Meet North Carolina’s only touring Sacred Steel band, The Allen Boys

Story by Aaron Greenhood

Thursday, June 2, 2022

The House of God sits atop a hill on a residential road on the outskirts of Mt. Airy. Soft light filters in from the stained glass windows over the quiet church sanctuary. The Sacred Steel band the Allen Boys, a pair of brothers and two cousins, discuss their song order as they set up equipment in the middle of the room. For them, nothing could feel more natural. After all, under this same roof these young men learned their instruments, found faith, and developed their lifelong connection—all central forces in each of their lives.

Sacred Steel is the musical tradition of the House of God Pentecostal church, a division of The Church of the Living God, established by Mary Magdalena Lewis Tate, in 1903. While it didn’t find its way to the church until the thirties, the expressive voice of the steel guitar became central to its identity. The steel guitar is characterized by nearly infinite sustain and smooth shifts between notes mimicking the rise and fall of the human voice. When amplified, it takes on an even greater range, delivering deep gravelly groans, piercing whelps, ethereal chord voicings, and percussive strums. Today, the tradition of Sacred Steel animates House of God services in 22 states, and its influence has found its way into secular music through such performers as the Campbell Brothers and Robert Randolph.

On January 7, 2021, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, Allen Boys members Mitchel Fonville, Ranzy Moore, Camron Moore, and E. J. Trice met at their home church to record a set for a streaming performance series launched that month by the Nash County Arts Council. Grounded features intimate performances by North Carolina’s emerging voices in Southern roots music; the deep cultural roots of the musicians showcased gave the series its name. It celebrates the significance, diversity, and vitality of the artists while connecting viewers to a sense of place and community.

Prior to the set, Grounded’s producer Aaron Greenhood sat down with bassist Mitchel Fonville and guitarist Camron Moore to learn more about The Allen Boys and Sacred Steel. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity:

Aaron Greenhood: Will you start by telling me about this church and its significance to the Allen Boys?

Camron Moore: This church has significance to me because it's where I grew up, it is where my entire family grew up, from our Dad’s side and Mom’s side as well. Being here is what helped shape the style of music we play as a band. Us just being in church for so long is what has created what I like to call the vibe, our sound.

Mitchel Fonville: To me, this is where Sacred Steel comes from in the state of North Carolina. We are the traveling band of the Mt. Airy church, so we are proud of it.

Aaron Greenhood: Sacred Steel gets its name from the steel guitar. Will you describe the role the steel guitar plays in the House of God church?

Mitchel Fonville: For the House of God, it is actually the organ—as the organ is to most other churches. It is the music; it's also sometimes the singer. At certain parts of the service, someone’s up there giving their testimony and you can hear the steel just singing in the background. It's like another voice. It's the voice of the House of God.

Aaron Greenhood: Musically, you were all trained in the church from a very young age. How did that work? Did you learn with a teacher?

Mitchel Fonville: No, none of us really had a teacher other than each other. Deacon Moore played guitar and our uncle Bernard Allen, he played bass. So, it was really just taking what they knew and expanding on it. Cam can back me up on this. One of the bass lines that we all learned first was Bu-du-du-du, Bu-du-du-du, Bu and you added it to everything, but what we learned was you put your personal signature on that little line and from there, it was the same drum beat and then you would take it to the guitar, you would take it to the steel, or, in Camron’s case, take it to the keyboard, and we would just expand on what we learned.

My mother, who is the pastor of the church now, Elder Melody Fonville, if we wanted to learn something, she would provide the instrument. It's your job to figure out what to do with it or how to play it but that’s what it was.

Aaron Greenhood: So you talked a bit about how the Sacred Steel tradition is a big part of the Allen Boys sound. Has coming up in Mt. Airy had an influence on your sound?

Camron Moore: You know, Mt Airy, its Mayberry, Andy Griffith town, small town USA. It's just what we know.

Mitchel Fonville: When you hear the different Sacred Steel groups, you hear different styles of music. With ours, being in Mt Airy, being in a southern part, that’s where you get your southern rock. You hear little parts of that, you get a little blues, you hear some funk, and then, every once in a while, you get that banjo sound from a steel, or that downhome country sound because, being around here, they’re in your ear.

