When traversing the subway system of New York City, you're likely to encounter all kinds of curiosities; mutant-sized rats, wacky people, and beautiful street art are standard fare. But one thing that's going to inspire a double take, even among the most jaded city dwellers, is the Ebony Hillbillies. You'll hear them before you see them, the haunting sounds of banjo, fiddle, and washboard drifting down the hallways over the constant hum of rushing trains. And then you'll see them: four older black men pickin' and strummin' for hours on end.
The Hillbillies have become a mainstay in this "underground" world, where the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's Music Under New York (MUNY) program books acts based on annual auditions. They're among more than 100 diverse groups performing hundreds of shows monthly throughout the transit system.
"People in New York are used to musicians playing in public," explains Henrique Prince, the band's fiddler and vocalist. "But there aren't a lot of bands playing what we play and certainly not a lot of bands that look like us."
The band — which includes Norris Bennett on guitar, dulcimer, and mountain banjo; "Salty Bill" Salter on double bass and vocals; Newman Baker on washboard, spoons, and percussion; and Gloria Gassaway on bones and vocals — has been together for more than a decade, although they've collaborated in different guises since the 1980s.
"A long time ago, I got the idea to play in a band that was sort of dance music based on old fiddle music, and I eventually found people who are just as crazy as I was," Prince says.
They're experts at playing old time string band music, and they're also well-versed in the history of the genre. Interviewing Prince was like getting a fascinating lesson in Old Time String Band Music 101.
"This is going to be a great shock to you — you might want to hold on to something — but the oldest made board banjo in the United States was found up in Carytown, N.Y.," Prince says. "The truth is that the music is based all over the country, so it's no big deal for Northerners to play it. I guess because they say music is a universal language, and even within different genres of the music, it's still universal."
The string band originated as a sub-genre of old time music, played using a variety of stringed instruments, usually led by a fiddle, and eventually joined by the banjo (an instrument with African origins). It was most popular from the 1890s to the 1930s, pre-dating bluegrass and the country music that we're familiar with today. Not only that, but the rootsy style has been viewed as a key element in contributing to the development of American genre like jazz, blues, rockabilly, and rock 'n' roll.
According to Prince, the tunes they play are rare because they're based on music that was popular before recording began.
"Nobody's ever heard the bands from the era before the Civil War and afterward," he says. "There are pictures of bands with a tambourine player, a bones player, a fiddler, and a banjo, but no one had really heard those bands, because they existed before there was recorded music. The only reports are of how there was great dance music that was trying to adopt a feel."
The Ebony Hillbillies make great pains to capture that "feel" while improvising and moving forward to create new music. Their repertoire ranges from classic tunes like "Oh Susannah" and "Cotton Eye Joe" to originals to unique spins on newer songs like Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing."
Their versatility, and the fact that the music they play is at the heart of much of today's popular music, is reflected in the fans they attract.
"It's everybody," Prince says. "We have New York City police officers, firemen. We have a big Asian contingent, young people. That's the great thing about the subway playing, is there are so many different types of people."
He adds, "The same way that country music and bluegrass music tend to be really family-oriented, we tend to have the same thing happen with our music."
And while they've also branched out to play everywhere from Carnegie Hall to the Lincoln Center — not to mention their upcoming Spoleto performance at the Cistern — the subway is still their favorite venue.
"Well, of course concert halls have cleaner bathrooms and more amenities," Prince says. "But you can play for hours and hours and hours [in the subway], and that's really a lot of fun to be able to stretch a song out and play for eight to 10 minutes a piece. We can play our entire repertoire. When we get onstage, it's like, oh that was quick."