North Carolina is home to many kinds of music because many kinds of people live here. Indigenous populations live alongside the descendants of immigrating Europeans and enslaved Africans.
In the past as well as now, people relied on music and dance traditions to express faith, pace their work, entertain neighbors, tell their stories and comment on the world around them.
Musical styles developed that are influenced by geography, occupation and the everyday experiences of people. Styles influenced each other, as music flows from community to community. Even in these days of mass communication, social media and worldwide internet access, musical styles in North Carolina still identify specific regions and communities, as musicians, dancers and audiences utilize music to make community and to express themselves.
We invite you to learn more about music styles across our state!
For some, the word “ballad” can refer to all sorts of songs—from romantic pop songs to folk-revival protest anthems. In the North Carolina mountains, ballads are traditional narrative songs, usually sung unaccompanied, and often with origins that stretch back centuries to the British Isles and beyond. Parallel strains of Cherokee and African American traditional song enriched the Anglo/Celtic music brought by early white settlers, and new songs entered the tradition as singers chronicled the current events of their day within the ages-old ballad form. Ballads have been studied as oral literature and are recognized for their poetic form and as reflections of historical experience. Ballads are sometimes known simply as love songs in the Blue Ridge.
English folk song collector Cecil Sharp collected over 500 ballads with English roots in the Southern United States in the early 20th century. He collected many songs in North Carolina’s Madison County, where descendants of these singers continue to sing the ballads learned “knee to knee.” North Carolina masters of the ballad tradition performing in North Carolina today include Sheila Kay Adams, Robert Lynn “Bobby” McMillon, Joe Penland and Rick Ward.
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The high-energy sound of bluegrass has long thrived in North Carolina. As traditional styles of music go, bluegrass is a youngster. The first notes sounded over the radios in southern kitchens and parlors around 1939, as Bill Monroe and his band the Blue Grass Boys introduced audiences to their innovative approach to string band music. On February 2, 1939, the Blue Grass Boys played on Asheville’s WWNC, in what many regard as the band’s first broadcast.
To people who were raised on what we now call old-time music, there was a lot about the new style that sounded like home. Some of the familiar elements of an old-time string band were there: fiddle and guitar, plus the mandolin (Monroe’s instrument) and upright bass. The band’s performances included fiddle tunes that one might hear at any Saturday-night square dance, old familiar heart songs about mother and home, and multi-part harmony singing drawn from gospel styles of the day.
But bluegrass introduced new sounds, too. Then as now, the musicians took “breaks.” That is, they traded turns playing the instrumental lead—a departure from the unison approach of much old-time string band music. And those instrumental breaks were often highly improvisational. While improvisation in old-time music is subtle, bluegrass makes greater flights of fancy, an approach often compared to the creative spirit of jazz. Another hallmark of bluegrass music was the up-tempo approach; most bluegrass is fast-paced.
Bill Monroe, a Kentuckian, was the father of bluegrass music, but it took a village heavily populated with North Carolinians to raise the baby. The Blue Grass Boys’ first fiddler was Art Wooten, a native of Sparta in Alleghany County. Monroe was a tremendous admirer of good fiddling, and it speaks volumes about Wooten’s talent that he was the first to be hired for that role. Jim Shumate also fiddled with the Blue Grass Boys, hired after Monroe admired his playing on the radio from Shumate’s hometown of Hickory.
Think for a moment about bluegrass music and its essential sound. What is the first instrument that jumps out at you? If it’s the banjo, you can thank Earl Scruggs. The Cleveland County native joined the Blue Grass Boys in 1945, and many music aficionados believe that’s when the classic bluegrass sound was fully realized. Scruggs played an ultra-syncopated three-finger style of banjo, a combination of his own innovation and the style of the region where he grew up. In time, Scruggs would become the most famous bluegrass musician of his day—perhaps of any day. He and partner Lester Flatt formed their own band, the Foggy Mountain Boys, in 1948. They would become household names far beyond the borders of the South playing “The Ballad of Jed Clampett” on The Beverly Hillbillies. Scruggs’ original “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” became so well-known after the 1967 release of the movie Bonnie and Clyde that for many it still represents the quintessential sound of bluegrass.
