“Come and listen to a story ‘bout a man named Prince…” If the cat who penned the familiar theme song to the TV classic “The Beverly Hillbillies” set his sights on the Americana phenomenon known as The Ebony Hillbillies – aka the last African-American String Band in America - he’d start the narrative there, with Harlem born, Queens, NY raised violinist and vocalist Henrique Prince and his once in a lifetime musical mission.
With his formal West Coast musical education, Henrique might have become a member of a symphony orchestra. Instead, he got wind of the popular 1930s guitar-fiddle group The Mississippi Sheiks and The Altamont Recordings of Black Stringband Music from The Library of Congress featuring links to ghosts of String Bands past like Murph Gribble, Nathan Frazier and Frank Patterson. Then he met the man who would become his partner in infectious, polyrhythmic crime - banjo, mountain dulcimer, guitar and vocal ace Norris Washington Bennett - after an audition for an NYC bluegrass band.
Prior to their divine musical appointment, the Florida bred Bennett was a full time “busker” in Europe and had even released two solo albums in Germany. On a lark one day, he and Henrique played “Shenandoah” at Grand Central Station and realized the organic yet danceable joy they could create bringing to the 21st Century a string band tradition that pre-dates jazz and audio recording and was written about even before the Declaration of Independence was signed.
Keeping these essential traditions alive while bringing fresh musical and philosophical urgency to the genre, the ensemble has grown and evolved to include multi-talented musical vets Gloria Thomas Gassaway (on vocals and bones), acoustic bassist William “Salty Bill” Salter (Multiple Grammy winning co-writer of legendary pop hits like “Where is the Love” and “Just The Two of Us”), Allanah Salter (shaker percussion, vocals), Newman Taylor Baker (washboard percussion) and A.R. (Ali Rahman) on “cowboy” percussion. Together they create an untamed and joyful, heartfelt and toe=tapping vibe that captures elements of pop, country, bluegrass, folk, rock and jazz - echoing across the generations while transcending racial and cultural boundaries.
The Ebony Hillbillies’ latest full length album finds them Five Miles From Town, a soulful, gritty and alternately funky, romantic and socially conscious place where toes are always tapping, percussion is slapping, fiddles are jamming, front porch chairs are rocking, banjos are plucking and voices are raised in determination and triumph. Mixing lively instrumentals and vocals over the course of 11 tracks and 3 alternately playful and hard-hitting snippets/skits, the group performs everything from a down home fiddle jam (the opening track “Hog-Eyed Man”), the gentle romantic cautionary tale “Fork in the Road” and an intimate cover of Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me” to the incisive social commentaries “Another Man Done Gone (Hands Up Don’t Shoot)” (about black men and police shootings) and “I’m on My Way To Brooklyn,” which rolls as a lighthearted NYC inspired spiritual until the end…and three gunshots.
The Ebony Hillbillies started out as an NYC street corner phenomenon, but their vibe and influence has extended over the years to acclaimed live performances at legendary venues like Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center; appearances on the BBC, Good Morning America, NBC, CBS, etc., international music workshops and festivals, visual artist collaborations at museums (including The Whitney with phenom Kara Walker and The Smithsonian Museum), guest school programs, foot stomping and hand-clapping dance parties and more. While formed in the digital era, they have sold thousands of hard copies of their four CDs - Sabrina’s Holiday (2004), I Thought You Knew (2005), Barefoot and Flying (2005) and Slappin’ A Rabbit – Live! (2015) – at their shows and via their globally popular website. The Ebony Hillbillies are currently in the studio working on their next project.
“Norris and I started with this simple idea of joining the fiddle and drums and have enjoyed the way The Ebony Hillbillies has grown as we learned how great we could sound with all these other musicians and sonic textures,” says Henrique. “Over the years, as the repertoire and sense of spontaneity and improvisation evolved, those things became part of the magic. It’s a uniquely American art form that is rooted in history but stands on its own two feet as a contemporary force. Now that we’re aware of our full capabilities to educate and inspire, we also see just how much fun it is to transport people with our style of music. We’re all very accomplished musicians with long professional resumes. Yet something about the music we make as the Ebony Hillbillies makes our collective experiences run richer and deeper into our lives than all the other things we have had the opportunity to accomplish.”
For the uninitiated, Henrique likes to introduce The Ebony Hillbillies by saying that it’s a dance band that has “magically put together music that covers centuries, that’s modern and ancient at the same time.” One of the fascinating ironies about String Band music is that while the music is born of deprivation, disenfranchisement and disappointment, it’s still leaping with joy even if it’s just as often weeping with melancholy. African American string bands were an essential part of daily life throughout the 18th and 19th Century. Its practitioners played for pleasure, for church, to relieve the enormous stresses of life on the plantation – and, as any of the thousands of lucky folks who have seen the Ebony Hillbillies in action can tell you, for dances.
Say that word “dancing,” and Gloria Thomas Gassaway becomes all aglow, saying, “When I dance, I make everyone else dance. Everyone at a Hillbillies show has to dance, and we love to inspire people to get up and dance. The key is to get them to enjoy themselves. The worst thing someone can say after going out to a concert is, ‘That band was really nice.’ When you see the Ebony Hillbillies, you go home and say, ‘Damn, I had a ball, I got down with them, I had a workout!’ That’s what it’s all about – making sure every single person in our audience goes home with a smile on their face saying what a great time they had. No way you see us and stay seated the whole time!” Cause honey, “Ain’t No Party Like A Hillbilly Party!”
One of the ways The Ebony Hillbillies helps people connect the history of String Bands with their powerhouse presentation is through their educational outreach, specifically via the EH Kids Program presented by The EH Music Foundation, which they’ve spread all throughout the U.S. and as far East as Bulgaria. The New York Times has said of the program, “What a Wonderful Connection to all our humanity.”
The Ebony Hillbillies have spent years delighting audiences, educators and students of all ages with their unique combination of interactive storytelling and exciting musical performances. They introduce students to sounds that highlight the nearly forgotten American legacy of String Bands, while encouraging students to grab their noisemakers and throw on their dancing shoes. While performing and encouraging immersive student participation, they teach how String Bands served as an early melting pot – perhaps the first in American history – for musical and creative integration of Africans, African-Americans and Native Americans, with influences by Scottish, Irish and other European immigrants.
The way the band explains it, “It’s the sound of America and a significant factor in the birth of the pop century. String band music offers a glimpse at the flesh and bones behind everything you hear on the radio today and everything you’ve ever danced to.” Through deeper exploration, students gain a sense of the human experience of that period through the eyes of musicians that capture that era in sound. Billed as a “spectacular program where music and history collide,” the experience culminates with students sharing or showcasing what they have heard, experienced and learned.