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African American National Heritage Fellows
Mark Puryear opens the festivities at Freedom Sounds: A Community Celebration for the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Photo by SarahVictoria Rosemann, Smithsonian

The National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellows featured in this playlist represent a selection of folk and traditional music practiced by African American artists throughout the nation. These recordings include field, live, and studio recordings presenting a spectrum of performance contexts and settings. The Smithsonian Folkways Recordings and Arhoolie Records catalogs are an invaluable resource of NEA National Heritage Fellows’ recordings.

Album cover

1. Ted’s Stomp

By Howard Armstrong
From Louie Bluie Film Soundtrack

This duet between Howard Armstrong on fiddle and Ted Bogan on guitar is a nice up-tempo example of each musician’s playing. Along with Carl Martin rounding out the trio, they toured as Martin, Bogan, and Armstrong. This track is from the soundtrack for Louie Bluie, a film about the life of Armstrong and his fellow string band musicians. The trio participated in the 1974 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, and Howard continued to perform and teach into his nineties.

2. Je Me Reveiller Le Matin (I Woke Up This Morning)

By Clifton Chenier
From Bogalusa Boogie

The child of Louisiana sharecroppers, Clifton Chenier began performing in dance halls around Lake Charles, Louisiana, with his brother Cleveland beginning in 1944 and through the post-WWII years. Playing the piano accordion, Chenier is considered a founder, if not the king of zydeco music. His stylistic influences spanned the recordings of Amédé Ardoin from his childhood to the blues and rhythm and blues of artists such as Professor Longhair and Fats Domino. As Arhoolie founder Chris Stachwitz’s liner notes make clear, this was one of Chenier’s best recording sessions.

3. Billie’s Bounce

By Claude Williams
From Live At J’s, Vol. 1

Born in Muskogee, Oklahoma, Claude Williams was adept at playing a variety of musical instruments before his teens. He moved to Kansas City in the 1930s and played in the Count Basie Band, and later with pianist Jay McShann and other noted musicians. As you can hear on this Charlie Parker tune, his tone and impeccable phrasing stand out. Witnessing Williams perform was striking; no matter if he was with a Texas swing band or a jazz ensemble, his playing was always tasteful and exciting.

4. All My Money Gone

By Henry Townsend
From The Blues in St. Louis

Henry Townsend’s outstanding piano playing is a nice counterpoint to his lyrics about hard times during the Great Depression. His life story encompasses the migration of African Americans from the rural south to northern cities. His family moved to Illinois from Mississippi, and after leaving home as a youth he settled in St. Louis. Townsend first played guitar, then piano, and often worked accompanying many blues artists in the 1930s. Later in life he found success touring in Europe and playing festivals in the United States.

5. Shake Sugaree

By Elizabeth Cotten
From Shake Sugaree

To me, this song stands out due to the vocals by Elizabeth Cotten’s granddaughter. I imagine Elizabeth’s singing in her youth had this same quality. Mike Seeger recorded this track that captures the clear quality of Cotten’s guitar playing and the beauty and joy of family members playing music together.

6. One Dime Blues

By Etta Baker
From Blues Routes: Heroes and Tricksters: Blues and Jazz Worksongs & Street Music

Etta (Reid) Baker was raised in a musical family in Caldwell County, North Carolina, in an era when music making at home was a regular family activity. Her grandfather, father, and mother all played music. Baker learned this version of “One Dime Blues” from her brother-in-law. Her precise playing continues to influence generations of Piedmont blues players.

7. Richmond Blues

By John Cephas and Phil Wiggins From Richmond Blues

John Cephas, a master of the Piedmont blues guitar style, was born in Washington, D.C., in the 1930s. He learned to play guitar from family members in Caroline County, Virginia, and settled there in retirement. After performing in a variety of groups, Cephas worked with harmonica master Phil Wiggins in a duo beginning in 1976. Wiggins, a native Washingtonian with familial ties to Alabama, is a 2017 NEA National Heritage Fellow. Their performances exemplify the artistic excellence of this style.