Many more North Carolinians would join the ranks of the bluegrass pioneers. Among them was George Shuffler, a native of Valdese in Burke County who played with the Stanley Brothers’ Clinch Mountain Boys for nearly 20 years. His sweet signature cross-picked guitar playing can be heard on many of their most beloved recordings.
North Carolina is at least as well represented today among the leading lights of bluegrass as it was 60 years ago. Fiddler Bobby Hicks has had a long and storied career, which began with his being recruited by Bill Monroe to join the Blue Grass Boys in 1954.
Balsam Range, featuring a stellar lineup of musicians from Haywood County, has topped the bluegrass charts repeatedly since the release of their first album in 2007. Asheville-born guitarist Bryan Sutton shared a Grammy with Doc Watson for their duet recording of “Whiskey Before Breakfast,” and he has toured with Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder, Hot Rize, and other legendary groups. The Steep Canyon Rangers, based in Asheville and Brevard, tour with banjo-playing actor and comedian Steve Martin, and have appeared on such TV shows as The Late Show With David Letterman and The Colbert Report—introducing a nationwide TV audience to bluegrass music, just as Flatt & Scruggs did half a century ago.
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“Most all of these North Carolina blues singers are singing experienced things. If they didn’t live that, somebody they know lived it. That’s what most of their songs are made up of, life experience.” – George Higgs
The blues—a body of traditional African American music that forms the bedrock of much of American popular music—is an important part of the cultural fabric of North Carolina, from the mountains to the sea. A stronghold of the Southeastern U.S. finger-picking style of guitar playing known as Piedmont Blues, African American musicians across the state have contributed to the rich legacy of blues music.
The blues became marked as a distinctive musical genre around the turn of the 20th century, developing throughout the Southeast and building on the African American music traditions which preceded it, including work songs, field hollers, dance tunes, minstrel songs, and spirituals.
Blues lyrics often captured the hardships of the oppressive era of Jim Crow racism, segregated society, and civil rights injustices in addition to chronicling the joys and sorrows of daily life. The blues remain an outlet for the expression of personal and shared experience, as well as popular accompaniment for dancing.
Early blues musicians sought out varied tonalities by tuning their guitars to an open D or E chord, and by using a bottleneck or knife as a slide. Initially blues songs varied in length, form and style, but overtime as the blues became popularized, the song form was standardized, taking on the twelve-bar structure we now know.
The Piedmont Blues, a finger-picking style of blues guitar, was influenced by earlier traditions of ragtime, parlor guitar, and string band music. Beginning in 1930s Durham, the Piedmont Blues style was prominent among the musicians who played for the large crowds at North Carolina tobacco auctions, cementing the reputations of such blues artists as Reverend Gary Davis, Sonny Terry, and the great Fulton Allen, better known as “Blind Boy” Fuller. Edgecombe County native George Higgs first saw the blues performed at Durham’s tobacco auctions, and he spent the next 60 years performing, composing and recording blues on guitar and harmonica. Carrboro resident Elisabeth Cotten (1895–1987) famed for her finger-picked song “Freight Train,” received a National Heritage Fellowship in 1984 and a Grammy Award in 1985, at age 90. Another Orange County native, John Dee Holeman, was born in 1929 and learned the Piedmont Blues style from family members. Honored with both the National Heritage Fellowship and the North Carolina Heritage Award, Holeman, who has toured internationally, continues to occasionally perform locally in conjunction with the Music Makers Relief Foundation. Early in his career, Holeman added buck dance and tap to his repertoire, features that were also a staple of blues guitarist Algia Mae Hinton’s (1929–2018) performances. She, too, received a North Carolina Heritage Award.