Aaron Greenhood: When you guys perform, it strikes me that it's not just about entertainment. Can you tell me about the spiritual aspect of the Allen Boys music?

Mitchel Fonville: Sacred Steel is a feel-good music, it's a spiritual music, so we don’t want to just play for the ear; we want to play for the body and for the soul. We have a term we like to use: FAYD. Regardless of what's going on in your situation today, last week, whatever it is, Forget About Your Day. When we get to that level, where you forget that it's music and it becomes a medicine, that’s what Sacred Steel is all about.

Camron Moore: When we start playing, we do the same exact thing. If we’ve got stuff that’s going on, in other aspects of life, we start playing, we start connecting, it helps us to forget about our day. It's like, I’m in the moment, and from a spiritual and mental headspace everything is fine and I’m just enjoying what I’m getting right now.

Mitchel Fonville: A lot of our shows end up like a service, regardless of how we intend for them to be, once that music spirit comes in, and the audience has let go, ’cuz you have to let go to fall into the trance. You have to let go and let the music lead you, just like in service, once that next level hits and the spirit rises, that bass drum just Umph, Umph, Umph, just pumping everything, then that’s when you are able to FAYD.

Watch the full set the Allen Boys played for Grounded.

To learn more about the history of Sacred Steel and the House of God church, check out the website of the Sacred Steel historian Del Ray Grace: sacredstrings.com.

Another great resource is the work of the folklorist Robert L. Stone, here: https://arhoolie.org/the-robert-stone-sacred-steel-archive/.

Aaron Greenhood

AARON GREENHOOD is an Arts administrator with 11 years of experience in blues, gospel, and roots musical programming. Aaron specializes in producing, photography, digital archiving, and exhibit development.

Throwback Thursday: Thelonious Monk's Time Magazine Cover

February 28, 2019

On February 28th, 1964, Thelonious Monk graced the cover of Time Magazine. The essay within, “The Loneliest Monk” by Barry Farrell, reinforces the imagery of the cover – painting monk as a mysteriously dark, but brilliant innovator.

To read the article published 55 years ago today, follow this link.

Trivia Tuesday: John Coltrane

February 26, 2019

American jazz saxophonist John Coltrane, born in Hamlet, NC, helped pioneer the use of modal jazz and recorded with musicians like Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, and remains one of the most influential saxophonists in music history. #TriviaTuesday #ComeHearNC

Meet Eddie Ray

February 25, 2019

Edward Riley Ray, commonly known as Eddie Ray, is a North Carolina treasure and commercial music industry icon. Born in 1926 in Western North Carolina, Eddie worked his way up from stock-boy at a Milwaukee record distribution warehouse to the gilded executive rooms of America’s biggest record labels. A true innovator, Eddie relied on his gut instinct, appetite for work, and disregard for social and industry norms to build a career that contributed to the success of musicians like Ricky Nelson, Fats Domino, and Pink Floyd. Eddie dabbled in distribution, promotion, songwriting, production, A&R, and music education. Though his accomplishments are many, some of the key moments of his career are as follows:

•    In 1954 he wrote “Hearts of Stone,” a song that went number one on the R&B, pop and country charts. 
•    In 1964 he became Vice President of A&R for Capitol Records, making him the first African American to be given an executive position at a major American record label.
•    In the 1970s he established a music vocational school in Memphis, Tenn. that was later incorporated into the University of Memphis
•    In 1981 President Ronald Reagan appointed him to serve as Commissioner on the U.S. Copyright Royalty Tribunal, where he served for eight years.  
•    Following his service as Commissioner, Eddie returned to North Carolina to revitalize the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame in YEAR, a joint effort between himself and music mogul Mike Curb.

Now 92-years-old, Eddie reflects on his career in this new interview.

Let’s start at the beginning. Where in North Carolina are you are from and what was your musical upbringing like?

I’m from the State of North Carolina. I was born up in the Great Smoky Mountains about 75 miles on the other side of Asheville, North Carolina in a little town called Franklin. We listened to all kinds of music, but I grew up mainly listening to country and bluegrass. I didn’t hear much blues until I left North Carolina because I was up in the mountains listening to WBT, WSB, and WSM out of Nashville – the Grand Ole Opry and all that. I always loved music.
I left Franklin when I was 16 years of age to finish high school at Laurinburg Institute, which at the time was one of the best and one of the very few boarding high schools in the country for African American kids. A lot of very important people graduated from that school. Dizzy Gillespie graduated a few years before I did! 

