Video of virtual talk from February 15, 2022. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-GULm_6pTFM
In 1953, two people from different worlds met in Ken-Gar. Will Adams was an elderly African American man from Ken-Gar, a predominantly Black neighborhood wedged between Kensington and Garrett Park in Montgomery County, Maryland. Mike Seeger was a young White man from upscale Chevy Chase, the son of two prominent music scholars. His older half-brother was Pete Seeger, the famous folk singer and banjo player. Mike Seeger made field recordings of Will Adams playing the fiddle, and old-time music history was made.
I wanted to know more about Adams, where he came from, and how he might have learned his music. While doing this research, I realized that his ancestry offers a glimpse into African American life in Montgomery County from the final years of slavery into the mid-twentieth century. In addition, the musical legacies of both men – Will Adams and Mike Seeger – live on to this day.
About the Recording Session
When nineteen-year-old Mike Seeger recorded Will Adams, it was the first of many field recordings he would make throughout his lifetime. He went on to be a prolific collector and performer of folk music, was a founding member of the New Lost City Ramblers, and in his later years started a mountain music and dance festival near his home in Lexington, Virginia.
Here’s the story of how Mike Seeger found himself in Ken-Gar, recording Will Adams. Much of this information can be found in the liner notes of the album, “Close to Home,” which features a cut of Will Adams playing “Tie Your Dog Sally Gal.” Other details of the story came from notes written by Mike that were shared with me by other old-time musicians.
One day, in late 1952, Mike Seeger went to Meadowbrook Stables in Rock Creek Park. While he waited for a friend to finish cleaning out a stable, he sat and played his banjo. At the time, he was just learning to play and carried it with him everywhere. He attracted the attention of an African American stable hand named Sam, who said he knew how to play the banjo. Mike handed over his instrument to Sam and listened to him play. Even though Sam was out of practice, Mike was impressed with his solid clawhammer style of playing. When he asked Sam if he could record him, Sam agreed and told Mike he could be found in Ken-Gar, a neighborhood in Kensington.
Mike Seeger showed up in Ken-Gar in early 1953 with a reel-to-reel tape recorder. He described it as “a very bulky Magnecord (in a nice mahogany cabinet) and an even heavier playback unit.” Mike Seeger didn’t know where Sam lived, so he went to a small store on Bonnycastle Avenue and asked where he could be found. No one could tell him, but they said there was a Will Adams who used to play with him back in the old days. Mike went to his house and convinced him to play some fiddle tunes and have them recorded. Will Adams said he hadn’t played in about 25 years, and didn’t own a fiddle any more. Mike happened to have a fiddle with him and handed it over to Adams.
Over a number of visits, Mike recorded him playing dozens of tunes. He had a varied repertoire of fiddle tunes including old-time square dance tunes, waltzes, rags, and Irish jigs. Mike thought some of his less familiar tunes might have been from a regional musical tradition. “Tie Your Dog, Sally Gal,” is one for which neither Mike Seeger nor any other folklorist has ever found an earlier source. It was unique to Will Adams, as far as anyone knows, and it might have been lost forever if Mike hadn’t recorded it.
Will Adams had a strong sense of rhythm, important for playing for dances. He didn’t just play the straight melody; he added variations. He often used double stops, which means he bowed two strings at the same time, creating a chord. Sometimes he’d play the melody in an upper register and other times in a lower one.
What’s most amazing about this session is that Will Adams was able to recall and play so many tunes, forty in all, after years of neglecting his music. Mike knew he’d only captured part of Adams’ repertoire, and over the years regretted not going back to collect more.
When Mike Seeger came to Ken-Gar, Will Adams lived at the western end of Hampden Street behind Lee African Methodist Episcopal Church. Here’s how his family came to be in Ken-Gar. Most of the information in this section was found in a history of Ken-Gar1 held by the Kensington Historical Society.
Ken-Gar was established in 1892 by Henry N. Copp who owned the land and had it surveyed in 1893. It was divided into seven blocks, with 97 lots. It was called Ken-Gar because it was located between Kensington and Garrett Park.
