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Episode 8 (African-American string band, fiddle & banjo traditions)

Episode 8 (African-American string band, fiddle & banjo traditions)

This week we hear some powerful string band music from white Appalachian performers including the legendary Camp Creek Boys, Tommy Jarrell, and the Buckstankle Boys.  But that leaves us with the question of where African-Americans, who brought the idea of the banjo to America and learned tunes on the European fiddle, fit into the old time and bluegrass music story.  Music historian Bob Carlin joins host Paul Brown for an illuminating conversation supported by plenty of music. Hear 1940s field recordings of black string band musicians made in Tennessee – including on the streets of Nashville. Then follow the story to a more recent chapter, with the discovery by folklorists in the 1970s of the Thompson family of North Carolina, some of the last traditional African-American old time fiddle and banjo players carrying on a family tradition.  We hear a song from the Carolina Chocolate Drops too, a contemporary African-American band inspired in part by fiddler Joe Thompson and the music he shared with them before his death at age 93 in 2012.  The past comes alive, the present and future are on view and in our ears, on Across the Blue Ridge.

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Episode 8 Playlist

  1. Paddy On The Turnpike – Esker Hutchins & The Surry County Ramblers
    Album – FRC Esker Hutchins
  2. Let Me Fall – Camp Creek Boys  
    Album – Camp Creek Boys
  3. Poor Ellen Smith – The Buckstankle Boys 
    Album – Round Peak Home
  4. Sally Ann – The Hillbillies  
    Album – The Hillbillies Vol. 2
  5. June Apple – Tommy Jarrell   
    Album – June Apple
  6. BREAK 1 Molly Put the Kettle On – Joe Thompson 
    Album – Family Tradition 
  7. Old Corn Liquor – Joe Thompson
    Album – Family Tradition
  8. Eighth of January – Frazier & Patterson
    Album – Altamont
  9. Altamont – Gribble, Lusk & York
    Album – Altamont 
  10. Po Black Sheep – Frazier & Patterson
    Album – Altamont
  11. Rolling River – Gribble, Lusk & York
    Album – Altamont
  12. Black Eyed Daisey – Joe & Odell Thompson
    Album – Family Tradition
  13. BREAK 2  Twin Sisters – Sidna Myers
    Album – Clawhammer Banjo Vol. 1
  14. Little Brown Jug – Joe & Odell Thompson
    Album – Black Banjo Songsters of North Carolina & Virginia
  15. Soldier’s Joy – Joe Thompson
    Album – Family Tradition 
  16. Sandy Boys – Carolina Chocolate Drops
    Album – Genuine Negro Jig
  17. Goin’ Downtown – Joe Thompson
    Album – Family Tradition

 

11 Important Black Folk Music Artists

 Carolina Chocolate Drops

Black artists have played an enormous part in moving forward the history of American folk music, from the slave spirituals to early field recordings, songs of the civil rights and feminist movements, story songs, gospel songs, protest songs, and beyond. These artists have influenced and inspired generations of folk music artists and songwriters. So, in the spirit of celebrating black history, here's a look at some of the most notable African-American artists in American folk music (listed in alphabetical order).

  1. Harry Belafonte
  2. Blind Boys Of Alabama
  3. Carolina Chocolate Drops
  4. Elizabeth Cotten
  5. Richie Havens
  6. Keb Mo
  7. Leadbelly
  8. Ma Rainey
  9. Odetta
  10. Toshi Reagon
  11. Sweet Honey in the Rock

 

 

James Allen Bland

James Alan Bland (October 22, 1854 – May 5, 1911), also known as Jimmy Bland, was an African-American musician and song writer.

Bland was one of 8 children born in Flushing, New York to a free family. His father was one of the first U. S. Negro college graduates (Oberlin College, 1845). Beginning with an eight-dollar banjo purchased by his father, he was performing professionally by age 14.