When I graduated from Laurinburg, the war was just about over. I had three brothers. One was in the tank destroyer battalion that went up into Germany, the other was in the Air Force that [flew] out of Italy and went into North Africa, and the other one was in the Navy, so I wanted to go into service. There were often special senior high school students [who went into] Army Specialized Training Programs and I took the test [for that] after I graduated in June of 1944. I was working in a ball bearing factory in Connecticut when I got a notice that I had passed. I was one of 133 other African American high school students [who passed]. They sent me to Howard University in Washington, D.C. until I became 18, and then I had to come back to North Carolina to do my basic training. It was there they discovered the formation of cataracts on both eyes. I was honorably discharged, and then I didn’t know what to do! 

I decided to go to college. I contacted a lot of universities, but I liked the pictures of the campus of University of Delaware. I made the decision based on what I saw on the campus, but for some reason [before I left] I saw an ad saying “Beer that Made Milwaukee Famous” and I cancelled my plans and went to Milwaukee.

I went to get a job and was sent to a factory. I weighed about 125 or 130 pounds, and they said, “Get out of here you can’t do this work.” I didn’t argue with them, but I went back and they said, “There’s a distributing company for a record company named Decca Records here. They are looking for somebody to work in the shipping department.” The job was the lowest job there is – stock boy, and I took it. That was the start of a career I’ve been doing ever since. I learned everything there was to learn about the music business. 

You’ve credited your success to two things: you have good timing and you know how to recognize talent. Will you talk about what it takes to recognize talent?

I think it came from those days when I was invited to go to sessions at Aladdin records. I would pay close attention to what was happening between the arranger, the producer, the engineer, and the artist, and I noticed one thing that I thought was a mistake [from] most A&R people.

And an artist is funny when they first start out in a session. They want to satisfy me. They want to satisfy the record company because we’re putting the money up. We’re doing everything, and A&R people had the tendency to want them to do what they were unable to do.

[When] you sign up an artist, you sign them because you detect the talent that they have. The uniqueness. The diversity. 

[I remember] they [would] say, “Eddie how should I do this? How do you want me to do this?” 

I’d say, “You’re kidding me. If I knew how to do it, I’d do it myself. I wouldn’t need you or to hire somebody else to do it. I want you to do what you feel. I don’t give a damn what the arranger wants.” 

And they can understand that. They’d never had that kind of relationship with the A&R people before.

A lot of people ask me how would you want to be remembered. I’m never concerned about those kinds of things. I’m not the one that needs to be credited with anything that’s happened. For me it’s those talented artists I’ve worked with who should get the claim, not me. 

Will you tell us about your relationship with Mike Curb who helped revitalize the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame with you?

It’s a very strange thing. I was with Imperial Records, but I had made a commitment to Capitol Records. Capitol was owned by EMI, an English company. They had started losing a lot of their English acts because the A&R staff and the marketing staff at Capitol Records had no experience with those kinds of artists. [We were in the middle of] the English Invasion as we referred to it in the industry, and those kind of artists were more closely attuned to what independent companies had been doing, which I had been doing. So, I made a deal as A&R head for the new company at Capitol, and I was getting ready to leave Imperial, and the secretary came and said there’s a young man here to see you. I said, “Who?” She said, “His name is Mike Curb.” I had a rule that I never would see anybody unless I had a previous appointment. I had a lot of rules but thank God I was the type of guy who would break rules. For whatever reason I said send him in. This kid walks in. He’s about 17 and he told me about a group and he said, “I’d like to do an audition for them.” 

I said, “Okay.” 

I thought he had a demo. I reached my hand out, and he said, “No, I want to do a live audition.” I said, “Live? I don’t do live auditions,” but for some reason I said, “Okay.” He goes out to the car and brings in these three girls. He sets up at the little piano and they perform songs he produced. 

I told him that I would be leaving the company in a month, and I forgot all about it. I really did. 