Foothill and mountain counties also fostered Piedmont Blues musicians. Etta Baker (1913–2006), a guitarist and banjo player, received highest honors from the nation and her home state for her lifetime of music. She received the National Heritage Fellowship in 1991, and the North Carolina Heritage Award in 1989. Baker’s music blended blues, old-time country, and other styles, a diversity of art that was mirrored in her own tri-racial (white, black, and American Indian) heritage. Howard Colbert grew up in a musical family in Lenoir, the son and grandson of banjo players. As a blues guitarist he moved to New York where he played music professionally, and then returned home to North Carolina. Other leading practitioners of the Lenoir-area blues tradition include guitarist Clyde "Pop" Ferguson and his son Clyde Ferguson, Jr., a bass player, guitarist Roger Hicks, and the Harris Brothers.
Blues music, very much a living tradition, is also an essential ingredient in the history of country music. Through his friendship with Lesley Riddle, an African American musician born in Burnsville in 1905, A.P. Carter was exposed to blues sounds that would enrich the repertoire of the legendary Carter Family. Countless other white musicians in the early days of country music incorporated blues songs and styles into their own playing; Tennessean Sam McGee and West Virginian Frank Hutchinson, both guitarists, are leading examples. The strength of that influence can still be heard in old-time and bluegrass music today.
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Of the musical traditions of the North Carolina mountains and foothills, those that have been here the longest are Cherokee song and instrumental music. Many Cherokee songs have ceremonial meaning and accompany dances. For example, Cherokee tradition-bearers perform the Eagle Dance Song to bring cold weather, and the Ball Dance Song to bring good luck to athletes before a stickball match. Handmade drums, flutes, and rattles have been important instruments in ceremonial and sacred music for many generations and are still played by Cherokee musicians today. These ancient instrumental traditions exist alongside more recently introduced instruments of European and African origin like the guitar, fiddle, and banjo.
Walker Calhoun (c. 1919–2012), who received the National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1992, was one of the great preservers and teachers of Cherokee songs in modern times. A native speaker of the Cherokee language, he learned music and dances from his uncle, medicine man Will West Long (1870–1947), also a great scholar and interpreter of Cherokee culture, who had in turn learned the traditions from a generation of elders who were alive at the time of the Trail of Tears. The two men, both from the Big Cove area of the Qualla Boundary, played large roles in the preservation of heritage now carried on by such groups as the Warriors of AniKituhwa and individual artists such as Bo Taylor and Eddie Swimmer.
Musicians of Cherokee heritage have been prominent in the old-time music history of the N.C. mountains, a heritage shared with white and black musicians. Walker Calhoun himself was an example, a fine banjo player whose father Morgan and brothers Lawrence, Henry, and Lawyer Calhoun also played. Legendary fiddler Manco Sneed (1885– 1975) had one Cherokee grandparent, and spent part of his life on the Qualla Boundary. Old-time string band musicians Osey and Ernest Helton, whose father was Cherokee, were part of the earliest wave of N.C. mountain musicians to record commercially, making records for the Broadway and OKeh labels in 1924 and 1925.
Gospel music is an important part of Cherokee musical heritage. The first book published in the Cherokee language in 1829 was a hymnal written in the Cherokee syllabary and published by the Cherokee tribe. The Cherokee community of Snowbird in Graham County is an especially rich home of gospel music. The Welch Family Singers are leading musicians of the area, singing hymns and gospel songs in both English and Cherokee. The Snowbird community hosts annual gospel singings in May, at the Fading Voices Festival, and in July at the Trail of Tears Singing.
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For generations, the North Carolina mountains and foothills were known for a rich dance heritage, a tradition that is still strong today. The oldest documented dance traditions in North Carolina are those of the Cherokee. Communities on the Qualla Boundary and in the Snowbird area near Robbinsville have kept their ancestors’ dancing heritage vital by passing the old dances and songs from one generation to the next. Elders Will West Long (1870–1947) and Walker Calhoun (c. 1915–2012) were both passionate about the continuation of traditional Cherokee culture, and the dances and accompanying songs that they taught to younger generations are now performed by dancers such as the members of the Warriors of AniKituwh and the Ani-Kuwih (Mulberry) Dancers.
