The Ebony Hillbillies have been playing together for about the last 20 years, but they play music with much more history than that. Hailing from New York, a curious place for a string band to reside, the group is kicking off The Alden Theatre and McLean Community Center’s Summer Sunday Concerts in the Park series on July 5 at McLean Central Park.
The theme of this year’s free concert series is “Women Who Rock” – each of the featured bands are led by women – and The Ebony Hillbillies’ featured vocalist, Gloria Thomas Gassaway, promises to do more than that.
“Make sure you bring your dancing shoes,” she said. “Because nobody sits down when I say get up.”
Gassaway said that she “will order you to dance, and you will dance,” as one of The Ebony Hillbillies’ leaders, fiddler Henrique Prince, chimed in that “Gloria will make you dance.”
The group, which bills itself as “one of the last black string bands in the U.S.,” have played a wide range of venues throughout their time together, from the subway platform at Grand Central Station to Carnegie Hall.
Prince said that The Ebony Hillbillies were playing at a plaza on New York City’s Park Avenue while Tom Brady’s appeal of the NFL’s four-game suspension was going on nearby. Because it was a media event, more people were around to hear the group’s music than there might normally be at that type of gig. Prince said that he thought news trucks that were there for Brady were there to cover his group – and they seized on the opportunity to throw a hoedown.
“Somebody said that we should do the halftime show for the Super Bowl,” Prince said. “So that was kind of nice.”
Although hoedowns, string music or even the word “hillbillies” might be associated with the American South, Prince, who is from the North, said he started playing string music as a kid because it was the easiest stuff to play.
“I played the tunes and I liked them. I liked little folk tunes and I learned a lot of them…I know it’s strange to hear a Northern kid say that,” Prince said. “But after all there’s a lot of folk music that’s part of the culture and Northerners played a lot of it, too. There were banjo players up here in Queens. We found a paper on that, about a procession of banjo players in late 1880s out here in New York playing….People tend to think that you’ve got to be in Virginia or South Carolina, but that’s not true. There’s a tradition [of string music] all over the country.”
The Ebony Hillbillies, who are adept taking music of any genre and putting a folk twist on it, are a living rebuke of the idea that string music doesn’t originate from the same Black American roots as the blues, jazz, country and rock n’ roll music that is an auditory ancestor of contemporary music. In fact, Prince said, string music is a predecessor to all of those musical genres.
“Well, you know, it’s the root of everything. My people, our people, got away from the banjo and fiddle music because it represented a time that they felt was an unhappy time. Once they got out of slavery, the sort of left it, but the banjo and the fiddle still stayed in the jazz arena,” Prince said. “But when country music got separated from African-Americans, we sort of left that for a while.
“But the relevance [to today] is that the fluidity and the beauty of that music and those instruments are still here and it’s sort of coming back. There’s a lot of band that are starting to experiment and play that kind of music.”
Actually, Norris Bennett, the Ebony Hillbillies’ other leader, plays the banjo, an instrument that was created by Africans in America, adapted from African instruments of similar design. Prince continued: “All of this music comes from the same source. String bands are the root for jazz music and they’re the root for country music and in there you’ve got the rhythm and blues and the blues.”
Gassaway agreed. “It all comes from the same place. It’s a line that evolved as it went along,” she said. “So we have to show all across the spectrum of music.”
As a string band, Prince said that the group has a fluidity that allows them to touch on all sorts of American music and link it back to the origin of American music as a whole.
“We can reach back to [all] kinds of music and, hopefully, a lot of different kind of people can come together,” Prince said. “You know we that today, certainly, for people to come together and realize they enjoy the same thing.”