First day at Capitol – first DAY - they called me and say, “There’s a young man here to see you.” I said, ‘Send him up.” We started talking and I was more impressed with him than I was with any of the [artists he presented]]. I talked to the President and I told him I wanted to hire him as a fulltime producer. He said, “Eddie if you feel that way about him [do it].”  [At that time] they had A&R old guys who were producing Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Barbara Streisand – no young producer like Mike. He was all excited about it and started the contract to the legal department. He would’ve been by far the first young person Capitol ever hired. 

Mike came by one day and said, “Mr. Ray I want to talk to you. I want to thank you for all you’re trying to do for me, but I think I’m going to try it on my own at least for another 10 years.” I had more respect for him then than ever.

Then he brought me another guy who took an old song called “Apache” and redid it and called it “Apache 65” and I said, “Mike why don’t you put this out locally on your own and if it starts making some noise I’ll let you use my promotion man on the west coast. And I want an option on it for Capitol.” 

He said, “How do I do that?”  I told him how to do it. Press about 500 records – he didn’t know how to do that, so I called the pressing plant for him. It’s the first record on Curb Records. We broke it in Bakersfield, California of all places. Then I picked it up for Capitol and [it became] his first Billboard record on Curb Records. Then he came to me with another thing. He goes to AIP – American International Pictures – and he tells them he’s got a deal with Capitol Records for soundtracks, and he wants to produce soundtracks. They were doing motorcycle movies and surfing movies and Nancy Sinatra Peter Fonda movies. He tells them he’ll do the soundtrack for all the movies, and he had guaranteed distribution through Capitol. He comes to me and tells me he’s got the deal with AIP. He ain’t got the deal with either one of us! 

Then I say how much is it going to cost me. He gave me a figure that was unbelievable. It was nothing. This deal went on for three years and we had about six or seven albums, but that’s why I got my vice presidency with Capitol Records. Of course, I picked up Pink Floyd – that helped.
But that’s the story of Mike and I. Later on, I get this call from Mike, he must’ve been 24 or 25. He’d just been hired as President of MGM Records and wanted me to come work as Senior Vice President, and I did. It’s a hell of a story. We’ve been friends ever since.

Will you tell that Pink Floyd Story? 

See I came a little too early. This was in ’66 I believe. I picked up Freddie and the Dreamers and they went number one. I started hearing all about Pink Floyd doing so well in England, so I went over. And then I checked to see what Capitol was going to do [with them]. They had first refusal rights on all EMI products for Americans [and] for Mexico and South America. They only had two months left on the option to pick it up, so I decided to pick them up. I brought them over and we did the master of the tape there at Capitol. We had the Beatles [who] were hot as a pistol then. They are all excited about – did the Beatles use this studio? 

Then I had Mike Curb help them master the album. He tells me years later, “Eddie I didn’t know how to master.” He’d been working with those damn high school students! But anyway, they came and it was unbelievable. We had a pre-release party with local distributors and DJs for the first album, and I think only about 90 people showed up. Two years later they came out there and they filled the stadium after Dark Side of the Moon. But what I did is save them for Capitol. They would have lost them.

What wisdom do you like to offer people interested in going into the business? 

Students [often] ask me to offer advice, and I say, “Whatever success I’ve had – if I had it – has nothing to do with you. It had to do with me. I can’t transfer that. I want you to be certain about what you want to do. Is this what you want to do? Do you think you’re somebody? Do you think you’re an artist? If you think that, then you go out and get it done. I want you to please that voice inside you. That’s the only thing that counts. Learn everything there is about the industry and about what you’re doing. Everything there is.” 

Why was it important to you to be a part of revitalizing and building the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame?

I think it’s especially important for the artists that came from here that had to go away and they never got any recognition! Look at the jazz artists that came from here. Look at the bluegrass. Look at the country. Look at the gospel. 

People that have contributed in other ways - like in the textile industry or in basketball - people in all the other industries that brought economic success to the state [are recognized].  Music and arts bring some of that too, but it brings other things that are more personal. It has to do with the emotions. It has to do with so much of the total enjoyment of life. Why shouldn’t it be recognized and publicized and honored the same way you honor Duke Industries for all the things that they have done? Or the medical field? 

One of the things that I preach to the board is I don’t think of the induction ceremony as being a money maker. This is one of our reasons for being here -- to honor these people. To recognize, to honor, and to promote them because they were never given that honor before. I think it’s so important.

