Musicians Among the First People to Integrate Caldwell County
Note: February is Black History Month. This is the third in a series of articles to be published throughout the month about the lives and experiences of Black Americans in Appalachia.
LENOIR, N.C. — Decades before it was acceptable, let alone safe, for black people to socialize with white people, there was something stronger than being ostracized or even threatened with violence that led some souls to disregard the “polite” norms of the times.
In Caldwell County, and much of Appalachia, the first trailblazers to integrate the isolated mountains were black and white musicians (and coal miners). What joined them together here in Caldwell County — a county with an embarrassment of musician riches — was a mutual love of music, in particular traditional music from black and white folkways.
These musicians were joining together at a dangerous time. Not only were black musicians still facing discrimination in the juke joints and bars they were playing — even after having served the United State in World War II — the Ku Klux Klan was also ever-present, marching and screeching in small towns across Western North Carolina.
Yet, black and white musicians ignored all of this to work side-by-side, joined by many musical traditions.
Patrick Crouch, a musician, retired teacher and co-organizer with his wife Kay of the Caldwell Traditional Musicians Showcase, explains, “The thing that I find very interesting was that whether you’re black or white, if you learned guitar in the 40s or 50s, all guitar players around here were learning the same kind of music.”
That music was the blues.
Clyde “Pop” Ferguson
Perhaps most famed among black blues musicians from the county was Clyde “Pop” Ferguson. He passed away in 2018 at the age of 90. According to the Blue Ridge Music Trails (BRMT) website, “Clyde ‘Pop’ Ferguson was one of the last practitioners of traditional blues in the North Carolina foothills. The son of a guitar-playing Holiness preacher, Clyde was steeped in the music of the African American community of North Wilkesboro. He got his start playing for revivals with a family group that included two sisters on drums and piano and his brother on trumpet.”
Like many a son, he followed his heart and ignored his dad. According to the BRMT biography, “Clyde fell in love with the blues, which upset his father. While playing with his family group at a revival, Clyde started playing a riff from ‘Step It Up and Go,’ during a performance of ‘When the Saints Go Marching In,’ and his father threw him out of the tent.”
Still, “Clyde continued to learn blues in secret, practicing behind a woodshed and listening to radio shows and other blues musicians in the community. Around 1941, when Clyde was thirteen his father moved the family to Lenoir, where Clyde met local guitar legend Max Moore, a blues musician … .”
Also, like many sons, he felt the need to venture out on his own and began to travel. But his roots remained deep in the Caldwell County soil. Indeed, in time, he would return to Lenoir and play with his son, Clyde Jr.
Clyde Ferguson Jr.
Clyde Jr., a blues bassist, said that when he was 55, he and his dad united to play. His dad’s quick ear impressed him. “If he heard it once, he could imitate it.” He adds, “If you did a great lick, he was going to do one better than you. He was a typical lead guitarist.”
He observes that his dad did “pretty well compared to others living through the Jim Crow era.”
Clyde Jr. also points to Etta Baker, with whom his dad toured for a bit. According to the BRMT website, “Etta Baker was a master of the blues guitar style that became popular in the southern piedmont after the turn of the century. She was raised in the foothills of Caldwell County where music was central in the lives of her family and friends. Both parents played several instruments, and she began picking the guitar at the age of three.”
Another influential musician that Clyde Jr. points to includes Howard Colbert. “He was one of the best banjo players that ever lived in Caldwell County.” He adds, “You know that the banjo is an original African-American instrument.” Colbert would say, “I got my own style” says Clyde Jr. Indeed, that openness to different genres by musicians from both races led to not only new music, but also a respect for one another based on the merits of a person’s ability and determination.
Meanwhile, a white Caldwell County native was also busy learning the blues — Roger Hicks.
Hicks grew up with an eclectic mix of “old-timey” bluegrass music and the Piedmont Blues, a deliberate blend of folk and blues that reflects the culture of the Appalachians. As folklorist Thomas McGowan observed on the jacket of Hicks’ 1995 album, “All I Have Is Memories,” Hicks “ … has acquired tunes and playing styles from another rich part of the musical traditions of Caldwell County. In learning to play the guitar, he attached himself to Lon Davis, an African-American musician from the Harpertown community.”
