BY BLAIR JACKSON | FROM THE SPRING 2023 ISSUE OF UKULELE
Don’t feel bad if you don’t know the word “Affrilachian.” I’d never heard it before I started working on this story about multi-talented Knoxville, Tennessee–based musician and singer Kelle Jolly. Affrilachian as a term referring to African American writers, musicians, dancers, and artists who live, broadly speaking, in America’s Appalachian region (centered in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee, but also stretching north and south), only dates back to the 1990s, apparently coined by Black Kentucky writer/poet Frank X. Walker. Walker’s goal was to differentiate himself (and others) from the common stereotype of Appalachian people being poor, rural and white, when in fact there has been a large and culturally influential Black community in the region since Colonial times. Walker’s label caught on and has served as a unifying umbrella in the regional African American arts community, especially in Tennessee.
Kelle Jolly proudly identifies as Affrilachian and is, indeed, a vital member of Tennessee’s arts community as a singer, songwriter, musician (ukulele being her primary instrument these days), teacher, storyteller, radio personality, actor, and event producer. She sings and plays a wide variety of styles—dipping back in time to perform old spirituals and Black string-band tunes from the 1920s and ’30s, as well as more modern gospel and jazz and children’s songs. Her husband is the noted jazz reeds player Will Boyd, with whom she occasionally performs, including on his excellent 2019 album Freedom, Soul, Jazz. She started the Women in Jazz Jam Festival in Knoxville several years ago and also a popular ukulele club. She teaches ukulele, songwriting, and storytelling workshops, sometimes combining all three: “I teach workshops on using the blues to document your life, where I lead people in blues songwriting and teach them how to play 12-bar blues on ukulele, which I think is important because 12-bar blues is also ‘Twist And Shout,’ 12-bar blues you can take to church. You can take 12-bar blues anywhere depending on what you sing on top of it.”
When we spoke over Zoom in late November 2022, Jolly had just finished teaching a class on public speaking at East Tennessee State University, where she is studying storytelling, and was preparing to record one of her singing/storytelling performances at a local theater for a possible live album release in 2023. Presumably it will include a version of the simple theme song that has become a calling card of sorts for her, “Tennessee Ukulele Lady.” She definitely is that, but also so much more.
I know that you started with trumpet and French horn, later played guitar, and took up the bass. Can you talk a little bit about your road to ukulele?
As an adult living in Chattanooga, I wanted to study guitar, so I started learning guitar and I took lessons. And then I moved from Chattanooga to Knoxville, and I had put down the guitar and then decided to take lessons again. I was taking guitar lessons from my friend Buddy D, and I wanted to learn quickly, so I took lessons every day. And it was something I really had to force myself to do. It didn’t feel comfortable for me, but I wanted to be a guitar-playing singer, so I forced myself to practice and learn. So I started with guitar, but then I bought a bass and I started playing a little three-quarter size electric bass. “Oh, I really like these four strings!”
It’s two fewer than six!
[Laughs] Yeah, I like the four strings, and I really like playing the bass. But my husband and I travel a lot, and I like to travel out of the country, and I don’t like to check luggage. So, one day I was in downtown Knoxville and I went into my friend Matt Morelock’s store on Gay Street, called Morelock Music, which was this great place that had all kinds of instruments and old-timey clothes. It doesn’t exist anymore. Anyway, he had some ukuleles in there—four strings!—and I decided to buy a little green one with a dolphin on the bridge. I think it was like $30; he might have charged me $20. So I started playing ukulele, and then ten of my friends also bought one. And because my background is in music education, they said, “Well, Kelle, you have to teach us!” And so I started teaching everybody how to play. We would meet at Time Warp Tea Room down in Happy Holler [a Knoxville historic district] for ukulele jams. They would let us set up in a big circle in the tea shop, and we would play songs; people would bring music and make copies and share it with everybody in the circle. And we’d just play songs together, all kinds of old-timey songs.
Did having such an extensive and varied musical background make it easier for you to pick up ukulele and teach others? By some definitions the uke is not that difficult to play, but to play well is hard.
Well, I have a degree in music from South Carolina State University, and I have a background in working with children. I’m heavily influenced by Ella Jenkins. [Jenkins, now 98, began writing and performing children’s songs in Chicago in the early 1950s and recorded many albums for Folkways and the later Smithsonian Folkways label, including the wildly successful 1995 release Multicultural Children’s Songs. She was an avid ukulelist and also an excellent harmonica player. —BJ] I grew up singing those songs with children, and having an instrument that I can accompany myself with while I’m singing and performing for children was very important to me. I also like singing early jazz. Those chords are perfect for ukulele.
Did your jazz-playing husband help you?