Hillsborough Celebrates Hometown Musical Great Billy Strayhorn

February 23, 2019

Billy Strayhorn, Duke Ellington’s longtime collaborator, was among the most influential figures in American jazz. A versatile composer, arranger, and pianist, Strayhorn joined Ellington’s orchestra at age 22 in 1939 and worked with the bandleader the rest of his life.  

NC State LIVE co-commissioned David Roussève/REALITY’s latest work, Halfway to Dawn, a jubilant dance-theater piece that celebrates all facets of the jazz composer’s rich and complicated life that will be performed at Stewart Theatre on the campus of NC State on Saturday, March 2.

Weaving dance, video, and Strayhorn’s masterful music, the project celebrates Strayhorn while also creating conversations around race, sexuality, and the danger of placing the quest for fame ahead of personal freedom.

A week of activities are planned to celebrate the North Carolina premiere and the local legacy of Strayhorn, who spent much of his childhood with his grandmother in Hillsborough, N.C., who introduced Strayhorn to the piano as soon as he could reach the keys.

NC State LIVE invites you to IMMERSE yourself in the following artistic journeys:

Tuesday, February 26

A Celebration of Billy Strayhorn: Exploring a jazz legacy in Hillsborough, NC!

Time: 11:15 a.m.
Location: Strayhorn’s Historic Marker (on South Churton Street, near West Margaret Lane, Hillsborough, N.C.)
Cost: Free

Kick off a day of Billy Strayhorn-themed events with a welcome by Hillsborough’s Mayor Tom Stevens. Learn a little about Strayhorn’s childhood home and enjoy some jazz on the sidewalk by Hillsborough’s own Yahyah Corbett!

Lunch and Learn: Hillsborough’s Jazz Roots – A Discussion with David Roussève and Tommy DeFrantz

Time: 12 to 1 p.m. 
Location: Orange County Public Library, 137 W Margaret Lane, Hillsborough, N.C.
Cost: Free  (Bring your lunch.)

Take a lunch break with us! Billy Strayhorn spent much of his childhood in Hillsborough, was Duke Ellington’s main writing partner and is responsible for iconic jazz standards like “Take the A Train,” “Satin Doll,” “Lush Life” and more! Bring your lunch and enjoy a discussion with acclaimed chorographer David Roussève (who’s newest work Halfway to Dawn explores Billy Strayhorn’s complex life and music) and Duke professor Tommy DeFrantz as they delve into Billy Strayhorn’s history and his Hillsborough roots. Enjoy this discussion just blocks away from where Strayhorn learned to play the piano. Attendees will receive 50-percent off tickets to Halfway to Dawn!

Artist Salon with David Roussève and Music by Yahyah Corbett

Time: 6 to 7:30 p.m.
Location: Burwell School Historic Site, 319 N Churton Street, Hillsborough, N.C. 
Cost: $20 (Proceeds benefit the Burwell School and the Alliance for Historic Hillsborough)

Come experience an artistic evening of food, music, and Hillsborough history. Hear from acclaimed choreographer and Guggenheim Fellow David Roussève about his process creating Halfway to Dawn, a dance-theatre take on Hillsborough’s own jazz great, Billy Strayhorn. Be treated to the sounds of local jazz impresario Yahyah Corbett. Explore the fascinating Burwell School Historic Site. Wine and hors d'oeuvres will be served. Attendees will receive 50-percent off tickets to Halfway to Dawn!

Saturday, March 2

JAZZ Bus from Hillsborough

Time: 6 p.m. 
Location: Bus departs from Orange County Public Library ,137 W Margaret Lane, Hillsborough, N.C. The bus leaves promptly at 6 p.m. 
Cost: Free but you must register for the bus at go.ncsu.edu/JazzBus

Pile into a bus from Billy Strayhorn’s childhood home of Hillsborough, N.C. to NC State LIVE’s performance of Halfway to Dawn. While on the bus, you’ll be treated to Howling Cow ice cream, get a drink ticket to use at the show, and enjoy live jazz! Bus will arrive at NC State in time for pre-show discussion with David Roussève. Limited availability. Act fast! After signing up for the bus, you will be directed to purchase tickets to the show at go.ncsu.edu/HalfwayToDawn

Pre-show discussion with David Roussève

Time: 7 p.m.
Location: Talley Student Union, Room 3285, 2610 Cates Avenue, Raleigh, N.C.

