frank Cotten only to divorce and settle in Washington, D.C. once her daughter was married. While doing domestic work for the family of composer and folklorist Ruth Crawford Seeger and Charles Seeger, Cotten idly picked up a guitar and revealed herself to be precisely the kind of folk musician the Seegers held up as an ideal. By then she was more than 60-years-old. Seeger’s son Mike recorded her songs, releasing them just in time for the Folk Revival of the early 1960s. Cotten toured the world and won a Grammy in 1984 a year before her death. Her music has been covered by Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and Doc Watson, and her signature fingerpicking style - crafted in part because she played her guitar upside down and backwards, is known as “Cotten picking.”

Subscribe to #blackhistory