He wasn’t a big fan at first. [Laughs] In the beginning, he probably wanted me to carry on with the guitar. Even now, he still buys me guitars—acoustic hard-body guitars. I still will play my guitar every once in a while, but I don’t want to travel with it. It’s something I just want to kind of refresh, understand, so that it’ll make it easier for me to communicate with other musicians. I even have a guitar autographed by Dolly Parton that I won in the Mountain Soul Vocal Competition.
Wow! Hello eBay…
[Laughs] No, I’m never getting rid of it! It has a certificate of authenticity and everything from Dolly. Actually, I’m in that Dolly Parton movie that’s coming out in December [Dolly Parton’s Mountain Magic Christmas, which aired on NBC on December 1, 2022].
I saw a video of you playing at Dollywood in Nashville outside the chapel. Is that part of the special ?
No, it’s not. But I do play at Dollywood sometimes. I do a one-woman show at Dollywood during their festivals. For the movie, though, I was hired to play one of Dolly’s backup singers.
What do you typically perform in a concert of your own? I know you’re a storyteller as well as a singer.
Yep, I’m a storyteller, too. I call myself an “Affrilachian Georgialina Peach.” I was born in South Carolina and grew up outside of Atlanta, and now I live in Tennessee. I call myself that because all the places I’ve lived have contributed to who I am.
When I started playing ukulele, I wanted to play songs that I knew, songs I’ve been singing for a long time. My repertoire is made up of songs from my youth, songs that my parents sang to me. My dad’s from the hills of South Carolina and my mom is from the coast of South Carolina. So between those places, I got a lot of different songs—from my family, from my culture. There are spiritual and gospel songs I learned in church. I sing freedom songs that I’ve learned. I learned about the history of my people in this country. I sing world music songs that I taught when I was a music teacher. I sing those songs, and I’ve learned songs from different types of jazz and blues from various decades. But if you had to categorize it, I’d say my music is mostly traditional African American music—spiritual, blues, jazz, folk music.
So when you were in your first song circle, playing ukulele and passing around tunes, that’s also a way you learn and absorb new influences?
That’s right. Community groups. So I have a community group called Ukesphere [derived from the still-standing Sunsphere tower that was a symbol of the 1982 Knoxville World’s Fair energy exposition]. That’s my group; I lead it. And the group has gathered at different times, different places depending on the year. We’ve met at the Tea Room, Lane Music in Knoxville, various places. We used to meet at the Bop Shop, which is a music studio owned by one of my friends. I let in all ages, all abilities. I welcome everybody. I even welcome people who are not playing ukulele. If you just want to come and sing while we play, you can come, too.
That’s cool. More singers, more singers!
You can’t have too many. I believe in singing. I also host a radio show on WUOT 91.9FM, our NPR affiliate, called Jazz Jam. So my show is all jazz singing. I believe in singing.
Who are some of the singers that influenced your style?
I have different influences for different things. Like I said, I love Ella Jenkins. But I also love Ella Fitzgerald. I love Sarah Vaughan. I love to hear Carmen McRae. It depends on the style. Of singers that are alive today, I love Carmen Lundy. She doesn’t play ukulele, but I like her because she’s a middle-aged Black woman artist who’s out here being bold enough to share music from her own imagination, and that’s important to me. And she’s also a complete artist: She does visual arts, she does music, and she combines them.
I know you’ve got your theme song, which is very cool. Have you done much other writing? Do you write a lot of original material?
I do write original material. My husband and I play together and we write original music together. And I also write lots of children’s songs, because I have songs that came out of my teaching experience with children. So a lot of it is family-oriented or faith-based inspirational music, children’s music. That’s pretty much where I am, what I’m drawn to.
You’ve appeared on a couple of Will’s albums: the live one from 2018, and then Freedom, Soul, Jazz, where you sing and play ukulele on a few tracks—old spirituals, which are quite spare in terms of the
arrangements compared to the more straightforward jazz numbers that make up most of the album. Can you talk about how that album came to be and your role in it?
The album definitely is Will’s. It was Will’s concept that he developed, but he was inspired by our lives—inspired by the things that we are asked to do and the ways that we have been asked to serve the community.
We play music according to the occasion and the event and the audience that we’re performing for or worshiping with. But for us, it’s all traditional African American music. It’s music that we like to play to honor the people who originated it. We like to honor their contributions to society by remembering that music, those styles. And so with that album, Will wanted me to play the more traditional-sounding songs. He wanted people to hear the melody and the chords in a pure form with me on ukulele. And then he came in with his arrangement and interpretation of the songs. It was taking the basic form and then adding the… I guess you’d call it the modern expression and expanding upon that.
How familiar are you with the Black jug band tradition and the early acoustic blues tradition, which sometimes included ukulele back in the 1920s and ’30s? If you go on YouTube, you can find all these really obscure songs featuring ukulele on blues tunes and string-band tunes.
