Long before the advent of music in the virtual cloud, long before even vinyl records and wax cylinders, and sheet music for sale, the hills and dales of New England were known to echo with the sound of fiddles being played at dances. The musicians? Often men of color. Often enslaved.

Even the future president John Adams wrote about one such get together in colonial Boston.

“Every Room, kitchen, Chamber was crowded with People. Negroes with a fiddle. Young fellows and Girls dancing in the Chamber as if they would kick the floor thro” (John Adams).

And according to Paul F. Wells, former Director of the Center for Popular Music and Associate Professor of Music at Middle Tennessee State University, who researches American folk music, during the colonial era, “black fiddlers once were plentiful.” By the way, the fiddle and the violin are one and the same instrument. It’s in the style of playing that a difference is heard.

This story begins in Africa, where the instrument, also known as the bowed lute, was developed and played as early as the eleventh or twelfth century (DjeDje). Is it any wonder then, that in many slave runaway ads, in addition to a description of the person escaping along with that of their clothes, you read of their carrying off a violin or fiddle or a mention of their knowing how to play one?

Take Toby Hazard for example. You’ve most likely never heard of him but he was one of many enslaved Black fiddlers in New England.

If he had not had the courage to leave his enslaver’s southern Rhode Island plantation, we would not have learned about him. His owner, Robert Stanton, part of a powerful family in that state’s Charlestown, placed at least two very different runaway ads six months apart for Toby’s capture. In each are the words, “He can play on a Violin, and is left Handed” (New-London Summary).

In the first classified ad, from March of 1760 in the New-London Summary newspaper, Stanton describes Toby as a strong young man of mixed race. When he escaped, this long haired twenty five year old was wearing a brownish fly coat, a type of jacket popular before the American Revolution (Baker 105). It fell about halfway to the knees of his five foot eight frame and he fastened it with big white buttons. Inside the coat he had on a similarly colored plain jacket made of a fabric similar to denim, and he secured it with metal buttons. Being a man of his time, he wore short trousers stopping just below his knees followed by black stockings. On the crown of his head he wore a red cap. Afterall, it was mid-March, still winter.

We learn from another runaway ad placed in November that Toby had served in the French and Indian War since his escape, and had not had his freedom stolen from him again. Let’s hope that he maintained that status and continued to play violin. “

[Toby] enlisted in the New-York Provincial Service, in Capt. Wright’s Company, and passed for a free Man; and as the Campaign is now over, he has received his Pay, and absconded, in order as ‘tis supposed to escape by Sea” (New-York Mercury)

Taking to the high seas sounds preferable to working on a Northern plantation where Toby would have been forced to labor without compensation and as a slave either raising cattle, producing cheese or possibly raising Narragansett Pacers horses, popular in plantations in the West Indies as well, where they were often sold (Rhode Island).

Another musician, Sye, nearly six feet tall, escaped in an old felt hat and was wearing a striped linen shirt, and a pair of mixed fabric trousers, while carrying a violin. Although not able to see out of his right eye, “he plays [it] very well” according to his Colchester, Connecticut, enslaver (Connecticut Courant).

Many town histories written after the first American centennial mention a favored Black fiddler. In Durham, Connecticut, there was Sawny Freeman.“

[Sawny Freeman] accompanied his violin with a sort of organ, which he played with his foot. It was somewhat, in its effect, like the Aeolian attachment to the piano. It added greatly to the volume of the music. At this ball besides contra dances they had jigs and reels (Fowler).

In Marblehead there was Joseph Brown.

“When darkness prevented the enjoyment of outdoor games, the floors of the house were sanded and everybody went in for a reel and a jig. Then Black Joe took up his fiddle and, sawing away, played the only tune he knew, until late into the night, keeping a constant accompaniment with his foot” (Roads).

Solomon Northup, although not a New Englander, may have summed up the sentiment of many enslaved musicians, when he reflected on the time spent after being sold into slavery.

“I was indebted to my violin, my constant companion, the source of profit, and soother of my sorrows during years of servitude (Northup 197).”

If it’s good enough for Harvard, it’s good enough for Toby Hazard. Incoming students and tourists alike pay homage to the statue of John Harvard, a founder of the famous university. However, any portraits of John burned in a fire in 1764. So who is it sitting eternally in Harvard Yard? A relative of the fourth president of the college sat for the sculptor. No relation, putting John and Toby on equal footing, so to speak, since the only portrait we have of Toby is the written description of him by his enslaver. Therefore, for your consideration, I present to you a portrait of another left handed violinist, unnamed, from the middle 19th century titled, “Right and Left,” by William Sydney Mount, at the Long Island Museum of American Art, History & Carriages.

Susan Elliott

Independent Researcher


Baker, William Henry. A Dictionary of Men’s Wear. 1908, Cleveland.…/dictionaryofmens00bake.pdf Accessed 4 Jan 2022.

Connecticut Courant, no. 595, 17 June 1776, p. [4]. Readex: America’s Historical Newspapers, Accessed 1 Jan. 2022.

DjeDje, Fiddling in West Africa (1950s–1990s): The CD Recording; DjeDje, Fiddling in West Africa: Touching the Spirit; DjeDje, Fiddling in West Africa (1950s–1990s): The Songbook (Los Angeles: UCLA Ethnomusicology Publications, 2008).]

Fowler, William Chauncey. History of Durham, Connecticut. Wiley, Waterman and Eaton, 1866, Hartford.

John Adams diary 5, 26 May – 25 November 1760 [electronic edition]. Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive. Massachusetts Historical Society.

New-London Summary, no. 92, 9 May 1760, p. [4]. Readex: America’s Historical Newspapers, Accessed 2 Jan. 2022.

New-York Mercury, no. 432, 24 Nov. 1760, p. [1]. Readex: America’s Historical Newspapers, Accessed 2 Jan. 2022.

Northup, Solomon. Twelve years a slave. Narrative of Solomon Northup, a citizen of New-York, kidnapped in Washington city in 1841, and rescued in 1853, from a cotton plantation near the Red River in Louisiana. C. M. Saxton, 1859, New York. I learned of this quote from Philip A. Jamison in his article, “Square Dance Calling: The African-American Connection.” Journal of Appalachian Studies, vol. 9, no. 2, 2003, pp. 387–398. JSTOR, Accessed 14 Nov. 2020.

Rhode Island Historical Preservation Commission. Historic and Agricultural Resources of Charlestown, Rhode Island: A Preliminary Report. June 1981.…/survey_pdfs/charlestown.pdf

Roads, Samuel III. The History and Traditions of Marblehead. N. Allen Lindsey & Co, 1897, Marblehead, MA.…/historytradition…/page/n5/mode/2up I became reacquainted with Brown’s story from an article by Paul C. Wells. “Fiddling as an Avenue of Black-White Musical Interchange.” Black Music Research Journal, Vol. 23, No. 1/2. (Spring – Autumn, 2003), pp. 135-147.…

Wells, Paul F. “Fiddling as an Avenue of Black-White Musical Interchange.” Black Music Research Journal, Vol. 23, No. 1/2. (Spring – Autumn, 2003), pp. 135-147.…————

ILLUSTRATION: Mount, William Sidney. Left and Right. 1850.

1 Comment

  1. I am a violinist too. i never knew about black violinists. it hurts my heart. i discovered a slave named “Phillis” owned by one of my ancestors in Grafton, MA. It appears Phillis and the children of her master were all baptized on the same day at a local church. This makes me wonder about her true paternity. i would love to learn more about her and include her in my family history.

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