Although Ken-Gar eventually became a Black neighborhood, it wasn’t until 1903 that the first lot was sold to an African American. Lot 7 in Block 3 was sold to the trustees of Lee A.M.E. Church. One of the trustees, Reverend John Nelson Still, bought all the other lots in Block 3. The church drew several African American families to the area. When the church transferred Rev. Still out of Montgomery County in 1909, he sold his lots to both Whites and Blacks.
One of these buyers was William Adams Sr., Will Adams’ father, who bought 2 lots behind Lee A.M.E. Church. Several years later, another church was established in Ken-Gar. Some of the people who moved to Ken-Gar were Baptist, including William Sr. At first, Baptists met in private homes. The First Baptist Church of Ken-Gar was built in 1921 on Lot 22 of Block 2. Ken-Gar, anchored by its two churches, became the kind of place where African Americans who moved to the Washington, D.C. area could get their start.
In the early years of Ken-Gar’s existence, residents tended gardens and raised pigs and chickens, lending a rural feel to the neighborhood. I suspect that is why William Sr. bought two lots. In the 1949 map above, you can see that only one of his two lots has a house on it. From about 1905 to 1921, the entire Block 5 of Ken-Gar was a farm.
The main avenue in Ken-Gar was called Bonnycastle Avenue, which is now known as Plyers Mill Road. Bonnycastle ran along the north side of the B&O train tracks, continued west out of Ken-Gar and ended up in Garrett Park. In the early 1920s, Knowles Avenue was built on the south side of the tracks. It connected with Strathmore Avenue in Garrett Park. Bonnycastle Avenue west of Ken-Gar fell into disuse and eventually the old Garrett Park Road was abandoned.
Homes in Ken-Gar in the first half of the 20th century were shacks or houses of wood construction with no running water. People got their water from wells or a public pump and used outdoor privies. The streets were unpaved.
Absentee landlords bought lots, built houses, and rented them. After the stock market crash in 1929, many residents who had been home owners couldn’t keep up with their mortgage payments, and lost their homes. Those who stayed in Ken-Gar turned to rental housing.
Ken-Gar’s isolation made this community feel like a small rural town to Mike Seeger when he visited in 1953. It also made it easy for the government to overlook the needs of this African American enclave. There was a significant problem with absentee landlords who let their properties become run-down. People who owned their homes in Ken-Gar could make improvements, such as adding bathrooms. Tenants of the rental properties were at the mercy of their landlords, who might choose to ignore their pleas for repairs and basic amenities. Complaints to the county often went ignored.
Some of Ken-Gar’s White neighbors advocated for improvements to the community and pitched in to help in the areas of education and health care.
Due to segregation, Ken-Gar had its own school. When segregation of public schools ended in the 1950s, the inadequacies of the education students had received in Ken-Gar became apparent. Mrs. Carla Eugster started a tutoring service in 1958 called Home Study, Inc. to help students from Ken-Gar catch up to their peers in the integrated schools.
Two local doctors, Herman Meyersburg and George Cohen, started a free medical clinic called Mobile Medical Care, Inc. to address the community’s medical needs. The doctors met with patients in the basement of the First Baptist Church of Ken-Gar.
It wasn’t until the 1960s that the county required landlords to provide bathrooms in their houses. Ken-Gar didn’t get trash removal until 1961 and it was the 1970s before it got sewer service. Also in the 1970s, the last of the dirt roads in Ken-Gar were paved and given sidewalks and street lights.
There were also incidents of harassment by local Whites. They would drive through Ken-Gar – according to one local, three or four times a week – and shout racial epithets. In 1972, a carload of teenagers drove into the neighborhood. They hurled insults and firecrackers at a small group of Ken-Gar residents gathered in the street. The teens, unaware that Plyers Mill Road came to a dead end, were forced to turn around and drive past the same group, who were now angry. In the end, one of the teenagers was shot and killed by a Ken-Gar resident who, it is said, thought the fireworks were gunfire. He claimed that he was only firing warning shots into the ground. The shooter was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to ten years in prison, but he was paroled after serving two years.2
Authur George Pelecanos wrote a fictionalized version of these events in his novel The Turnaround. Although the neighborhood has a different name in the book, it’s based on Ken-Gar. It’s a compelling story about the kinds of abuse Ken-Gar residents had to endure.