Bland was educated in Washington, DC and graduated from Howard University in 1873. He wrote over 700 songs, including "In the Morning in the Bright Light" (1879), "In the Evening by the Moonlight" (1879), "Oh! Dem Golden Slippers" (1879) (the theme song for the long-running Philadelphia Mummers Parade), "Hand Me Down My Walking Cane" (1880) and "De Golden Wedding" (1880). His best-known song is "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny" (1878), which, in a slightly modified form, was the official State Song of Virginia from 1940 to 1997. It was retired and designated "state song emeritus" in the latter year, because of controversy over its racial nature.

Often called "The World's Greatest Minstrel Man", Bland toured the United States, as well as Europe. Bland's earliest recorded minstrel performance was with the Original Black Diamonds of Boston in 1875. Beginning in 1881, he spent 20 years in London before returning to the United States. Bland toured Europe in the early 1880s with Haverly's Genuine Colored Minstrels and remained in England to perform as a singer/banjo player without blackface. Appearing as "The Prince of Negro Songwriters," he was invited to give command performances for Queen Victoria and the Prince of Wales. Music historian Alec Wilder calls Bland the black writer who "broke down the barriers to white music publishers' offices." Bland was one of the most prolific minstrel composers of all time; he is reputed to have written over six hundred songs, though only about fifty were published under his name.

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The Banjo: African Echoes

To the average American, maybe not a musician, maybe just a regular person like you or like me the musical instrument called the banjo brings up certain images to mind.

It might be seen as a primarily “white” instrument or snickers and uncomfortable grins flash as someone intones that musical phrase from the movie Deliverance. Hicks, hillbillies, bluegrass and country music perhaps.

banjo-player

The History of the Banjo

However, the banjo is actually a descendant of African musical instruments, and was created in the American and Caribbean colonies by African slaves and occupied a central place in African American traditional music. It made its way into white music when slaves interacted with white sharecroppers and their music melded.

English Zither-Banjo, c. 1895

“…and their music melded”. That is a very polite phrase. Institutionalized slavery in America “melded” Africans and colonial whites in particularly violent ways. That phrase is also polite. When you have a literal master/slave relationship you must be aware of the dynamics present in any “cultural exchange”. Africans brought their knowledge of their own musical instruments to America and the Caribbean and modified them and created unique versions of them with the different materials at hand. Which were then co-opted by their white masters. Politely speaking.

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Bringing The Banjo From 'Africa To Appalachia'

While typically associated with traditional bluegrass, country and even jazz, the banjo has roots that stretch all the way back to West Africa. Musician Jayme Stone made that journey in search of the ancestors of his own banjo. Along the way, he met kora player Mansa Sissoko. The two have collaborated on a new album called Africa to Appalachia, and recently spoke about their musical partnership from the studios of Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul.

Originally, the banjo traveled across the ocean on slave ships coming from West Africa in the 1600s and 1700s. The instrument was "later passed off to curious 'white folk' like me," Stone says. "Although a few people play some of the crossover styles that happened early on in the new world, [it] didn't seem like there was much knowledge of the music that it came from."

The Banjo's Evolution

Naturally, at that time, the instrument was not the modern-day banjo that most people recognize. Instead, it was more of an early incarnation that evolved over time.

"It's hard to say exactly what it was," Stone says. "More than anything, it was the blueprint of the banjo that traveled over in musicians' minds, and then they built a similar thing with what they had here: dried-out gourds, goat skin, whatever they could find. The instrument changed, and with the advent of metal, it became an African instrument that went through the Industrial Revolution."

The banjo in its current form has frets and employs a short droning string — what banjo players call the fifth string. But in Africa, these early predecessors sometimes used only one string and as many as 21. They have all kinds of names, depending on the region and dialect the people are speaking. Most common are the ngoni, which can have anywhere from three to nine strings; the two-stringed konou; and the one-stringed juru keleni, all found in various parts of Mali. Stone says that Senegal has instruments that are even closer in relation to the modern banjo — especially the akonting.

Sissoko specializes in the kora, a 21-string West African harp made from a calabash — a dried-out gourd also used to play percussion, as well as carry fruits and vegetables from the markets. Stemming out from the calabash, the kora has a long pole with leather straps tied to it that hold the 21 strings, which are made from fishing line. Despite the evolution of the instrument's physical aspects, when played side by side, the banjo and the kora have a very similar sonic quality.

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