Blind Billy was a Lynchburg musician born about 1805 of unknown parentage who was so renowned with his instrument that his death was noted in Lynchburg and Richmond newspapers. The slave of Howell Davies, he eventually gained his freedom. As with many antebellum black musicians, more can be learned about his artistry than his life.
Fifers and drummers played on almost every public occasion. After parades, they would station themselves around town and play all day and into the night. One chronicler described Blind Billy standing on a street corner late into the evening playing "delightful old time music" while those outside stopped to listen and those inside were awakened. Blind Billy and Tom Perkins, a bank clerk and violinist, "would stand in the later hours of the night in front of the bank in which Mr. Perkins was employed, [where] they would send forth melody that would inspire a stoic with cheerfulness."
Blind Billy was typical of fifers in that he played at balls and parties as well as on public occasions. Violin and flute or fife duos, popular at Virginia dance parties of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, moved quickly from the minuet to the reel or jig. Blind Billy, like other antebellum black musicians throughout Virginia and the South, drew from British tunes and African melodic traditions to create an American music immensely popular with all its audiences.
What little is known of Blind Billy's family is inscribed on his tombstone, which reads "Erected by Ann Armistead, in memory of her husband Blind Billy." But Billy's surname remains unknown. Whether slave or free, Ann Armistead might have retained her last name if marrying an enslaved person, and an incorrect death date on the marker suggests that it was placed well after Billy's death. The stone is also adorned with a carving of a broken fife. Blind Billy died of pneumonia on April 19, 1855, and was buried by the overseers of the poor in the Old City Cemetery (also known as the Old Methodist Cemetery) in Lynchburg.
ca. 1805 - Blind Billy is born enslaved. His owner is Howell Davies, of Lynchburg.
April 19, 1855 - Blind Billy, a free African American fifer, dies of pneumonia. He is buried in the Old City Cemetery in Lynchburg.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Tyler-McGraw, M., & the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. Billy or Blind Billy (ca. 1805–1855). (2017, October 16). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Billy_Billy_or_Blind_ca_1805-1855.
- MLA Citation:
Tyler-McGraw, Marie and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "Billy or Blind Billy (ca. 1805–1855)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 16 Oct. 2017. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: March 23, 2017 | Last modified: October 16, 2017