The African American Folklorist - Black Influence on Kentucky Music

Apr 20, 2021

How did an instrument that made its way from Africa, to the Caribbean, then the shores of the American south become a staple of bluegrass music? And how, by the 20th century, did the use of this instrument include a very small amount of African Americans?

Who is Henry Hart, and why is he significant to music? Why is he even significant to Kentucky?

These questions and more are answered in a three series program presented by the Louisville Folk School in partnership with Kentucky Performing Arts, and hosted by Louisvilles’ own writer and historian Michael L. Jones.


The Louisville Folk School, founded by Dave Howard, employs the folk music tradition of Kentuckians through education and performance. It looks to exalt the rich cultural vibrant history of the Bluegrass State.

The African American Folklorist recently sat down with Howard to discuss the school and its current program called “The African American Influence on Kentucky Music.”

Below is an exerpt of our conversation:

Lamont Jack Pearley: So are you preserving it? Or introducing it to the community? What would you say is the main function or at least if not the main function, your your main outcome for for putting together the Louisville's folk school?

Dave Howard:  Yeah. So you know, engaging the folk music traditions of Kentucky in through education performance, right. So there's like inviting people in to learn, share what we know, with people so that the traditions continue. And then also with the performances, as you know, there's an outreach aspect there. You know, I do a lot of like edutainment things where maybe I'll go play some bluegrass music, but I'm not just playing songs. I'm also explaining like, what were the what were the influences that started? Like, what, what are the ingredients that were around that brought this music to life? You know, it didn't come out of thin air? Right,

Lamont Jack Pearley: So well, you know, that's a great segue, because you have a series a co-presentation with the Kentucky Performing Arts exploring the African American influence on Kentucky music. Talk to us about that. What inspired that program?

Dave Howard: Well, we mostly just have these educational classes, and, you know, wanted to explore new programs that aren't specifically just like how to, you know, more of the humanities of it.  And you know, Bill Monroe, a Western Kentucky musician, who is considered the father of bluegrass music, not far from where you are think he was in Ohio County, he credited black blues musician Arnold Schultz is one of his main influences and teachers.  And so you know, kind of just makes you think, in what ways as black musicians and formed specifically like just String Band and bluegrass music tradition, or other traditions and in Kentucky music, you know, we know that the banjo originated in Africa and came from slave ship to the Caribbean and the southern part of the United States. How does bluegrass music genre that so reliant on the distinctive sound of the banjo, how did it evolve by the second half of the 20th century to include so few African Americans?