Episode Three: Earl White
Earl White is a fiddler, founding member of the Green Grass Cloggers, and leader of the Earl White Stringband. He co-founded the Big Indian Farm Artisan Bakery in Floyd, VA, and is a influential person in the old-time music and dance community. White is an African American playing music that many forget was once a part of black culture and black communities across the U.S. and in Virginia. Pat Jarett from Virginia Folklife visited Earl on his farm in Floyd and brings us his interview with Earl.
Pat Jarett: Recently, I've been working with Earl White down in Floyd County, Virginia. He's a farmer. He's a baker. And Earl was a co-founder of the Green Grass Cloggers back in the 70s with the late Dudley Culp. Dudley learned how to clog but he didn't know what it was called. So he kept doing this dance he learned at a fiddler's convention, and it took Evelyn Smith Farmer to come and show them some steps. And so Dudley learned the steps. He took it back to this house where they were all living in. Earl learned them and they would just get together and have jams. And when I say jams, usually you think music. I learned while I was there that they would clog without music, they would get together and just dance. And you have the same reaction that a lot of musicians have. Clogging without music? What are you doing? From that he got into the old-time music scene as a social music and Earl being a black fiddler, he started off as a banjo player. How he got into the music before clogging was that he heard the Mountain Dew jingle on an old black-and-white television, and he just loved the music.
Earl White: Falling into that aspect of clogging was my initial introduction to old-time music and even very much a bluegrass music. I mean, I grew up listening to radio. There was this commercial for the Mountain Dew soft drink. It was “Yahoo! Mountain Dew!” Following that was the jingle of what I later grew to know as Flatt and Scruggs playing the music behind that. But I remember vividly from being a kid and every time that came on I was very much attracted to the music. Basically we danced and did all the big folk festivals and danced with all the big bluegrass bands. And then one year we happened upon the Galax Fiddler's convention at which point I came across this group called Swamp Root and a group of people from upstate New York - the Henry Brothers. And they were playing this music that was very different from the old- time, which basically led a bunch of us to the back of the festival grounds where we found Tommy Gerald, Fred Cochran, people like that just sitting around playing what they called old-time music. And it was at that point, there was an instant marriage between the Green Grass Cloggers and old-time music.
PJ: This is a guy from New Jersey, right? He's split his time between New Jersey and North Carolina working at his grandparent’s farm. But after he saw Papa John Creach backstage on tour with the Green Grass Cloggers his trajectory changed.
EW: But then we were dancing in Evergreen Valley, Maine, and this was an odd combination of the Green Grass Cloggers, Jefferson Airplane, Seals and Crofts, and basically all these high power rock n’ roll bands and the Green Grass Cloggers. And I saw Papa John Creach. For me, it was the first time actually seeing a black person play the violin as a fiddle and I was inspired. I was like I want to do that. Again, other than Papa John Creach and Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, there was no black representation from the music perspective. Actually, not even from the clogging perspective. I mean we were as the Green Grass Cloggers a very unique group. We won the so called World Championship Clogging Competition at Fiddler's Grove a couple of years in a row and a lot of that was I think attributed to the fact that we were a unique group. I was the only black person in the group. We had a Native American. We had a Korean girl. And we were all students. And so we represented this kind of a melting pot, which some people say American folk music itself is a melting pot of different ethnic groups, but that which in itself represented a difference in what I'd say the majority of people knew about old-time music and any association other than the white Caucasian race.
Earl White featured on Horses Sing None of It from 10-5-93:
EW: All the folk festivals we did in the north, the Green Grass Cloggers took them by storm. Everything was come in with open arms. More places in the South, there was a very different response to it. Comments like “golly, I've never seen a colored fella clog before.” Well, you know, these were people who as it was in most of the country were not informed or knowledgeable of the fact that part of this dance came right out of the black community and you can't fault those people. If you lived in Floyd County, you never went outside the county. All you're going to know is basically what’s in your community.
PJ: Modern folk music doesn't have to be the old folk music. The definition of folk is an amorphous and always changing thing.
Chris Boros: It just kind of shows you to that you don't have to be raised in a certain style of music or art. You can find this stuff as you grow as a person.
PJ: Most definitely. Some of the best old-time and Bluegrass musicians I know came at it from a different trajectory. They weren't raised in it.
EW: For example, there was a country club outside of Greenville, North Carolina, and they wanted to hire the Green Grass Cloggers, but don't bring that black guy. Their term was that colored guy. And we talked about it and for us there's really no discussion. They want the Green Grass Cloggers but they can't pick and choose who they want. We as a group are The Green Grass Cloggers.