Will Adams’ Ancestry
Will Adams was 28 years old when his parents bought their home in Ken-Gar. He had married and divorced his first wife, Mary (with whom he had three sons), and was about to marry his second wife, Maggie.
Will and Maggie Adams had five children. She died in June 1918, shortly before he filled out his World War I draft card in September. It gives his address as Kensington.
Will Adams was counted in the 1920 census living close to his parents’ home in Ken-Gar with his third wife, Florence. Since I wasn’t able to find evidence that Will ever bought a home there, I presume that he lived in one of the rental houses. Later, after his mother’s death in 1936, he moved into the house on Hampden Street.
Will Adams made his living as a laborer, working on farms and doing odd jobs. On his WWII draft card, he said he was employed by William A. Wagner, who owned a plumbing company in Kensington that is still around today. Not much more than that is known about Adams’ life. Today, the few people I found who recognized his name were unaware of his past as a fiddler. I turned to genealogy to learn about his family history.
Will Adams’ Ancestry
Before I go on, I’d like to clarify the names I’ll be using. In Mike Seeger’s notes, he calls the fiddler of Ken-Gar “Will Adam,” which is incorrect. His surname was “Adams.”
- William Winfield Adams, Jr. (1881-1959) = “Will Adams” (the fiddler)
- William Adams, Sr. (1849-1928) = “William Sr.”
- William Adams (1811-?) = “Grandfather William”
William Sr. was born in 1849 a free person of color, the son of William and Rachel Adams. According to the 1850 census, when William Sr. was one year old, his family lived in the Howard district of Anne Arundel County, which later became Howard County.
In the 1860 census, Grandfather William was living alone in Sandy Spring. It appears that Rachel Adams had died before 1860. William Sr. was living with another family nearby.
In the 1870 census, there is no sign of Grandfather William and it appears that he too has died. William Sr., at 21, was a boarder in someone else’s home and working as a farm laborer.
According to Will Adams’ death certificate, he was born in Maryland in 1881. Because his father and grandfather both lived there, Sandy Spring is likely to be the place where Will Adams spent his early years. There was a small village of African Americans in Sandy Spring which was formed when local Quakers freed their slaves in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. On an 1865 map, you can see that several land owners in the area were people of color, indicated by (Cold) after their names.
According to the 1880 U.S. Census, William Sr. was a boarder in the home of Caroline Hood. She lived in the Berry District of Montgomery County, which was the Eastern portion of the county roughly from Silver Spring and all the way north to Sandy Spring. Given that Will Adams was born in 1881, it’s likely that William Sr. and Caroline Hood married soon after the census was taken.
Caroline Adams’ death certificate named John and Susan Hood as her parents. It also said that she was born in Norbeck in 1853. Since I couldn’t find this family in the 1850 and 1860 censuses, I assumed that they were enslaved at the time. I turned to the Montgomery County Slave Statistics 3 to look for them.
Slave census, 1867-1868, Montgomery County, Maryland.
In 1867, the Maryland Assembly passed a law to gather information on slave holders and the slaves they held at the point at which slavery was abolished in Maryland on November 1, 1864. Former slave holders felt they were owed something for the state having stayed loyal to the Union. They wanted to use the statistics to petition the federal government for compensation for their slaves who had served in the Union Army. The Governor appointed a Commissioner of Slave Statistics in each county and the city of Baltimore.
The federal government never compensated the slave holders. Nevertheless, the slave statistics remain an important piece of documentation about slavery in Maryland in 1864. Enslaved people were generally not named in the U.S. Censuses. Having a document that lists by whom they were enslaved, their names, ages, sex, physical condition, and term of servitude is a remarkable resource for historians and genealogists.