Choreographer David Roussève is a magna cum laude graduate of Princeton University, a Guggenheim Fellow, current professor and former chair of UCLA’s Department of World Arts and Cultures/Dance. He has written, directed, and choreographed 14 full evening works for David Roussève/REALITY including three commissions for the Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Arrive early to meet David and learn more about how Billy Strayhorn has influenced his work as a gay, African American choreographer who grew up at the apex of the civil rights movement.

Halfway to Dawn
Time: 8 p.m.
Location: Talley Student Union, Stewart Theatre, 2610 Cates Avenue, Raleigh, N.C.
Tickets: go.ncsu.edu/HalfwayToDawn or call (919) 515-1100

David Roussève/REALITY’s Halfway to Dawn is a jubilant dance-theatre work that celebrates all facets of Strayhorn’s life through full-throttle dance, haunting video, and a ‘blow the roof of’ score pulled directly from the Strayhorn canon. Roussève’s homage highlights the political urgency of Strayhorn’s narrative and evokes the man so instrumental to the creation of one of America’s quintessential art forms. 

Additional Educational Events

In addition to the public events above, NC State LIVE is engaging with students in Hillsborough through the following events:

Movement Workshop at Cedar Ridge High School in Hillsborough
Led by members of the dance-theatre company David Roussève/REALITY, this workshop will explore the development process used in the creation of Roussève’s Halfway to Dawn, based on the music of Billy Strayhorn. The class will focus on the work’s unique fusion of modern, postmodern, jazz and social dance vocabularies and include the teaching of dynamic phrase material. Mirroring Roussève’s development process, workshop participants will then manipulate that material to make their own gesture movement inspired by the emotional underpinnings of the music.

Performance of Jeghetto’s An Evening with Billy Strayhorn at C.W. Stanford Middle School in Hillsborough, N.C.
Acclaimed local puppeteer Jeghetto (Tarish Pipkins) has created a one-of-a-kind performance based on the music of Billy Strayhorn, as a companion piece to Halfway to Dawn. The work features a bespectacled Billy Strayhorn puppet and video projections. Following the performance, Jeghetto will lead a puppetry workshop with students. This project is made possible through the NC State LIVE Mini-Grant Fund for Faculty.

This residency would not have been possible without the help of NC State LIVE’s Hillsborough partners: The Alliance for Historic Hillsborough, Burwell School Historic Site, Hillsborough Arts Council, Orange County Public Library, and Music Maker Relief Foundation. The presentation of David Roussève/REALITY was made possible by the New England Foundation for the Arts’ National Dance Project, with lead funding from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. This project was supported by the N.C. Arts Council, a division of the Department of Natural & Cultural Resources and is funded in part by the City of Raleigh based on recommendations of the Raleigh Arts Commission.

For a complete list of related activities visit https://live.arts.ncsu.edu/events/nc-state-live-2018-19-season/david-rou...

To find out more about David Roussève/REALITY or to purchase tickets visit https://live.arts.ncsu.edu/events/nc-state-live-2018-19-season/david-rou...

Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite: An Early Soundtrack to Black Lives Matter

By Mark Anthony Neal
February 20, 2019

The scene is now iconic; four young Black men, students at the Historically Black North Carolina A&T University in Greensboro sat down at a segregated lunch counter in a local Woolworth’s department store. In the aftermath, their actions – in ways that we wouldn’t fully understand for decades – went “viral”, inspiring a generation of young Americans, Black and White, to challenge the racial status quo of the American South. Among those who were paying attention was a North Carolina native son, raised in Brooklyn, named Max Roach.

Months after the so-called Greensboro Sit-In, a staged version appears on the cover of Max Roach’s now classic We Insist! Max Roach’s – Freedom Now Suite. The album stands as an early musical testament to the burgeoning rage, anger and passion that would take the Civil Rights Movement from its early victory in Montgomery in 1955 into a future that would dramatically alter race relations in the United States. And as perhaps fitting, the impetus for Roach’s artist statement came in the aftermath of tragedy.

