Grammy-nominated musician Ted Olson’s new albums celebrate Black history by presenting Black Appalachian artists in a new way.
“Black musicians have been marginalized, overlooked and not fully understood or appreciated,” said Olson. “I think that the best way to overcome that is to bring the recordings to people like we are doing at the event.”
Olson’s albums, “Satan is Busy in Knoxville: Revisiting the Knoxville Sessions 1929-1930” and “Birthright: A Black Roots Music Compendium,” allowed recordings by Appalachian artists to be reintroduced to the public; some recordings are the earliest made in Appalachia by Black musicians. Many of these musicians were neglected by the industry despite their impact on culture, other artists, and the genre as a whole.
“Satan is Busy in Knoxville” covers recordings made in Knoxville, Tennessee, during the years 1929 and 1930. This was a crucial period in the history of American music, as it coincided with the spread of radio and the recording industry, which helped to popularize traditional regional genres such as Appalachian music, country, and blues. Olson's album seeks to showcase the unique contributions of Knoxville musicians to this legacy, featuring rare and previously unreleased recordings by artists such as Charlie Oaks, Jaybird Coleman, and the Tennessee Chocolate Drops.
"Birthright" is a broader survey of African American musical traditions, ranging from the spirituals and field hollers of the slave era to the gospel, blues, and soul of the 20th century. The album features a mix of archival recordings and contemporary performances by artists such as Taj Mahal, Mavis Staples, and the Holmes Brothers. The aim of the album is to highlight the diverse and enduring cultural legacy of African American music, as well as to challenge common stereotypes and misrepresentations of this music in popular culture.
Olson hoped that his albums would deepen appreciation for Appalachian music and bring attention to the impact that the Black community had on this genre. He also wanted to educate people on the stories behind the music, as there tend to be misunderstandings about who these artists were.
“They [the artists from the recordings] have inspired me to pursue understanding music history and older music,” said Olson. “I feel as if this older music is still living music because it is still alive in us today as we learn from it.”
As Olson is also a Professor of Appalachian Studies at ETSU, he attempts to bring attention to overlooked musicians in the classroom as well as his albums. He often collaborates on projects concerning the interpretation of Appalachian music in cultural history.
“It is really important to us that we represent all different types of people and aspects of society to make sure that anyone in our community can come in and feel represented,” said Rebecca Proffitt, Director of ETSU’s Reece Museum, who helped host a listening session for the albums.
Although there is abounding support and curiosity when it comes to Appalachian music, people do not always understand its history. Songs by white artists were often known as “hillbilly music” and songs by Black artists were known as “race music.” These albums were brought out of an archive in order to revisit the theme of Black Appalachian culture and to dispel stereotypes surrounding all Appalachian music.
“The music is so important to disabusing us of false notions that Appalachia is only white and homogenous,” said Daryl Carter, ETSU history professor and Director of Black American Studies. “In fact, Appalachia has a lot of diversity, both past and present. The music helps to tell that story.”
Carter recommended that people purchase the CDs in order to learn about and recognize the contributions of Appalachian musicians. Among the many artists featured on the two albums are Will Bennett, whose song “Railroad Bill” was avoided by producers because it was too long for records, and Senior Chapel Quartette, whose song “In My Savior’s Care” was never heard by the widespread public before Olson’s album was released.
For more information on events like this, visit the Reece Museum’s website at etsu.edu/reece.