EW: From my experience of dancing with the Green Grass Cloggers, I started playing the fiddle. At one point, I used to get hired to teach clogging at folk festivals and at camps. And then, as I started coming up through the ranks and started playing more, it was a transition where I started getting basically paid to teach my instrument. Even to this day, there's not a lot of people of color who are even aware of this part of their heritage. My goal in playing and getting the exposure with not so much for myself, but giving more people an opportunity to see that even black people do this music and educating them to the fact that it’s something black people have been doing for a long time.
PJ: Earl is a researcher and collector as well. He's actually put a lot of time into an hour-long presentation that he gives at music camps and folklore societies. He gives public presentations about Black Americans in old-time music and he says it's standing room only most of the time that he gives this. And he gave the presentation when we were at his fiddle camp sitting under the full moon. It was really pretty excellent. But yeah, he's done plenty of research on this and I think Earl can take it from here.
EW: I call it Black Americans in Old-Time Music Then and Now. And it primarily highlights the fact that old-time music is not a black music, it's not a white music and that it had been pretty much always played together. It’s just that the downfall has been that a lot of the black community have had no representation or no credit given to the fact that a lot of the music, a lot of old-time music came right out of the black community.
Earl White Stringband at the Floyd Country Store - July 28, 2020:
EW: I was playing on the street in Santa Cruz, California, and I'm looking down the street and there was this black couple coming up - older couple - and as they're approaching it appeared to me that they were deliberately either looking away or basically looking down as they approached. And literally, they walk right past and deliberately looked away as they were walking by. So I stopped playing my tune and ran up to them and just said “excuse me, can I talk to you for a moment?” And the guy was like “what about?” Okay, so that’s fair. “So, I noticed as you got closer to me and as you started to pass. it appears that you deliberately turned away or looked away.” And the wife was like, “yeah, we saw you, we saw you from down the street, and we heard you too.” And what they explained to me was that when they saw and heard me playing this music, it reminded them of a time way back in their past. We're from the rural South where they was segregation and a lot of prejudice. So to hear it in that present time just brought back those memories. And these were memories that they were basically casting aside. And so as I thought about it, I thought well if it was once very prevalent in the black community, what happened? Why isn’t it there? If it brings back memories and you don't want to remember it, you’re not going to talk about it, you’re not going to pass it on unlike some other ethnic groups, you know, they may want to pass that history, but that’s been my understanding why it's not so much in the black community.
PJ: Why is it important to keep it alive then?
EW: Because it's music and it’s good music.
EW: Why don't we see much of the music in the black community? You know, that's part of it. And like I said that's where I come in - in terms of trying to open that door and say, hey, this is part of your community. This is part of your ancestors, part of your family from afar. And it's really cool stuff, you should get on this.
Earl White at Clifftop 2013:
EW: So, we were dancing at the Angier’s Festival and the Bill Monroe Band was backing up the Green Grass Cloggers.
PJ: Speaking of Bill Monroe. It's a very interesting story that Earl has about meeting Bill Monroe backstage, and it kind of speaks to the erasure of black people in this music. I can't tell you how many times I've gone to museums or I've been looking at textbooks that show photographs of black musicians were they are labeled black musicians or a black fiddler and you'll never see a picture of Bill Monroe and it says a white mandolin player. And that speaks to this inherent erasure of the culture. And that goes back to how the banjo was taken over by minstrelsy and essentially de-Africanized. Earl experienced some of this when he was talking with Bill Monroe backstage and Bill Monroe, without saying a name, talking about a black fiddler Arnold Shultz who arguably got Bill Monroe his first gig.
EW: Bill Monroe walked over to me and says, you remind me a lot of this fellow I used to play with way back years and years and years ago. But again, there was no name. There was no name associated with this memory. I don't think that he did not remember the guy’s name, because subsequent information that I have obtained, it sounded like they were really, really good friends. They played a lot together. Arnold Shultz was responsible for Bill Monroe getting his first gig, he shared and taught him so much in his style. So out of that it’s like if I had more insight, I would have asked him more questions - tried to get more information about it. Everywhere, I went as a Green Grass Clogger, there were no black fiddlers - one or two here and there. Other than that, there was no representation of the community that a lot of this music came out of. If there were communities of black musicians, which I'm going to safely say there are none, there are pockets, not even pockets, I'd say on probably two hands count the number of black people that I know that play old-time music. So I'm going to say again if there were, the message would be get it out there, share it, teach it to subsequent generations of black kids so that they will know that it was part of their ancestry.