‘Hidden stories’: New book chronicles N.C. African-American music traditions

Dec. 21, 2013 @ 09:17 AM

“African American Music Trails of Eastern North Carolina”

By Sarah Bryan and Beverly Patterson, with Michelle Lanier and Titus Brooks Heagins
(University of North Carolina Press, distributed for North Carolina Arts Council,
$19.95, paperback, with 17-track compact disc)


The connections of Thelonious Monk, Nina Simone and John Coltrane to North Carolina are widely known. What many North Carolinians may not know is that the streets they walk, the churches where they pray, the restaurants where they hang out, may also have helped give birth to gospel, jazz, rhythm and blues, funk, hip-hop and other music of the African-American tradition.
A new guide, “African American Music Trails of Eastern North Carolina,” seeks to connect the music with the land and people. The book is a collection of interviews with musicians (Maceo and Melvin Parker, Bill Myers, Gloria Burks, Annie Speight), along with a visitors’ guide to restaurants, performance venues, festivals and historic sites in eight eastern North Carolina counties – Edgecombe, Greene, Jones, Lenoir, Nash, Pitt, Wayne and Wilson.
Connecting these music traditions to their communities “is something we haven’t seen happening in a meaningful way,” said Michelle Lanier, one of the contributors to the book who directs the N.C. African American Heritage Commission at the N.C. Arts Council. “We’re shining a light on people you may never have heard of … but also reconnecting the musical ingenuity of the likes of Thelonious Monk … [and] Roberta Flack to the land. These are hidden stories that we are telling,” Lanier said.
Lanier offers one example of this connection of music and place. She refers to a style she calls “tobacco funk,” the music that saxophonist Maceo Parker, his brother, drummer Melvin Parker, and others developed as members of James Brown’s band. The Parkers and other musicians came out of Kinston, a tobacco town. During the off season, the tobacco warehouses became spaces for concerts and dances where local and regional musicians played, Lanier said.
The North Carolina Arts Council, a state agency, started the project at the urging of musicians in eastern N.C. Transcriptions of recorded interviews make up the bulk of this guide. To find the musicians, members of the team met with local arts councils, which led to meetings with local musicians, “and those would become brainstorming sessions” which led to contacts with other musicians, said Sarah Bryan, one of the principal authors who did some of the interviews.
One aim of this project is to tell these stories from the eyes of those who lived and continue to live these traditions. “The aim is to ask the people who actually live in these communities to tell us what they see as the heart of their local music traditions, rather than coming in with preconceived ideas,” Bryan said. While Kinston stands out because of its connection to Brown, “all of these communities have special stories,” she said. One common thread in all the counties is the role of families, schools and churches in fostering the musical talent of children, Bryan said. Older musicians would teach the younger generations their musical traditions, passing on the importance of “really valuing music and its place in the community.”
The stories are central to this book. In R&B history, the story of how Maceo and Melvin Parker got their jobs with the Godfather of Soul is well known, but to read it as told by Melvin Parker is priceless. Alando Mitchell, a percussionist from Wayne County, describes growing up in a family where music was the main event: “Our family reunions were more like a concert. And the thing that I loved was the whole porch was filled with guitars, drums, people singing,” he said. Bill Myers, a member of the Greenville R&B band The Monitors, reminisces about the history of “the Block,” the African-American commercial district along Albemarle Street in Greenville: “A lot of local musicians would come out and sit on this corner, play the guitar, blow their harmonicas. … This was the hub of activity in the black community in Greenville for many, many years….. If somebody said I’ll meet you on the Block, there was no question where you’d meet.”
The new guide, Lanier said, not only celebrates the music, but invites people “to walk the grounds that have inspired a lot of the music,” and these stories.