A bridge between worlds

Music a conduit of history
Jul. 17, 2014 @ 07:27 PM

WARRENTON — John Santa painted an imaginary picture for his audience at Warren County Memorial Library.

He described a big house on a hill and slave quarters down below.

In the big house, English and Scots-Irish planters played classical music on a cello. To illustrate, Santa drew a bow across the strings of his own cello, producing strains of classical European music.

Down below, slaves from Africa strummed banjos to different melodies and rhythms. Santa plucked a lively tune on a banjo.

Blacks heard the classical music and the hymns sung by the whites and took them for their own, Santa said, but faster, more rhythmic.

Blacks and whites heard and absorbed the music the other played.

“They didn’t speak the same language, but they communicated as musicians,” he said, “That’s the first crack in slavery.”

It was also a major source of what became bluegrass music.

The instruments musicians played and the techniques they used started to change as they absorbed the lessons of other cultures, Santa said. The banjo morphed into the mandolin. Metal was added to wooden guitars to produce a different sound. Bottlenecks and pocketknives were used to slide along guitar strings.

“That stew started to cook,” Santa said. “It led to the great American music — bluegrass, blues and, the offshoot, jazz.”

Santa came to Warren County Memorial Library through a grant from the North Carolina Humanities Council, a statewide nonprofit organization affiliated with the National Endowment for the Humanities. Friends of the Warren County Memorial Library provided additional support.

At various points in his life, Santa thought he was a guitar player, a writer, a cellist and a journalist before realizing that he was really a storyteller, said Adult Services Librarian Emily Shaw. Santa is author of a book, “Bluegrass is my Second Language,” and he shares his love of bluegrass by traveling the state as part of the Humanities Council’s Road Scholars program.

Santa told the audience the story of the spread of Southern music. After the Civil War, the music moved out of the South.

“What was regional became national,” Santa said.

Chicago became the home of the blues. White musicians went to Harlem in New York City to hear black musicians.

Allen Kimball, one of two dozen people listening to Santa, gave his own testimony about the spread of bluegrass music. He was at a bluegrass festival in Raleigh last year, he said, and heard a bluegrass group from Genoa, Italy.

Some musical innovation happens by accident, Santa said. He told how a back-up musician was cleaning his guitar and inadvertently left a rag under his strings at the start of a rehearsal with Johnny Cash. Cash heard the muted sound, liked it and used it on his recording of “I Walk the Line.”

For his part, Santa plays 18 musical instruments. For his presentation in Warrenton, he brought along three guitars, a cello, a banjo, a mandolin and a harmonica and played each of them.

At the end of his presentation, Santa invited members of the audience to join him in a jam session.

Wade Schuster of Henderson stepped up with his guitar and suggested they do Merle Haggard’s “Swinging Doors.” Matt Nelson of Vaughan unholstered one of the five or six harmonicas in his belt. While Schuster played and sang, Nelson provided accompaniment on the harmonica and Santa on the mandolin.

After Schuster finished extolling swinging doors, Nelson sang and played “Ice Man.” With Schuster and Santa accompanying, Nelson sang that he was moving because “I don’t want no iceman hanging around.”

“Bluegrass musicians don’t get rich like rock-’n’-rollers,” Santa said. “Because they’re playing in old tobacco barns across the state.”

But by playing for nothing or for tips, they are preserving the culture of bluegrass music for future generations.


Contact the writer at dirvine@hendersondispatch.com.