Roach was barely out of his teens when he began playing with many of the stalwarts of Be-Bop in the mid-1940s, but he came to prominence in a quintet that he fronted with trumpeter Clifford Brown. When Brown was killed in an automobile accident is 1956 at age 24, Roach went into an understandable funk. As Roach told the Los Angeles Times in 1991, "I got really strung out on booze.” Roach’s recovery came via a community of Black artists and activists who embraced him in the city of Chicago, including Maya Angelou, playwright Lorraine Hansberry and most importantly vocalist Abbey Lincoln, who would later become his collaborator and wife. Also, in that community was a young singer-songwriter named Oscar Brown, Jr., who in 1959 begins to collaborate with Roach on what was to be a performance piece that marked the centennial of the signing of Emancipation Proclamation in 1962.

Then February 1, 1960 happened, and events of that day and subsequent others, changed the direction of Roach and Brown’s project, injecting it with a sense of urgency. Speaking with the Boston Globe in 1992, Roach admitted, “We could never finish the piece because we felt the Emancipation Proclamation was all rhetoric.” We Insist! reflects the contradictions that Roach, Brown and others felt at the languid pace of social and political change – anticipating Nina Simone’s chastising on her classic “Mississippi Goddamn” of those naysayers who say “go slow”.

In many ways Roach, Brown and others including Abbey Lincoln, who provides vocals throughout, the legendary saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, trumpeter Booker Little, and Chicago native, trombonist Julian Priester, had little choice but to speak truth to power musically at that time. For example, the Motown label had just incorporated two months after the Greensboro Sit-In, and it would be another four or five years before they had the cultural gravitas to move the needle, and in any event the label founder Berry Gordy was not inclined to do so. The Stax label was still a regional mom-and-pop outfit when recording began on We Insist! in late August of 1960. Even vocalists like Sam Cooke and the aforementioned Simone, who are remembered as “voices” of the movement, were a few years away from the recordings like “A Change is Gonna Come” or “Young, Gifted and Black” which many associate with the Black protest movement of the era. Max Roach el al seemed to be out on a limb.

Yet as noted Jazz critic and writer Nat Hentoff attest in the album’s linear notes “Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Max Roach, Art Blakey and several others declared public support for the sit-ins... Jazzmen too had been becoming conscious and prideful of the African wave of independence.” If the opening tracks “Driva-Man” and “Freedom Day” captured the spirit of Roach and Brown’s original vision, the closing tracks “All Africa” and “Tears for Johannesburg”, written after the Sharpsville Massacre of 1960 brought international attention to South African Apartheid, capture the increasing Global vision of African American artists and activists.

The literal centerpiece of the Freedom Now! Suite was the song "Triptych: Prayer/Protest/Peace" in which Lincoln’s vocals and now iconic screeching was prominently featured. The song, originally intended as a ballet, sonically reproduced both the trauma and possibilities of Black life in an era overridingly defined by protest and threats of violence. As Roach would reflect decades later in the Boston Globe, on the occasion of the beating of motorist Rodney King, “I have pictures of black men hanging from trees, tarred and feathered, barbecued…This kind of thing, I'm afraid, is part of the fabric of this country, and I'm not sure when it's going to stop.”

By the end of the 1960s, the sense of urgency that We Insist – The Freedom Now! Suite emboldened, could be heard throughout American culture in the work of musicians, playwrights, novelist, poets and visual artists alike. Almost 60 years after its recording the vision of resistance that We Insist! conjured is as relevant and needed today as it was then.

Mark Anthony Neal is the James B. Duke Professor of African & African American Studies and Professor of English at Duke University, where he is Chair of the Department of African & African-American Studies. Neal is the author of several books including Soul Babies: Black Popular Culture and the Post-Soul Aesthetic and Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities and hosts the weekly video podcast Left of Black, produced in collaboration with the John Hope Franklin Center for International and Interdisciplinary Studies. Follow Neal on Twitter at @NewBlackMan and Instagram at @BookerBBBrown.

Trivia Tuesday: Little Eva

February 19, 2019

Little Eva’s first single, “The Loco-Motion,” launched her into the pop spotlight when it hit number one on Billboard’s Hot 100 in August 1962. In 1971 Eva Boyd retired from the music industry. She is buried in her hometown of Belhaven, N.C

Little Eva - Loco-Motion

A Celebration of Thelonious Monk's Life

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

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

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.


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