In earlier generations as well as today, both square dancing and accompanying solo styles like flatfoot, buck dancing, and clogging have been popular throughout the state. Square dancing and clogging are mixed together in team square dancing, a performance style that originated in Haywood County and is now practiced worldwide. “Eight-handsets” and other square dance forms were danced in African American communities to string band music well into the 20th century. African American string bands accompanied dances in both white and Black communities.
African American musical genres such as jazz and the blues heavily influenced the development of popular music throughout the 20th century, and new dances emerged. Numerous vernacular dance forms developed in eastern North Carolina, often inspired by national trends, such as the Lindy Hop and the jitterbug. In the South before integration became law, such music and dance often led to the spontaneous desegregation of an event. The popularity of jazz dance bands drew white audiences, and concert and dance halls separated Blacks and Whites with a rope suspended from one end of the hall to the other. People tell stories about the nights the rope came down, allowing young folk of all races to dance together.
North Carolina young people flocked to beach resort communities to hear rhythm and blues bands, and to dance. A vernacular form of the jitterbug couple dance developed, and dancers in 1940s Carolina Beach dubbed it “the Shag.” The Shag gained popularity throughout the Carolinas and is now recognized as the state dance of both North and South Carolina.
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“Funk is something that one feels, and everybody has the ability to feel it. The irony is the more one thinks about it, the harder it is to get the feel of the funk. It’s just done.” – George Clinton, of Kannapolis, North Carolina
Where gospel, soul, jazz, R&B, and Afro-Cuban rhythms collide, funk is made. It is the marriage of syncopated base lines, a heavy beat, repetitive rhythmic vocals, extended stays on single chords, and the interwoven melodies of the Hammond organ and horn section.
Many credit James Brown for popularizing funk in the late 1960s and early 70s, when it began to permeate the commercial music industry as well as the homes, night clubs, and tobacco warehouses of North Carolina. Accomplished jazz and R&B musicians from Kinston, N.C., such as Maceo and Melvin Parker, Nat Jones, Dick Knight, and Levi Rasbury became key players in the development of the funk sound in their work with the James Brown Band.
More a feeling than a definable genre, funk is a proudly uninhibited, dance-inspiring groove; a groove that filled the soundtrack of the waning civil rights movement. Songs like James Brown’s Say it Loud, Parliament’s Chocolate City and Funkadelic’s One Nation Under the Groove celebrate and inspire the empowerment of African American communities. Funk became one of the most significant foundational genres in the development of hip-hop music.
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“[In] the African American experience when you’re in pain and you’re suffering you always go to God. You know, you go to church and you sing and you cry, and you moan, and you pray and all of those kinds of things.” — Sherry Winston
Gospel music has played an important role in the musical upbringing of many North Carolinians. It is the music that has filled not only the churches, but also the homes, streets, schools, and radios of eastern North Carolina, making music an integral part of life for the faithful. Small communities in eastern North Carolina, known for their strong heritage of gospel music, have been home to nationally known gospel artists such as the Reverend Faircloth C. Barnes, his son, Luther Barnes, the Anointed Jackson Sisters, the Reverend Malkarska Williams and the Williams Family.
The term gospel is used to describe a variety of music styles of praise and worship. The African American gospel tradition found in eastern and Piedmont North Carolina emerged around the turn of the 20th century, alongside ragtime, jazz, and blues. While drawing upon the syncopated rhythms and call and response form of African American spirituals, early gospel was also profoundly influenced by the secular music styles of the time.
