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Spreading good cheer

Ebony Hillbillies serenade New York commuters from Grand Central to Times Square.

December 25, 2007|Paul Lieberman | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — When you play one of the busiest spots in one of the world's busiest cities, what you mostly get -- it's a fact of life in this gig -- is people passing by, whizzing by, rushing to make connections.

The Ebony Hillbillies perform underground two mornings a week by the S train, the shuttle between Times Square and Grand Central Station. An average of 172,873 people a day enter the New York subway system through the Times Square station, and that doesn't count the hordes that swipe through the turnstiles elsewhere, up and down the West Side, then make their way here to catch the shuttle under 42nd Street to Grand Central so they can hook up with commuter trains to the suburbs or the subways that run along Manhattan's fashionable East Side. All in all, tens of thousands take the short underground shuttle each weekday.

Perhaps that's why none of the Ebony Hillbillies was sure who "Kristy" was, the woman who dropped the card in Henrique Prince's violin case during their last subway gig before Christmas.

Prince is by far the youngest of the group at 59 but the leader, "the kid with the big idea." His idea was to form a 19th century-style string band to do music African Americans used to perform and dance to before they found the blues and jazz and the other stuff became associated with grizzled mountain white guys -- what they called "old-timey" music in that George Clooney movie a few years back, "O Brother, Where Art Thou." Prince and his original banjo player came up with the name Ebony Hillbillies a decade ago, but the other fellow has since moved on and been replaced by Norris, "just Norris," who worked the streets of Europe for years and taught school in Berkeley. Norris, who uses a bright blue cane when he walks, won't give his age, but says his five-string banjo is 82. He plays the mountain dulcimer too and the auto-harp and provides vocals. A black cowboy hat on his head, Norris sits front left when the group sets up for its regular Friday morning spot, on the Grand Central side of the shuttle. Standing next to him is Prince, who once played in a classical string quartet but preferred the improvisation he learned from his family of Virgin Island musicians. He's the only one without a hat, better to let his dreadlocks fly free while he fiddles.

Behind him is "A.R.," who at 67 spends some of his time as a real cowboy in Arizona, teaches city kids horsemanship as part of the Federation of Black Cowboys and has a long resume as a jazz drummer. When he decided to try traditional music, a veteran known as "Carolina Slim" taught him to play the washboard with a shotgun shell. A.R. too wears a black cowboy hat and a suede coat with fringe.

The most recent addition is 71-year-old bass player Bill Salter, who stands behind Norris in gray overalls and a soft conductor's cap, vintage hayseed get-up. In fact, Salter was born in Harlem Hospital, began playing classical bass in junior high, then gravitated to electrical bass as music plugged in in the '60s. It's a fair bet that no one in the passing throngs could guess this subway musician's pedigree -- his years touring with Miriam Makeba and Harry Belafonte and the hits he wrote with a partner for Bill Withers ("Just the Two of Us") and Roberta Flack ("Where Is the Love"). Salter has a couple of Grammy Awards at home too but calls this "a gas," standing down in the subway and slapping his knee like a country lad as the Ebony Hillbillies launch into such Stephen Foster standards as "Camptown Races" and "Hard Times" and a wistful "Shenandoah."

The shuttles have only three cars, but hundreds of commuters cram in them and they shoot out at full speed, mostly bursting past the musicians playing at the end of the track. On this morning, a man in a business suit and green ski cap is followed by one in a blue turban and foot-long beard, then a gent in a black Russian hat reading a thick paperback as he strides.

A yellow amplifier carries Norris' voice just over the din, "Sometimes I feel like a motherless child / A long way from home . . ." but if three of 300 people rushing off the train pause to listen, that's a lot. Nonetheless, more than a few, without breaking stride, drop bills in his case or Prince's.

Then as soon as that crowd sweeps by, the bodies start in the other direction, hurrying onto the just-emptied cars, heading for Times Square. This throng includes a man with a camel-hair coat and an earflap hat, a 300-pounder with a shaved head and a fresh-faced college girl in a red "Prayer Changes Things" pullover who is saying a blessing while escorting a commuter to the train, her left hand on his shoulder.

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