I’ve heard quite a bit of that. I’m actually on the planning committee for the Louie Bluie Festival, which takes place in Caryville, Tennessee, and honors the life of Howard “Louie Bluie” Armstrong [1909–2003, a pioneering African American string band musician, and the subject of Terry Zwigoff’s must-see 1985 documentary Louie Bluie]. He was from an organization in that area that organized the festival. And I’m one of the people that helps put that together. I perform at the festival, too.
I learned about Louie Bluie after moving to Tennessee—I was a cast member in a play called Between a Ballad and a Blues, which was written by Linda Parris-Bailey of Carpetbag Theater. And in that play, audiences learn about Howard’s background, how he grew up, how he spoke so many languages and played all the instruments, and how he came from a musical family and toured all around the world playing traditional string music and blues and jazz.
You said in one interview that you sort of taught yourself ukulele by watching YouTube. How did you do that? Again, you’re coming into to the ukulele with a huge grounding in music theory and having played different instruments.
At that time, I didn’t see people in my immediate circle playing ukulele. There are ukulele players here, but I didn’t know them at that time. So I watched a lot of YouTube videos to figure out: “Oh, this is how you play this chord.” I learned the chords off videos first, then I started buying books. There are people in Knoxville who produce their own books—like Greg Horn—and there are other people who teach and play. But watching YouTube was where I first learned to play songs and to play along with someone.
What ukuleles do you own?
I have so many. But sitting here right now, I have this Kala Waterman that I play. I like to play this outside. But I probably have about 15 ukuleles. I have a lot of different colors… I mostly play tenor and U-Bass, which I love.
I play baritone, too, but it’s not the first one I pick up. I have a Kala I play a lot here at home, an Oscar Schmidt, an Octopus ukulele, and various others. I have one beside my bed, I have one in my car, I have one by the couch, even in here in my office. I keep them everywhere so I can just pick them up and play them if I feel like it.
And then I give some away, because people ask me about them…
Right! “I really want to learn.” And I’m like, “Here, take this one!” [Laughs] So they’re all over the place; I don’t even remember. And they try to give them back to me, and I’m like, “No, keep it!” I also have some cigar box ukes.
What’s the appeal of the cigar box uke?
Well, when I pick up the ukulele, it has to feel good in my hands and it has to sound good. I like that it has the electric pickup. And when I play it, it sounds good with the effects, the electric sound. And then I think it just looks good. People like it. When I don’t have it with me [at a gig], people say, “Oh, you don’t have the cigar box uke?” They want to see that cigar box uke. I don’t know… it’s unique. And I also like to support local makers, like the New Egypt Folk String Instrument Company. That’s important to me.
I’m still waiting to get a gourd ukulele from Dr. Dena Jennings [of Story Gourd Workshop] in Orange, Virginia. She makes them and also does storytelling. I just attended an event on her property that’s a Black string-musician gathering that happens every year. It’s called “The Thang.”
I don’t want to belabor this point, but there really aren’t that many contemporary Black ukulele players. It’s a pretty white scene. If you go to festivals, it’s mainly older white people.
I almost made that my final paper: to talk about the stories that Black ukulele players tell about the music they play, because I don’t see a lot of other Black people playing ukulele. So when I do, I hold onto them. I know Angela [Denise] Davis from Atlanta [profiled in the Summer 2021 Ukulele]. There’s a ukulele player in Kansas City named Eems [featured in our article on looping in the Winter 2022 issue] and I follow him like a fan girl. I saw him on the street in Kansas City and I was amazed. I wanted to help him pack up his stuff! ‘‘Can I carry your stuff?” He knows how to pack up all his stuff. [Laughs] But I just like following him online and supporting him. I can’t wait to have a budget to be able to bring him here to play.
I would love to be able to organize an event that is centered on Black ukulele players, because there is a difference in the stories that people tell about why they got into ukulele, what their experience is like, and the stories that they tell about the music.
I just got back from National Association of Black Storytellers Conference in Baltimore. I had my ukulele on my back the whole time, and people kept asking, “Are you that ukulele lady?” And I said, “Yes.” I use ukulele in my stories, I like to tell stories with music. And I also love stories that are songs and songs that are stories. The ukulele is perfect for those.
Do you feel like the ukulele is still getting bigger?
Yes, and I think it has the potential to be even bigger. There’s still people who haven’t… I feel like there’s still a desire for people to pick up ukulele. When I go out and play, people are still asking me, “Can I learn to play the ukulele, too?”
“Yeah! In fact, here’s a song you can play in five minutes.”
Right! And I can teach you, and I do. My mom always says, “Oh, you want everybody to play ukulele?” I kind of do! I want people to have that freedom. I think ukulele is… It lets you hold the music in your hands. A lot of people who don’t have that background in music like I have—that intentional study of music—don’t feel like music is in them.
They feel like music is somewhere else, over there. But music is in them. You can pick up a ukulele, I could show you how to hold it and strum it, and you can make that music. It’s coming out of you.