Touted as America’s “premier African-American string band,” The Ebony Hillbillies sound like nothing most listeners can prepare for. But, for audiences well-acquainted with string bands and blues from the 1910s and 1920s, the sound of the Ebony Hillbillies will sound hauntingly familiar.
On their fifth CD, “5 Miles From Town,” The Ebony Hillbillies are taking on not only music forms that are roughly a century old, but they are sometimes infusing the lyrics with details from 21st century social unrest. Among the dozen songs on the album (forthcoming Jan. 4, 2019) are the blues classic “Wang Dang Doodle” and the old-school styled, “Another Man Done Gone/Hands Up Don’t Shoot,” that details the deaths of black men at the hands of the police, or some other authority, as in the case of Trayvon Martin.
But it isn’t just blues and social commentary for the group, although some would argue that the very existence of this band is a form of social commentary. Mixed in are Gospel songs, in particular “Where He Leads Me.”
Probably the most interesting facet of this ten-piece group from Manhattan is the adherence to using instruments from yesteryear and in the string band tradition. There is no overly electric sound. Though there is a guitar, that is the most modern instrument. Instead, there are bones, banjos, a shaker, washboard, a mountain dulcimer and violin. The singing styles that the singers use (most of the vocals are done by women but Norris Washington Bennett does help out vocally, in addition to playing stringed instruments) is decidedly vintage. This is not a recording that attempts to make older songs sound updated with the use of certain modern singing techniques. The gritty, soulful, bluesy sound of the songs has an almost indescribable effect on listeners.
“Wang Dang Doodle” by The Ebony Hillbillies
This version of the blues classic sounds a great deal like the version made famous by Koko Taylor, minus the electric bomp of Taylor’s rendition. The female vocals are deep and rich. The song’s lyrics are a mouthful, but the singer manages to get them all out clearly. The musicians do a more than capable job of bringing to life the rollicking up and down blues beat of the track. True to the original, this version of “Wang Dang Doodle” could also be played at parties.
“Another Man Done Gone (Hands Up Don’t Shoot)” by The Ebony Hillbillies
Essentially, this is the blues stripped down. The vocals are arranged in a call and response format. The lyrics never name names, but anyone who has watched the news in the past several years knows exactly who the women are singing about. For instance, “They shot him in his car (they shot him in his car),” and “he had a hoodie on (he had a hoodie on).” The lyrics speak for themselves and the rich unadorned vocals give them the gravitas needed.
The Ebony Hillbillies started on the streets of Manhattan, but have performed at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, on “Good Morning America,” on the BBC and elsewhere. Hopefully, the group’s presence will continue to grow. Their four previous CD’s have sold thousands of copies, but the style and message of The Ebony Hillbillies need to be heard by everyone. The New York Times noted that the group’s work is a “wonderful connection to all our humanity,” and most listeners will agree.