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Documentary traces history of African American musicians

Rhiannon & Justin
Eduardo Montes-Bradley
This image was captured during a reunion of Rhiannon Giddens and Justin Robinson, funding members of The Carolina Chocolate Drops in Mebane, North Carolina. The image includes part of the memorial to Joe and Odell Thompson known as "Knee to Knee" Joe & Odell Thomson, 2019 by sculptor Brad Spencer. The mason who molded the bricks was Tommy Whitmore. In the photograph, Giddens and Robinson appear next to fiddler Joe while banjo player Odell Thomson was cropped out. The Photograph was captured on November 2, 2021 during the filming of the documentary "Black Fiddlers".

A new documentary film about African - American musicians and their contribution to American music has been completed by a Charlottesville filmmaker.

On a windy November day Rhiannon Giddens and Justin Robinson, former bandmates in the award-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops, met at the home of their mentor, Joe Thompson, an old-time fiddle player who carried on the black string band tradition, and the man who set them on their musical paths.

The small unassuming house where Thompson lived on a back road in Mebane North Carolina holds memories of days and nights making music, learning from him, and growing within the community of musicians to whom Thompson passed on his love of the music.

Giddens: “You know, when you look back at your life and there’s always crossroads, there’s always before and after events, you know. And meeting Joe, and not just meeting him but actually becoming his apprentice is definitely one of those crossroad events.”

Robinson: “There’s this like upwelling that like what Joe got to pass on to us is still it’s fully alive, fully embodied, fully all that stuff, right? We got to do that, he got to help us do that, we got to help him do that. Yeah, it’s, it’s a lot because also for me it was very much a pivotal.”

Giddens and Robinson came for the filming of a segment for the documentary Black Fiddlers, which traces the legacy of traditional fiddle music to its roots in Africa. Filmmaker Eduardo Montes-Bradley says the project started as a commission by the Early Music Access Project in Charlottesville.

Montes-Bradley: “They were interested in the black fiddlers of Monticello, the mixed-race children of Thomas Jefferson. And it was like a rabbit hole, I mean I went into Monticello, and I came out in another hole in Ohio, and then I came up in another hole in Texas, then I came up in another hole in Massachusetts, then I go ‘oh my god,’ this is a network, this is a world, this is a web that goes all the way back to, back to Africa.”

Montes-Bradley says the film centers on Joe Thompson, but he found much more in going down those rabbit holes.

Montes-Bradley: “It’s an unbroken chain, but some of the links on the chain are simply amazing.”

Rhiannon Giddens and Justin Robinson say Joe Thompson’s legacy is not immutable.

Giddens: “Joe was a living, changing musician up until the day he died, you know. And, so what we have is not some snapshot of music from 1745 that Joe was still playing, what we have is how the music came to Joe and then how it came to us and so the more that we can talk about it, play it, discuss him in the place that he holds, that’s how we can honor him.”

Robinson: “Yeah, we keep the legacy again by doing, by doing, by teaching, by us continuing to be alive, cause it’s in us. Like we, uh, someone was like, I was at a panel or something, I was like ‘I’m right here.’

Like, it didn’t go anywhere, right? The line is fully unbroken, right? And it’s unbroken since before slavery. The line is completely unbroken.”

Filmmaker Eduardo Montes-Bradley says the next step is to get the documentary into film festivals.


"We’re expecting to present Black Fiddlers in the upcoming film festivals where the documentary is currently being submitted.
In addition to film festivals, we are expecting to introduce the film in
mostly on-line screenings (depending on the COVID situation) in
museums, and cultural centers. Finally, the long-term distribution
strategy is focus on on-line streaming to public and academic
libraries through Kanopy and Alexander Street Press. Both streaming avenues, of highly curated programing are familiar with our previous work on African American History and Social Issues." Eduardo Monttes-Bradley

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Luke Church
Luke Church hosts Roots Down on WVTF Music.