The dialogue and interchange between sacred and secular music has continued to redefine gospel over the years. In the first half of the century, blues artists such as Blind Willie Johnson were known for playing gospel songs alongside blues guitar. Also gaining popularity at the time were a cappella gospel quartets, featuring energetic lead vocalists, four-part harmony, and syncopated clapping. Gospel ensembles today vary greatly in form and style but maintain in common their roots in these past traditions. Ensembles today commonly feature a lead vocalist, choir, Hammond organ, tambourine, drums, bass guitar, electric guitar, and share stylistic qualities with contemporary R&B, soul, and blues. The faithful keep pace with the times, and the poetry and beats of holy hip hop carry the message to new generations.
Gospel music in the Blue Ridge and Great Smoky Mountains encompasses a wealth of traditions. These forms share origins in old community singing traditions (such as shaped-note singing) and in deep-rooted forms of quartet harmony. Styles of gospel found in the North Carolina mountains and foothills include Cherokee, Bluegrass and Southern. Both traditional hymns and new compositions mark contemporary gospel repertoires.
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The musical genre hip hop developed in New York’s African American and Latino Bronx neighborhoods in the 1970s and was a worldwide cultural phenomenon by the 2000s. Hip hop culture embraces not only music and dance, but also art forms such as graffiti, contemporary fashion, Spoken Word poetry, and speech styles, including specialized vocabulary and usage. Early hip hop music engaged technology in innovative ways to create beats by scratching and mixing (manipulating turntable numbers and speed), and by sampling (extracting sections from recorded music and repeating them within the beat structure of the song). Rapping delivers the lyrics in a rhymed and rhythmic chant over a background beat. Dance genres associated with hip hop include break dancing and pop and locking. Hip hop content traditionally describes the conditions of life in depressed urban environments and is often seen as a critique of social realities encountered on a daily basis. Elements of earlier forms of African American music, such as polyrhythms, call and response, improvisation, rhymed verse, and innovative uses of materials to create rhythms and sounds are evident in hip hop. Like jazz and the blues, this primarily African American form grew out of local community expression to influence music and cultural expression worldwide.
North Carolina’s hip hop scene has begun to receive national attention, with such artists as J. Cole, Rapsody, King Mez, Supastition, Petey Pablo and a growing list of others. Vibrant local hip hop culture centers exist in the Triangle, Greensboro, and Charlotte, as young local artists stand up to the mic to deliver poems and raps that reflect their own personal and collective experience.
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“And that’s the thing that’s so great about jazz: it’s a lineage, and that lineage is being passed on. Everything I got from him [Dr. Billy Taylor], I try to share with my students.” – Professor Carroll Dashiell Jr.
North Carolina has witnessed jazz in its many transformations, from its emergence in the late 19th century to its contemporary incarnations. From ragtime to big band swing, bebop, and contemporary jazz, North Carolinians have seen it, played it, and danced it.
Although the term jazz has been used to describe numerous forms of popular music in the 20th century, there are several common threads that link the varied styles of jazz music into one cohesive genre. Jazz has from its inception emphasized improvisation and the player’s personal interpretation of a tune, rather than valuing an exact playing of a score. In general, jazz features syncopation, polyrhythms, extended chords, and blue notes. And, it is often a collaborative music experience, in which players engage in improvisational dialogue to create a song. Conversely, jazz standard compositions, such as Thelonious Monk’s Straight, No Chaser, have become a major part of American culture. Some jazz scholars and aficionados refer to jazz as American Classical Music, declaring it to be the United States’ greatest contribution to world music.
Jazz moves beyond concert stages and into the homes, churches, and high schools of Eastern and Piedmont North Carolina. It is a tradition that has been passed down generationally by music educators and individual players and continues to inform much to the region’s music today.
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Old-time music, the pre-curser of bluegrass, blends traditions brought to America by early European settlers and enslaved African Americans. Scholars also trace American Indian influences in old-time music. The core instruments in an old-time string band are fiddle, banjo, and guitar. (Sometimes you’ll see other instruments too, such as mandolin, harmonica, or upright bass.) Old-time is a fluid genre, allowing for solo and group performance, and its traditions have been handed down through families and communities for generations. Regional styles of instrument playing have developed, and old-time has been enriched with elements of other styles, like the blues of black Southerners, sentimental 19th-century heart songs, and jaunty Tin Pan Alley numbers. Many of the best-known old-time tunes are instrumental favorites often played for dancing.
