Through the lens of my whiteness, shaped by growing up in rural Kentucky in the 1980s, race was invisible. It was easy for me to not see race as a force that shaped the outcome of people’s lives, given the overwhelming whiteness of the place. According to the most recent census, Owen County, where I grew up and attended public school from 6th through 11th grades, is 95.8 percent white, with a total population of 10,686.
My obliviousness to race in Owen County was clearly built on a foundation of racial turmoil and black erasure. The fact that our high school mascot was the “rebel” should have been a clue. An extraordinary account published in the New York Times in 1874 by Deputy US Marshal Willis Russell, details a campaign of terror waged by the Ku Klux Klan against black residents and white allies in Owen County during Reconstruction.
Willis, who lived in Monterey, the small river town where I grew up, wrote: “They were known as Kuklux, and were in the habit of visiting the houses of citizens, disguised [and masked], in the night-time, and inflicting summary punishment, without charge, reason or excuse. The parties thus visited by them were mostly poor colored men, living in humble cabins, but they would sometimes attack a white citizen of the poorer class. Sometimes they would kill the parties whom they visited. Sometimes they would whip their victims severely, and occasionally burn the houses in which they lived.”
Willis wrote that at the outset of the attacks, around 1870, the ringleaders approached him and asked him to join the Klan. They told him “that their object was not only to drive the negroes from Kentucky, but also all Radicals who were in favor of negroes.” Willis’ article also includes an account of a raid by the local Klan organization in neighboring Scott County, in which they “ordered all the negroes they saw to leave the country within 10 days; if not, they would kill them all and burn their houses.” Willis reported that the Klan “shot and killed an old negro man and wounded several others,” and that one group of black residents returned fire, killing one of the Klansmen. Other unprovoked murders of black residents from Owen and surrounding counties followed over the next five years.
I knew black people when I grew up in Owen County in the 1980s, but I don’t think I thought of them as having a particular history, culture or shared social experience. One of them was Ray Sims, whom my father hired for occasional odd jobs, including helping pump out our cistern. Then there was Bill Livers, a black fiddler. He had a legendary reputation among my parents and their friends, and to me also. His fiddle playing was considered “hot,” thus the name of his band, in which he was backed by a group of young, white hippies: “Bill Livers & the Progress Red Hot String Band.” My uncle, Larry, played with the band occasionally.
But even more than his music, Livers’ fish fries were legendary. It’s probably a conflation of my hazy memory and recollections shared among adult friends, but Livers was renowned for his hospitality and entertaining stories. He was warm and funny. When I was maybe 10 or 11, he took me fishing. The memory of that event is more impression than factual detail — the way the trees leaned over a secluded pool of a creek that ran through the woods, his gentle and kind manner, that we caught some small bluegill and tossed them back. If nothing else comes through, these details should show a man of rare generosity, and many of us probably took him for granted.
When our family attended Livers’ visitation in 1988, I remember his wife, Hattie, reproaching my parents for not coming to visit Bill before he died.
“He would have liked to see you,” she said.
Even though I saw him as larger than life while he was with us, only in retrospect does it seem that Bill Livers’ true magnificence comes into full focus. It’s impossible not to think of Livers in correlation with Joe Thompson, the black fiddler in Mebane who mentored the Carolina Chocolate Drops. They were from the same generation, Livers born in 1911 and Thompson in 1918. But beyond the striking details of race, age and musical discipline, the similarities are somewhat superficial. Joe Thompson and Bill Livers were different artists with different repertoires and styles, each with unique gifts. To my knowledge, Livers, unlike Thompson, did not find a group of young, black players to pass along a legacy of black string-band music. The most important takeaway from the comparison should be a recognition that string-band music played with fiddles and banjos is black music.
Livers’ proteges in the Progress Red Hot String Band recently paid tribute to him with a concert at the Owen County Library. And I want to do my part to nail down some of his cultural significance beyond my childish perceptions.
One of the tunes Livers played was “Old Virge.” John Harrod, my freshman English teacher at Owen County High School, wrote in the liner notes of Traditional Fiddle Music of Kentucky: Along the Kentucky River, a 1997 compilation on Rounder Records: “Bill said that “Old Virge” was named after his grandfather, Virge Livers, who evidently established a reputation with it because the tune was known throughout Owen and Grant counties by that name. Virge Livers and his two sons, Albert and Claude, would walk or ride mules to play for dances through the country.”
To sense what the music was like if you were hearing it in the same room, the best I’ve found is this description, written by Eric Larson and Nathalie Andrews — both friends of my family — in an oral history published in Southern Exposure in 1978: “He plays the fiddle with an abandon that is breathtaking. At times, listening to him is like watching a reckless skater on slick ice. Music is snatched from thin air….”