Each week on the “Historically Black” podcast, we explore one object and its connection to a moment in black history.
Looking at vintage photographs can sometimes feel like looking at ghosts, but imagine if you could hear the person’s voice — or even musical styling. Raffeal Sears knows that feeling. “The first time I remember sitting in my room, and I pressed play and I felt like I was hearing and seeing a ghost,” Sears says.
Sears submitted an MP3 file to “Historically Black,” The Washington Post Tumblr project. “Iberia Breakdown,” the tune featured, brings its talented composer William (Bill) Driver to life.
Driver was a black fiddle-playing sensation in predominantly white central Missouri from the 1920s to the 1940s. He played on radio station WOS in Jefferson City, the state capitol, and he was a serious contender in Missouri fiddle contests and the most sought-after fiddler for picnics and dances in town.
Driver was also Sears’s maternal great-great grandfather.
When Sears’s mother, Denine, passed away in 2008, he realized he really didn’t know much about his maternal family tree. “It was one of these moments where I really wanted to understand who I was,” he said of the time following his mother’s death.
With his maternal grandparents already gone, he longed to know more about the history of his mother’s relatives he met at family reunions in Jefferson City growing up. His quest led him to ancestry.com. While searching the website, Sears found various family documents, war registrations, census reports and a name — Bill Driver.
Although he didn’t remember it when he saw the name, Sears and Driver had met before: at a 1985 family reunion. Sears was only 4 at the time. Driver, on the other hand, was 100 years his senior. It was the last reunion Driver would attend. He died in 1986 at age 104.
Over time, Sears’s search yielded far more information than he could’ve expected. He clicked through academic articles and museum archives until he eventually stumbled upon a search result unlike the others: “Bill Driver — Discussion Forums” it read.
The Bill Driver archived topic was hosted on Fiddle Hangout, a chat room for fiddling enthusiasts. The forum’s mission is “to become the world’s most comprehensive fiddle resource.” But Fiddle Hangout didn’t just lead Sears to technique discussions and festival videos; it led him to the musical talents of his great-great grandfather.
“I need some help putting names to a bunch of Bill Driver tunes,” one user wrote above a link to various MP3s. “Any help will be appreciated.”
The enthusiasm Sears expressed at the discovery is still preserved at the bottom of the forum.
“Wow … I am sooooo excited that I stumbled upon this forum,” he wrote just shy of midnight on Feb. 2, 2011. “William Anderson ‘Bill’ Driver is my great, great grandfather! I have never heard actual recordings of my great, great grandfather…..THIS IS AMAZING!!!! Thank you so much for this!”
Sears joined the chat room, where the members of Fiddle Hangout became a wealth of information. One member eventually mailed Sears a CD of more than 40 Driver songs.
“In a way, they were introducing me to my great-great grandfather,” Sears wrote in his initial submission to “Historically Black.”
Sears’s own passions for music and performing were suddenly validated. He studied vocals at Belmont University and is in graduate school for acting at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana.
“Discovering Bill Driver gave me a sense of identity,” he said. “It’s why I went to school for music. It all makes sense.”
Driver not only played the fiddle but also organ, banjo, guitar, mandolin, harmonica and piano. Sears has never played an instrument but wonders what would happen if he just picked one up one day.
“I probably have a hidden talent,” he said.
You can hear host Issa Rae share more about Bill Driver and listen to his music on Historically Black, a podcast co-production between APM Reports and The Washington Post that tells the stories of people’s lived experiences of black history through the objects that evoke those connections.
See more objects that have been submitted to the project, and share your own at historicallyblack.tumblr.com.
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