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Production Begins on “Black Fiddlers” in Charlottesville

Black Fiddlers Cropped
Black Fiddlers documentary poster image

Many of us have heard about the history and relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman of African descent working at his Monticello plantation. Historic records and DNA evidence show that Jefferson fathered six children with Hemings, four surviving to adulthood.

What of those children? What became of them?

According to research from The Early Music Access Project (EMAP) in Charlottesville, two of Jefferson and Hemings’ sons, Beverly and Eston, became accomplished fiddlers for Monticello and beyond, spawning a legacy of music throughout our region. 

Black Fiddlers, a documentary from EMAP and the Heritage Film Project recently began production. It features the legacies of two families of fiddlers, connected by blood and by marriage to Jefferson and Hemings. 

Research from EMAP Artistic Director David McCormick and music historian and musician Loren Ludwig indicates that Black fiddlers associated with Monticello mastered and ranged comfortably through — as no contemporaneous white musicians did — “high” classical and “low” folk music traditions for white, Black, and integrated audiences. Although neglected in standard histories of early American music, the stories of these Black fiddlers make possible a fresh understanding of how American musicians assimilated European and African traditions to create uniquely American music.

Jesse Scott
Jesse Scott by Salvador Rojo (2020)

"I'm so pleased to be able to tell the story of Monticello's Black fiddlers from the Scott and Hemings families. For too long, these once-famous fiddlers have been ignored in the historical narrative of American music,” says McCormick. “They transcended boundaries of race and class to become lauded members of their communities. Their relationship to Thomas Jefferson and to the cultural life of downtown Charlottesville make them important figures worthy of this documentary."

McCormick and Ludwig’s research found that Beverly played for dances at Monticello and Eston became a well-known bandleader in Ohio. Native American fiddler Jesse Scott married into the Hemings family and raised three fiddle-playing sons. The Scott family band was a fixture of downtown Charlottesville, played for Lafayette’s 1824 visit to Monticello, and was hired to play for balls throughout Virginia. Fiddling grandson Robert Scott, Jr. taught at the Jefferson School in Charlottesville, now the site of the African American Heritage Center.

McCormick goes on to say, "I'm thrilled to be working with filmmaker Eduardo Montes-Bradley on this project. His portraits of poet Rita Dove, civil rights icon Julian Bond, and choral composer Alice Parker are all a testament to the nuance he brings to his films."

Black Fiddlers will be filmed primarily in and around Charlottesville, New York, Boston, Richmond, and potentially Paris and Vienna. The documentary is on target to be completed in time for this year’s Virginia Film Festival. Visit the Heritage Film Project for more information and updates on the production.