Coinciding with Black History Month, the release of a new compilation titled Birthright: A Black Roots Music Compendium makes it easy for any listener to understand the incredible impact of Black artists on American music. Some of its recordings are decades old, while others are relatively new. Represented artists range from newcomers like Ranky Tanky to iconic groups such as the Staple Singers. More than a few lesser-known Black artists are given their due on the 40-track, double-disc collection, which was produced by author, professor, and Grammy-nominated music historian Dr. Ted Olson, along with Grammy-winning producer, musician, and author Scott Billington.
Olson tells BGS, “Birthright is both timely (to allow the powerful music of several generations of Black roots artists to be heard by a new generation) and timeless (Black roots music constitutes one of the essential canons of American vernacular music).” He also notes that the track list for Birthright was shaped by several factors: the complementary perspectives of the album’s compilers (Billington is based in New Orleans, whereas Olson lives in Appalachia); the compilers’ collective sense of which artists and recordings might effectively represent the varied genres and traditions of Black roots music; as well as the realities impacting the licensing of specific recordings.
Two leading voices in contemporary American roots music — Dom Flemons and Corey Harris — contributed powerful essays to the booklet for Birthright in order to express the cultural significance of the album. Both are featured artists among the 40 recordings celebrated on the album.
In the liner notes, Harris writes, “When we listen to the artists on this set, we are hearing the voice of a people determined to express themselves and be heard above the empty, metallic din of progress, above the saccharine pop and soulless glam of the industry. When the power goes out and the internet goes down, some of us will still be playing music and sharing our joys and pains with one another in song. Black roots music is a testament to the fact that if modern civilization were to collapse, we have the power and the spirit to rise up once again. We only need to hold on to our roots. This is an excellent place to start.”
Flemons tells BGS, “When I was first approached to be a part of the Birthright album, I knew that I wanted my essay to unravel the strange and twisted journey and history of Black American Roots Music. There has been a staggering amount of music left behind ranging from the legitimate Euro-classical arranged Jubilee groups of late 19th century to the down-home field recordings of the mid-to-late 20th century blues singers and songsters.”
He continues, “The two tracks on the collection where I am featured have been staples of my performing repertoire for close to 20 years. My version of ‘Polly Put the Kettle On’ was learned from a Sonny Boy Williamson I record which I translated into the string band style featuring double leads on harmonica and fiddle. The song was featured on my album Prospect Hill: The American Songster Omnibus.
“Finally, the track of ‘Georgie Buck’ by Joe Thompson accompanied by my old group the Carolina Chocolate Drops showcases the power of our group when we were backing up our mentor. Recorded in the fall of 2006, I had a strong hand in bringing this session together because I knew we would need to document our unique sound. At that time, the group had been together for close to a year and we were consistently going down to Joe’s house to learn his family’s music. After getting acquainted with Music Maker Foundation, I scheduled a session meant to record our group for posterity on the high-definition Cello digital recorder used by Timothy Duffy. Listeners will hear the nuances of the twin fiddles, 5-string banjo and stone mason jug on this recording. This track has gone unreleased until now.”