Created by President Jimmy Carter in 1979 as African American Music Appreciation Month and re-established annually by Presidential proclamation, in addition to celebrating Gay Pride, the month of June now celebrates the African American musical influences that comprise an essential part of our nation’s treasured cultural heritage. So today Mark and Val bring you a selection of our favorite black folk musicians. You’ll be hearing Danny Cox, Sparky and Rhonda Rucker, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, The Carolina Chocolate Drops, Leyla McCalla, Rhiannon Giddens, Our Native Daughters, Laura Love, Ben Harper and The Blind Boys of Alabama, Toshi Reagon, Josh White, Tracy Chapman, Kaia Kater, Ebony Hillbillies, and Lil Nas X (OK, technically he’s a rapper, but he wrote a really good song that deserves a hearing). And speaking of Gay Pride, four of them happen to be gay as well.
So who are these folks? Well…
Folk singer, songwriter, and social justice activist Danny Cox‘s first brush with popular success came in 1960 when he won a slot on a Hootenanny Folk tour. The Hootenanny gigs saw him tour throughout the US and in 1963 he decided to relocate to Kansas City, where he became a mainstay on the city’s folk scene, playing at classic venues like the Vanguard Coffee House in the 1960s, and the Cowtown Ballroom in the ’70s, eventually signing with Stan Plesser’s Good Karma Productions and releasing nine albums
Sparky Rucker has been performing over fifty years as an internationally recognized folklorist, musician, historian, storyteller, and author. Rhonda Rucker is a musician, children’s author, storyteller, and songwriter. Sparky and Rhonda’s educational programs span over three centuries of African-American history, including slavery, the Underground Railroad, the Civil War, the birth of blues music, and the civil rights movement. Their recording, Treasures & Tears, was nominated for a W.C. Handy Award, and their music is also included on the Grammy-nominated anthology, Singing Through the Hard Times. If you miss their Crosscurrents-sponsored Black Lives Matter online concert on Saturday, you can catch their online class “From the heartland of our country – Songs that America Sang” for Common Ground on the Hill Sunday evening. Information is available at commongoundonthehill.org
Three-time Grammy–nominated Sweet Honey in the Rock is an all-woman, African-American a cappella ensemble founded in the Mid-70s by Bernice Johnson Reagon. They celebrate their history as black women through song, dance, and sign language. Originally a four-person ensemble, the group has expanded to five-part harmonies, with a sixth member acting as a sign-language interpreter. Over the decades, more than 20 individuals have lent their voices to Sweet Honey in the Rock.
The acoustic music duo of guitarist Brownie McGhee and harmonicist Sonny Terry had a 35-year-long partnership that helped to define Folk/Blues. They were named National Heritage Fellows in 1982 in recognition of their distinctive musical contributions and accomplishments.
The Carolina Chocolate Drops is an old-time string band formed in November 2005 by Rhiannon Giddens and Dom Fleming, following their attendance at the first Black Banjo Gathering, held in Boone, North Carolina. Their 2010 album, Genuine Negro Jig won the Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Album at the 53rd Annual Grammy Awards and was number 9 in fRoots magazine’s top 10 albums of 2010.
Haitian-American artist, Leyla McCalla is a founding member of Our Native Daughters & former member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. McCalla’s critically acclaimed album Vari-Colored Songs is a tribute to Langston Hughes which includes adaptations of his poems.
Rhiannon Giddons was also a member of Our Native Daughters and a founding member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, where she is the lead singer, fiddle player, and banjo player. In addition to her work with the Chocolate Drops, Giddens has released two solo albums and has won pretty much every music award imaginable.
Songs of Our Native Daughters was the debut Americana/folk album by four North American singer-songwriters collaborating as Our Native Daughters. The group includes Rhiannon Giddens, Leyla McCalla, Amythyst Kiah, and Allison Russell. The album was released on the Smithsonian Folkways label in early 2019.
Laura Love is an American singer-songwriter and bass guitar player with seven albums released who you can hear regularly on Saturday on ‘Woman Song’.
Ben Harper is a seven-time nominee/three-time Grammy winner singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. The Blind Boys of Alabama is an American gospel group founded in 1939 in Talladega, Alabama that has featured a changing roster of musicians over its history, the majority of whom are or were visually impaired . The Blind Boys have won five Grammy Awards in addition to being presented with the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009.
Toshi Reagon is an American musician, composer, curator, and producer. She’s the daughter of Sweet Honey in the Rock founder Bernice Reagon. She is also the goddaughter of folk singer Pete Seeger and is named after his wife, Toshi Seeger.
Josh White was an American singer, guitarist, songwriter, actor and civil rights activist recorded by Paramount, ARC, Decca, and Elektra, who also recorded under the names Pinewood Tom and Tippy Barton in the 1930s.
Tracy Chapman is an American singer-songwriter,1987. Her critically acclaimed debut album Tracy Chapman, released in 1988, became a multi-platinum worldwide hit.
Kaia Kater, is a Grenadian-Canadian Americana singer/songwriter and banjo player from Toronto, Ontario who we discovered at a Folk Alliance Conference
The Ebony Hillbillies are a seven piece all African-American New York city- based bluegrass group carrying on the traditions of black American string bands.
Rapper Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” achieved a rare feat in Billboard history last year when it simultaneously charted on the Billboard Hot 100, Hot Country Songs, and Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs charts in March 2019. However after debuting at No. 19 on the Hot Country chart, it was quietly removed from that chart by Billboard for being ‘not country enough’. Had it not been disqualified, “Old Town Road” would have been the Hot Country Songs number-one song as of April 6, 2019, so, and not surprisingly, its exclusion resulted in a fair amount of controversy. Finally, Billy Ray Cyrus stepped in to ensure that it was ‘country enough’ for Billboard and “Old Town Road”s overall run at number one is the longest in chart history.