8. Before This Time Another Year

By Bessie Jones and the Georgia Sea Island Singers
From Friends of Old Time Music: The Folk Arrival 1961–1965

Mary Elizabeth “Bessie” Jones was born February 8, 1902, in Smithville, Georgia, and raised among a large, extended family. She worked as laundress, maid, and migrant farmworker from Florida to Connecticut, finally settling on St. Simons Island, Georgia. In 1963, she teamed up with a group of other singers to form the Georgia Sea Island Singers. This song includes a nice fife in the intro and syncopated hand clapping throughout along with call-and-response vocals.

9. Give Me My Flowers While I Live

By Elder Roma Wilson
From This Train is a Clean Train

Born in Hickory Flat, Mississippi, in 1910, Elder Roma Wilson taught himself harmonica using second-hand instruments from his older siblings. Wilson became a Pentecostal minister and later joined with Rev. Leon Pinson performing in churches around northern Mississippi. He migrated north in 1935 and now resides in Detroit.

10. Red River Blues

By John Jackson
From Rappahannock Blues

Raised in a large family in Rappahannock County, Virginia, John Jackson’s parents both played music. He began learning guitar at just four years old, influenced by both the secular and religious music of his parents and older siblings. He moved to Fairfax, Virginia, with his wife in 1949 and eventually mastered the Piedmont blues guitar style. In this live performance, you can hear his wonderful and distinct accent.

11. You Got To Move

By Janie Hunter and the Moving Star Hall Singers
From Sea Island Folk Festival: Moving Star Hall Singers and Alan Lomax

Janie Hunter was born in 1919 on Johns Island, South Carolina, and carried on the traditions and history of her family and community. Her voice is clear, expressive, and with a distinct vibrato as she and fellow singers perform this spiritual in the shout style at a Johns Island festival. The ensemble’s syncopated hand clapping increases in tempo adding an appealing layer of complexity. Hunter’s a cappella version stands out among various renditions by artists from Sister Rosetta Tharp, Rev. Gary Davis, and Mississippi Fred McDowell to Sam Cooke’s secularized version.

12. If You Lose Your Money

By Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry
From Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry Sing

One of the most noted guitar and harmonica blues duos Sanders “Sonny” Terry and Brownie McGhee are key proponents of the East Coast blues style now known as Piedmont blues. Terry was born in rural Georgia in 1911 and McGhee in 1915 in Knoxville, Tennessee; they teamed up as a duo in 1941. This humorous song expresses an important message for people of any era about the economic ups and downs one may encounter in life.

13. Les Blues du Voyageur

By Alphonse “Bois Sec” Ardoin with Canray Fontenot
From La Musique Creole

Whenever Alphonse “Bois Sec” Ardoin and Canray Fontenot performed together, they encapsulated the essence of Creole music. Their rendition of this Amédé Ardoin song has the same infectious danceable rhythm of the original that artfully masks the mournful lonely sentiment expressed in the lyrics.

14. Digging My Potatoes

By Warner Williams with Jay Summerour
From Blues Highway

Warner Williams grew up in a musical family in Takoma Park, Maryland. His father was a music teacher and all his siblings played music. An accomplished finger style guitarist, Williams’s repertoire includes a wide range of traditional and popular music from the 1920s through the present day. On this lively version of the Big Bill Broonzy song “Digging My Potatoes,” he plays with long-time partner Jay Summerour on harmonica.

15. Lucky, Lucky Man

By Henry Gray
From Louisiana Blues

Henry Gray was born in Kenner, Louisiana, in 1925 and continues to play and perform his spirited style of piano blues and boogie. Moving to Chicago after serving in WWII, he played piano for the top blues artists in the city. For over a decade he played for Howlin’ Wolf before returning to Louisiana. On this song, Gray’s piano and vocals lead his ensemble through some wonderful rhythmic breaks.

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