James David Smith: Painted Portraits and Diddley Bows
March 12 - April 16, 2000
The trees and roots are us and we are them in each culture on planet earth. Due to enslavement, there is a distinctiveness in African American life that forewarned an association with roots and the soil; toil, sweat, misery, pain and resilience. Out of that experience came spirituals, blues, jazz, and gospel song. The fusion of earthiness is further established in dance, in fashion and in other social practices. The fish fry at the Saturday night house party, the rubbing of elbows at the local "jook joints" — beginning in fun and sometimes ending in tragedy; spending a full day at church on Sundays from morning until night was typical. These are markings of the history of rural black America. The in-migration trail to urban centers brought most of these regional habits and traditions along with it. Stories of rent parties of the 20’s, 30’s, 40’s and early 50’s are legends of truth and embellished over time. These events are no longer viable and productive social gathering and, with a greater sense of community, are replaced by neighborhood block parties that are family oriented. The foundation for social and religious practices was in large measure set by music, both by handmade instruments and/or a cappella voices rooted in black expressions of the day — singing songs of freedom.
Field hollers, reels, and worksongs were the harbinger and tone for the blues. Blues grew out of the hard times ("from dirt", as my friend said to me on a recent research trip to the Mississippi delta), and became a harvest for musical form throughout the Americas and Europe.
The historical significance of the diddley-bow as an art piece has been a principal subject for me over several years. The concept for the instrument is credited to the African slaves who played it to accompany gospel and field songs, along with juba (hand-slapping, body patting, and foot stomping) as a dance form. The one-string instrument advanced in use creatively after the prohibition of the drum in slave states around 1740. Today, the pulse of the streets, hip-hop and rap, owe an allegiance to these times and artistic expressions.
© 1998 James Smith