The history behind this concert stretches back to the 1750s, when Quakers came to this area of central North Carolina and called it home. By the 1830s, the growing community wanted a coeducational school near their homes, and the New Garden Boarding School was opened in 1837. In harmony with Quaker ideals, the school became a stop on the Underground Railway and later preached nonconscription during the Civil War. After reconstruction, its name was changed to Guilford College, and in the 1920s a road connected it with the city of Greensboro, thereby increasing its exposure to those who lived out of the area.
The liberal arts college is still extremely active within its community. In 1999, the ArtsETC program created a satellite series called Carolina Roots, which “seeks to celebrate the many streams that have created the traditional music of North Carolina.” The third, and last, event of this season was titled, “Women’s Voices of North Carolina Music.” In an attempt to “desegregate the music of the South,” the show featured Cary Fridley with Barry Benjamin, Etta Baker, and the Branchettes.
Originally the show was scheduled to include Shelia Kay Adams instead of Cary Fridley, and in fact this was the artist I was looking forward to seeing the most. Adams is an eighth-generation unaccompanied ballad singer from Asheville who sings the ancient English, Scottish and Irish ballads that her family brought when them when they emigrated to North Carolina in the late 1700s. She was ill, however, and could not make the show.
A quick, and fitting, substitute was found in the Virginia-born Cary Fridley, previously a member of North Carolina’s Freight Hoppers. Fridley, with banjo accompaniment by Barry Benjamin, sang through various old-time and bluegrass ballads, much to the crowd’s delight. At one point she remarked at how nice it was to perform in a place where people actually listen.
Series producer Steve Terrill introduced Etta Baker by reminding that a century ago it was considered scandalous in certain communities for a woman to play an instrument other than autoharp or piano. Baker is an 89-year-old African-American raised in Caldwell County by a banjo-playing father, Boone Reid. He encouraged his daughter to learn the music of the area, which included blues, breakdowns and waltzes. Eventually, Etta learned how to play the fiddle, banjo, guitar and piano.
A stunning woman, who barely looks 75, let alone 89, Baker took her seat and started the show on the banjo, playing a number of tunes, including “Cripple Creek” and “Sourwood Mountain”, that she heard her father perform many times years ago. After a few more tunes, she returned the banjo to its case and played the bulk of the show on her electric guitar. The guitar is what Etta is mostly known for, and she still can fingerpick through a number of songs and hold the audience in rapt attention.
Baker finished the set by picking up an acoustic Martin guitar and, with a slide on her pinky, playing “John Henry”. She explained that not only was it a song her dad and uncle used to play, but she had actually visited the tunnel John Henry was digging when he died. She says she picked up some spikes from the dirt, tied a yellow ribbon around them, and hung them on her wall.
After a short intermission, the Branchettes took the stage. An African-American gospel group from Johnston County, the Branchettes feature Ethel Elliot, Lena Mae Perry and pianist Wilbur Tharpe. Elliot and Perry have been performing gospel music for more than 25 years. The only instrumentation used is the piano, but it became immediately clear that there’s a good reason for this: These women sing with the power of an entire choir. Couple that with the fact that the piano player sounded like he was playing with four arms, and you get the idea.
The Branchettes’ home base is the Long Branch Disciple Church in Benson. They began performing when the Long Branch choir was called to sing at a nearby church but only Elliot, Perry and Perry’s aunt showed up. Everything went great as a trio, so they decided to perform regularly. Perry’s aunt has passed away, but the Branchettes continue to perform “wherever there is a need.”
The group started with “After I Have Run This Old Race”, and it was evident that bluegrass was not the only music featuring powerful three-part harmonies in North Carolina. After running through a few other numbers, they said they were going to give Brother Thorpe a rest. The two women then sang “I Know I’ve Been Changed”, a powerful a cappella number.
Walking out of the auditorium with gospel music still ringing in my ears, I thought of the few times in my life I’ve heard people say, “If music sounded like that in church today, I’d go.” The crowd at Guilford College on this night could tell you that it does exist. Head on down to a little church in southern Johnston County and ask for the Branchettes.