According to her death certificate, Caroline Hood Adams (Will Adams’ mother) was born in Norbeck to John and Susan Hood. In the slave statistics, I found John and Susan Hood being held in 1864 by Jane Adamson, who owned a farm adjacent to Muncaster’s Mill in Norbeck.
In the 1865 map below, the road marked with hash marks is the Washington and Brookeville Turnpike, now known as Georgia Avenue. Going north out of Wheaton, you would take a left on Norbeck Road and then the next right onto Muncaster Mill Road. Just to the west of Muncasters Mill is the property owned by the Adamson family.
It seems likely that Caroline Hood was born into slavery at the Adamson farm. The Susan Hood in the slave statistics would have been 39 at the time of her birth. I couldn’t find Susan Hood in the 1870 census, so perhaps she died before then.
John Hood was 25 years younger than Susan, and would have been 14 when Caroline was born. I found census records for a John Hood in Montgomery County who was born around 1835, and it seems likely that he is Caroline’s father. He would have been 18 when she was born. I think he’s the same John Hood in the slave statistics. The age is close enough and there was some fluctuation in his year of birth across the various censuses. He died in Rockville in 1911.
Based on what I found in the slave statistics, I think that I have located where Caroline was probably born. Although I didn’t find her with her parents in the statistics, it might have been because she was sold to someone else, separating her from them. Sadly, having one’s family ripped apart like that was a trauma that happened all too frequently to enslaved African Americans.
To do this research, I didn’t have to go to the Maryland State Archives and look at the original slave statistics. That information and more has been compiled and is searchable through the Legacy of Slavery in Maryland website. It includes a database of names you can search. There are also case studies put together from runaway ads, court documents, census data, and published material on an individual. In addition, the library at Montgomery History has a transcription and index4 to the slave statistics that is helpful in navigating the data.
But I wanted to see the original for myself, as a way to bear witness to how prevalent slavery was throughout Montgomery County. The history I had learned as a child led me to believe that slavery only happened in the deep South. Looking at an actual ledger, written in careful 19th century penmanship, I could see concrete proof of the extent of slavery in Montgomery County. As I recognized many prominent names among the slaveholders, it also helped me grasp how much of the county’s progress was built on the backs of enslaved laborers.
How Did Will Adams Learn His Music?
Getting back to Will Adams, I wondered – Where did he learn to play the fiddle? Mike Seeger’s notes indicate he played in Sandy Spring with Joe Lee and also with Sam the banjo player, whom Mike never found.
Here’s how Will Adams introduced one of his tunes: “Getting Up Cows,’ that’s what it’s called, ‘Getting Up Cows.’ An old fella played that. Man, he was a cracker-jack old fiddler, though, I don’t believe he could beat me… an old man, he was.” Clearly, there was an earlier generation of old-time musicians from whom Will Adams could have learned.
Where Did Will Adams Play His Music?
Will Adams told Mike that he played for both white and black audiences. He likely played for private parties, country dances, or community events around Sandy Spring, Norbeck, and elsewhere around the county. I found a society item in a 1932 issue of the Montgomery County Sentinel for a party thrown by white family in Glen Echo for their seventeen-year-old daughter. The guests “danced to the music of several colored fiddlers.”5 One of them could have been Will Adams.
It’s possible that he played at a local tavern like the Du-Drop Inn in Emory Grove near Gaithersburg, another African American community. One of the tunes Will played for Mike Seeger was “Wild Horse at Stoney Point.” After the tune ends, he says, “I heard a fellow play it one time at a beer joint.”
It will probably remain a mystery exactly where Will Adams played his music. But the strength of his playing and the extent of his repertoire as we know it tells me that he must have played a great deal and that there had to be many other old-time players in Montgomery County with whom he played and traded tunes.
Tie Your Dog, Sally Gal
I first heard about Will Adams back in 1988, when I heard a band called The Hellbenders, play “Tie Your Dog, Sally Gal.” On their album, they called it “Tight Old Sally Gal,” which was what they heard on the tape where Will Adams says the name of the tune.
