African American music is one of the cornerstones of North Carolina’s rich cultural heritage. From blues to church music, it has deep roots and remains vibrant in communities throughout our state. Durham, in particular, was a significant center of Carolina and Piedmont blues. In the 1920s it attracted some of the best musicians in the region, including Rev. Gary Davis, the guitar and harmonica duo Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee, and Blind Boy Fuller, who alone recorded 130 songs between the years 1935–1940. Musicians would play for tips at the busy tobacco markets around town, as well as on street corners, at house parties and at other community gatherings.
This fall brings several opportunities to experience this living tradition. Now entering its 22nd year, the Bull Durham Blues Festival, sponsored by the Hayti Heritage Center, is scheduled Sept. 11–12. The festival has become N.C.’s largest celebration of the blues, attracting fans from more than 175 N.C. cities, 25 states and 5 countries. Traditional artists, living and dead, who have graced the Bull Durham stage have included Moses Rascoe, John D. Holeman, Etta Baker, Taj Mahal, Marcia Ball, Lightnin’ Wells, Big Boy Henry, John Jackson, Algia Mae Hinton, John Cephas and Phil Wiggins.
This year’s lineup includes blues guitarist Zac Harmon, sacred steel ensemble The Lee Boys and 45-year blues veteran Elvin Bishop. The St. Joseph’s Historic Foundation, Inc. presents the festival at the historic Durham Athletic Park, former home of the Durham Bulls baseball team and site of the movie Bull Durham.
In another event coordinated by the Hayti Heritage Center, the organization teams up with Duke Performances for two exciting African American musical experiences this fall, one of which will be released as a live recording.
The Hallelujah Train, Oct. 10–11, is a gospel partnership between drummer Brian Blade and noted record producer Daniel Lanois. It features Blade’s father, the fiery Pastor Brady Blade, Sr., who is busing in his congregation from Shreveport, La., to raise the roof. On Oct. 16, the Hayti Heritage Center welcomes tenor sax and clarinet master Don Byron and his New Gospel Quintet to perform the work of Thomas A. Dorsey, the gospel music giant who composed standards like “Precious Lord” and “Peace in the Valley.” The event will feature a sermon by Rev. Kelly R. Andrews of Eastern Star Missionary Baptist Church in Tarboro.
Cool John Ferguson
Throughout the year there are many other opportunities to experience African American music in the state. The Music Maker Relief Foundation in Hillsborough “helps the true pioneers and forgotten heroes of Southern music gain recognition and meet their day to day needs.” Its roster of performing artists includes practitioners of Piedmont blues, old-time, jazz, Celtic, gospel, folk and indigenous music, and its calendar of events lists a host of informal venues to hear them play.
Thursday nights this fall, the Music Makers at Weaver Street Market Series in Hillsborough is an opportunity to experience live blues music for free. This fall also brings the first Music Maker Wahoo Hooha! Cruise, Oct. 16–17. There are several levels of participation, whether a full package (includes passage on a charter fishing boat) or simply attending a concert featuring Cool John Ferguson, Big Ron Hunter and Captain Luke at the Hatteras Convention Center. Donation prices range from $100–$900, portions of which are tax-deducible.
Historic Happy Valley is a legendary home to the arts, storytelling and living traditions, including blues and religious music. Get a flavor of African American music in the Valley by listening to this podcast or watching these videos. And be sure to visit the Happy Valley Web site for a complete events calendar including music at the beautifully restored Chapel of Rest.