Ebony Hillbillies dance with Howard Armstrong's legacy

Henrique Prince (center) says the Ebony Hillbillies says the term "hillbilly" no longer conjures up the image of Ma and Pa Kettle and "The Beverly Hillbillies,"

Photo by Bill Steber and Pat Casey Daley, Pat Casey Daleypatcaseyd@gmail.com

Henrique Prince (center) says the Ebony Hillbillies says the term "hillbilly" no longer conjures up the image of Ma and Pa Kettle and "The Beverly Hillbillies,"

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Henrique Prince never met Howard "Louie Bluie" Armstrong, but he carries part of his legacy just the same. Prince plays fiddle with the Ebony Hillbillies, the New York City-based group that carries on the tradition of black string band music.

"Everybody knows Howard Armstrong," says Prince in a call from his home in New York.

"We see ourselves as a dance band," says Prince. "Black folk music is dance. That's what Howard and those guys were doing. They were making people dance. But he was playing for all these different folks, so he was playing all these different types of music. In November, we'll be on tour with a band from Ireland called Teada. They do their Irish string band and we do our music. A lot of the Irish string band music and black string band music crossed paths."

Armstrong, who was born in LaFollatte and played music in Knoxville during the 1920s and '30s, became a legend after moving from East Tennessee. He and musical partners Ted Bogan and Carl Martin, who performed as the Tennessee Chocolate Drops (the Carolina Chocolate Drops' name is a tribute to the group), were one of the few still-performing black string bands well into the 1970s. The group's music incorporated folk, jazz, blues and anything else they liked. Armstrong was still performing at the time of his death at the age of 94 in 2003. In 2007, the Louie Bluie festival was founded to celebrate Armstrong's life and contribution to music and art.

Prince grew up in New York and had discover the style on his own — sometimes through the archives of the Julliard Library. His family had played calypso dance music.

"I'm just intrigued by the whole idea of playing dance music on violin," says Prince. "I'm a fiddler. I realized there was a connection to black playing ... It's the greatest dance instrument in the world."

The history of the fiddle as a dance instrument, of course, stretches back to 1700s in the United States.

While the South and the Appalachians were the areas where the style was preserved. Prince says black fiddle players were not isolated to the South. Prior to the Civil War one of the most noted was Solomon Northrup, who was born free, but kidnapped and forced into slavery, before being freed.

"He was famous as a dance fiddler," says Prince.

He says that part of the reason fiddle music and old-time music seemed to be shunned by black audiences in the 20th century is its connection to slave times, plus the blues and jazz replaced the style for many.

"But I think we're over all that baggage. Now it's just about the sound and it sounds good!"

Another thing that has changed, he says, is the perception of the name "hillbilly."

"We celebrate a lot of things about 'hillbillies.' It kind of represents freedom of expression, making moonshine, spitting in the eye of the law — those are things we relate to! If you're Southern where city folk looked down on hillbillies, I understand that. But people like the name. Everybody thinks it's a charming name. Plus so many people are going back to rural culture that nobody looks down on that anymore."

In the late 1990s Prince found some like-minded players and created the Ebony Hillbillies, a full string band that taps back into the traditions of the early 20th century and even late 19th century.

"We've got a pretty good sized community of people in New York who interested in folk music," says Prince.

"We like banjo, fiddle, upright bass, the whole sound. We really like the sound of a washboard as a percussion instrument. Some jazz bands used it as late as the 1930s. Just like people believed in the old days, if you do this kind of dancing everything will be better! It's good for you!"

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Louie Bluie Festival

With: The Ebony Hillbillies, Sparky and Rhonda Rucker, Tennessee Sheiks, Christabel & the Jons, Howard Armstrong Legacy Trio, Wade Hill and the Hillians, Four Leaf Peat and many others

When: 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday

Where: Cove Lake State Park, Caryville

Admission: free

Also:

The Ebony Hillbillies

When: 8 p.m. today

Where: Laurel Theater, 1538 Laurel Ave.

Admission: $14, $13 students and seniors, $7 children 12 and under

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