Old-time music played by ear was the dominant form of vernacular music in rural Black and White southern communities until the mid-20th century. Black old-time musicians played for both White and Black community events that included dance. In the 20th century, blues styles rapidly overtook old-time as a popular vernacular form in African American communities. Old-time music is known in Cherokee and other American Indian communities in North Carolina. Manco Sneed grew up in the Cherokee community, and his fiddle tunes and techniques continue to challenge avid young players. Researching and reviving the contributions to old-time music by diverse individuals from many backgrounds is an on-going project of several contemporary ethnomusicologists, folklorists, and musicians.
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“…Rock is really rhythm and blues music.” — Bill Myers
Rhythm and blues (R&B) is a term that has been used to describe many African American music genres, including electronic blues, soul, funk, disco, and contemporary pop. The term has taken new meaning with each generation but was originally coined in the late 1940s to refer to a genre developing out of jazz (primarily swing and be-bop), and the blues. Older musicians may testify that the original term was “rhythm in blues.” Early R&B ensembles commonly included a vocalist, electric guitar, saxophone, and a full rhythm section of piano, bass, and drums. Hit songs were upbeat and danceable, with a familiar feel due to the apparent influence of previous music traditions. The call and response form associated with gospel, for example, could often be heard in the dialogue between saxophone and vocal line.
R&B first thrived in urban areas such as New York City, Chicago, Detroit, and Los Angeles but soon influenced musicians throughout the country, and eventually gained international recognition. North Carolina R&B artists tell of bringing their music to international audiences while away on military leave, participating in international ministry, and while working as touring musicians.
In the 1940s North Carolina residents heard some of the early stars of R&B play in the tobacco warehouses of eastern North Carolina, just as today you might catch a similar sound at the weekly jams in Goldsboro, at First Fridays on the Lawn in Wilson, or even at a high school band performance. In 2011 the Monitors, a North Carolina R&B band for more than 50 years, attended and played at the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife in Washington, DC.
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One of the oldest and most traditional kinds of sacred music in America, shaped-note singing, has deep roots in North Carolina. Since the early 19th century, congregations and communities in the state have embraced shaped-note singing. Once widespread, this powerful musical tradition survives mainly in the South.
Shaped-notes are a form of written music in which the notes of the scale are represented with triangles, squares, and other shapes. The method was developed to simplify the process of learning to read music. Throughout the 19th century and into the 20th, singing school teachers—itinerant shaped-note instructors—visited church congregations and small communities and taught singers to read the special notation. Hundreds of hymnals exist in shaped-note notation, but two have been especially popular through the generations: The Sacred Harp, first published in 1844, and Christian Harmony, published in 1867.
In North Carolina, shaped-note singing had a powerful advocate in North Carolina Heritage Award winner Quay Smathers (1913–1997). The singing school teacher from Haywood County helped keep the tradition alive during the mid-20th century, when it was in danger of extinction. Thanks to the efforts of such devoted stewards, North Carolina mountain communities are proudly carrying this generations-old heritage into the future.
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Soul music is a hybrid of the sacred and secular, of gospel and R&B. The two genres share many acclaimed musicians, such as Aretha Franklin and Sam Cooke. The influence of gospel on soul is evident in musical form and performance style.
Popularized in the 1950s and early 60s, soul was characterized by an emphasis on a firm supporting beat, as well as smooth, polished melodies, punctuated by emotive and unrestrained vocal ornamentation.
Ensembles carry a lead vocalist, three or four backup singers, a horn player and drummer. Call and response is heard between the lead and backup singers as well as between the lead singer and horn player. Soul lyrics cathartically reveal the disillusionment and hardship of unrequited love, heartbreak, and other intimacies.
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