Where did they learn this tune? The band was based in Lexington, Virginia, where Mike Seeger lived from about 1982 until his death in 2009. He shared his recordings of the sessions with Will Adams with a member of the band. It appears that more copies of Mike’s recordings were made and passed around the old-time music community over the years, and that’s why several of Will Adams’ fiddle tunes are still played today.
Here are some fine examples of contemporary old-time musicians playing some of Will Adam’s tunes.
As far as I know, Will Adams never picked up the fiddle again after Mike Seeger recorded him. He died six years later in 1959 and was buried at Ash Memorial Cemetery in Sandy Spring.
William Adams, Sr. and Caroline Hood Adams are buried at Mount Pleasant Methodist Church Cemetery in Norbeck. The exact location of their graves is unknown.
The house where Will Adams lived when Mike Seeger recorded him was sold in 1966 to a developer who tore it down to build an apartment building on the site.
Ken-Gar in the present
Ken-Gar today is more diverse than it was in 1953. People who live there are proud of its history, and in 2017 they celebrated the 125th anniversary of its establishment.
In 2020, the railroad bridge that connects Ken-Gar with the rest of Kensington was painted with a mural that honors Ken-Gar. The theme, “Hold Your Light,” is based on a spiritual called, “Christian Hold Your Light.” It is adorned with images of buildings in Ken-Gar – the two churches, the old school, and houses. The artist is Nicole Bourgea, who has painted other public murals around Montgomery County.
Mike Seeger’s Legacy
Mike Seeger’s legacy goes beyond his field recording with Will Adams in Ken-Gar. He went on to record many folk musicians, including Elizabeth Cotton, Lead Belly, Lester Flatt, Doc Watson, and many more. He was a founding member of the New Lost City Ramblers, a seminal band of the folk music revival of the 1950s and 1960s. In the mid-1980s, he started the Rockbridge Mountain Music and Dance Festival in Buena Vista, Virginia, near his Lexington home. He created a festival where people can come together every year and share their love for old-time music and dance. I attended it almost every year until the pandemic.
I took these photos of Mike at the Rockbridge festival in 2001, when the old-time music community put on a tribute to his life’s work. It happened to be four days after the September 11 tragedy. It was better timing than you might think. We all needed a reason to celebrate something around that time. The tribute to Mike was fitting, given his contributions to folk music and dance. It also helped us ground ourselves in our common love of traditional music and dance, during a time of national sorrow.
Mike Seeger left his papers, field recordings, and other material with the Southern Folklife Collection at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. The recordings he made of Will Adams have been digitized and are available online. If you search their collection, you may need to use Mike’s misspelling of his name as “Will Adam” in order to find them. There are two reels. Side 1 begins with three tunes by Will Adams, followed by other musicians. Side 2 is entirely Will Adams.
If you want to know more about Mike Seeger, here is a website about him and his music.
Jake Blount is a fiddler and ethnomusicologist who has studied Will Adams and plays some of his tunes. His website features links to Black string band music resources.
Kristina Gaddy, “William Adams and the Sounds of KenGar,” June 16, 2020, https://www.kristinagaddy.com/blog/william-adams-kengar.
I would like to thank: Montgomery History, the Sandy Spring Slave Museum, Kensington Historical Society, Peerless Rockville, Ralph Buglass, Chiquita Sorrels, Louise Waldron, Natalie Thomas, Mary Buckingham, and my husband, Bob Cantor.
- A History of Ken Gar by Munro P. Meyersburg, ca. 1978
- Joe Magruder, “Ken-Gar: Tiny black community makes progress, but slowly,” Montgomery County Sentinel, March 25, 1976.
- George Patterson, Commissioner of Slave Statistics, Montgomery County, Record of Slaves in Montgomery County, Maryland at the Time of the Adoption of the Constitution in 1864, dated 1868.
- Jane C. Sween, transcriber, Record of Slaves in Montgomery County, Maryland at the Time of the Adoption of the Constitution in 1864, dated 1989.
- Montgomery Sentinel, Friday, August 19, 1932, Page Three.