Hicks played with Davis for 30 years. “He really had the old tradition of black blues down right, I thought,” shares Hicks.
Hicks said he would accompany Davis into Wilkes County and its environs, where he said they would play about anywhere. “They were all segregated. They were bootleg joints really.”
Hicks recalls, “Lonnie and I got to running around at times. I didn’t travel that far.” Laughing, he observes, “Wilkes County was far for me.” He says that segregated facilities were just something they worked around. “It was treatment that wasn’t uncommon for the times.” Still, he recalls, “We had some good times together.”
Hicks, like many folks in Lenoir at the time, had little to go on as their folks tried to eak out a living in the furniture factories, though that doesn’t mean his life was not full of rich experiences. “I was exposed to quite a variety of music because factory workers came from all over, says’ HIcks. “My dad was a furniture worker. I was raised in the old mill houses around Lenoir.” He continues, “If we heard that someone in Harpertown was playing the guitar, we just tried to get there. We lived on the south end of Lenoir. We walked. It was a pretty good piece. Distance didn’t matter to me. I didn’t mind to walk five or ten miles, whatever it took. These were pretty good musicians. I didn’t want to miss them.”
It wasn’t easy for black musicians, recalls Hicks. “Things were so different back then. Blacks were trying to get some freedom. They were limited to a lot of things that they could do in public. You’d about have to experience it to know what they went through. Things they experienced, we wouldn’t think of. It was a completely different world.”
Hicks recalls, “After 1963, things started to change drastically. It was a different feeling. There was more respect.”
Hicks, who is 80, still picks with his friend Lindy Johnson, but doesn’t play in public any longer. However, he did emphasize, “We’re still kicking.”
“Pop” & “Carolina” Ray Whisnant
Crouch recalls how “Pop” would set the standard, not only for playing, but stage presence. “He was always dressed to the nines and clean shaven. He looked the part of the blues man.” Indeed, Crouch compares him to one of his white contemporaries, “Carolina” Ray Whisnant. “He and Pop had that in common. They had a lot of influence from the old ‘Putting up a front’ attitude. “They were always dressed like professional musicians. They learned from the same people.”
Crouch continues, “That’s American roots music. Pop’s music is roots. Carolina was known for country, but the roots of his music was blues. They came from socially different backgrounds, but were similar in how they approached music.”
Crouch recorded with Pop. “We recorded quite a bit of material, shares Crouch. “When Pop played in public, he would play electric guitar. But I liked his acoustic and banjo. He played blues on both. I really valued that I got to hear it in its rawest form, because that’s how he would have learned it. He played a finger style banjo that was really cool.”
In fact, reveals Crouch, “One of my favorite things in teaching music history is teaching the banjo in this area. I enjoy teaching that it came from Africa and was adopted by indigenous and European people.”
Based on memories Hicks shares about Lenoir in the 40s and 50s, it might be worth considering the pull and power of music. “You could go up and down the streets and people would be playing instruments on their porches,” recalls Hicks. “That was a big form of entertainment.”
And, whether intentionally or not, such gatherings were times of reconciliation. Music is a vaccine against racism — and all forms of prejudices.
Note: A tip of the hat to Patrick Crouch, who as always, contributed significantly to this effort. More remains to be written on this topic, as the stories of many more Caldwell musicians remain to be shared, so stay tuned. If you have a story idea related to this topic, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read the full BRMT biography of Clyde “Pop” Ferguson here
Read the full BRMT biography of Clyde Ferguson Jr. here
Read the full BRMT biography of Roger Hicks here
Read the full BRMT biography of Etta Baker here
Read the full BRMT biography of “Carolina” Ray Whisnant here (Note: Mr. Whisnant passed away in 2019; that is not reflected on the BRMT website).
Read the full BRMT biography about Howard Colbert here
Read the full BRMT biography of Patrick Crouch here.
© Michael Barrick, 2021. The Appalachian Chronicle is a publication of Grassroots Appalachia LLC. Home page photo by The New York Public Library on Unsplash. Musician photos courtesy of Blue Ridge Music Trails.