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The Banjo, the 1800s and the Blues

There is a deep connection between the banjo and the blues, but this influence was no doubt exhibited in different ways in different parts of the country. The fiddle and the banjo were the most popular instruments in African American life from practically the earliest forced importation to the early 20th century - a span of almost 250-300 years. There's been interchange between whites and blacks on the banjo from at least the early 1700s, maybe even sooner. So, it's hard to generalize on so sweeping and broad a historical phenomenon. Dena Epstein's "Sinful Tunes and Spirituals" is the best book length treatment of black music in the United States before the Civil War. There's much information here on the banjo.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, there was much more regional variation in performance styles than today, especially in rural areas. Cultural contexts also have had a strong hand in the development of black styles (a very complex issue to deal with here in an email post - but, for as just one example, the ratio of blacks to whites was greater in places like the Delta than in North Carolina, therefore the nature of African American music would be different in these regions). Banjo styles in the Virginia Piedmont were no doubt different than in the Mississippi Delta. Some of this evidence is circumstantial, gathered from the analyses of early 20th century recording-era African American guitar styles. But if you join general historical knowledge to musical knowledge, it's safe to make some assumptions. Folklorist Bruce Bastin has written about this in the introduction to "Red River Blues," his excellent book on the historical development of Piedmont guitar styles. By the way, Charlie Patton's mother was a banjo player!
 

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Why Black Banjo: The Black Banjo List Serve

Why Black Banjo:
The Black Banjo List Serve

By Tony Thomas

I started Black Banjo Then and Now because I thought Black banjoists I kept meeting online needed to get together. As well, we soon found other banjoists and scholars needed a place to discuss the African origin and Black legacy of the Banjo.

We needed a place to express the explosion of African American banjoists including African American Heritage Elder Etta Baker, Taj Mahal, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Guy Davis, Otis Taylor, Sule Greg Wilson, Don Vappie, Dr. Joan, and Rex Ellis, all known in the old-time, blues, classic, and jazz banjo communities. There are others, less famous, we’ve found along the way like Boston civic and cultural leader Dr. Theodore Landsmark, William the Bluegrass picking bailiff on TV’s Texas Justice, Rashunda a former TV anchor from Highpoint, North Carolina now working in Zurich whose online queries got me to launch the Black Banjo Then and Now Group in the first place, elementary school students in Mississippi and Buffalo studying four string banjo, and a young brother in Georgia who wants to play the blues.

I did face bigotry from a small pseudo-redneck element in Banjo L in the month’s before I launched Black Banjo Then and Now.  However, banjo-l’s members and its owner handled them and handled them well. I launched Black Banjo, not out of any negative feelings bout Banjo-L as has become the myth, but because of the positive need to gather the Black banjoists and because of a need to focus the discussions others I met on banjo-l and elsewhere wanted to have about Black banjo playing, then and now.

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The Extimction of the Black Banjo in the United States -- 1900 - 1930

Appalachian Music Fellowship

Final Activity Report

Jim Carrier


My Appalachian Music Fellowship study in June 2009 was in furtherance of developing
a film documentary dealing with the extinction of the Black Banjo that occurred in the
United States during the period 1900-1930.

Background

For three hundred years -- from the arrival of African slaves in Virginia to the dawn of
the 20th Century – the banjo was universally thought of as an African American
instrument. It was common and accepted knowledge, for three centuries, that the banjo
was invented by, played by, and associated with blacks, either directly or through blackfaced
minstrelsy. But over the course of the next half century, the black banjo tradition
virtually disappeared in the U.S. My Music Fellowship supported research was directed
at investigating why this happened.

Work in the Berea Archives

My findings, after a month in the archives, were informed as much by what I didn’t find
as what I did. For reasons that I will explain shortly, the record is largely mute; there is
no smoking gun. But, as in all good archives, clues were found in anecdotes, footnotes
and glimpses of the wider historical tableau on which this story played. By casting a
wider net through Berea College’s library, faculty, various online resources, and sources
and interviews suggested by the archive staff, I was able to sketch a conclusion. It is this:
Black banjo playing, and our knowledge of black banjo history, all but disappeared
because of a sequence of cultural and racial “filters.” Beginning with the arrival of slaves
on American shores and accelerating with the rise of mass media, these filters gradually
silenced the sound and memory of the black banjo. The final extinction, I discovered at
Berea, occurred in just 30 years, from 1900 to 1930. By the 1940s, Americans assumed
that the banjo originated with white Appalachians.

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Otis Taylor – Recapturing The Banjo

Students and fans of bluegrass and old time music, and a great many people with an interest in American folk music, know of the African roots of our beloved banjo. Academics and ethnomusicologists have written extensively on the topic, but the instrument has had precious few practitioners among black Americans in recent history.
 
Events like Tony Thomas’ Black Banjo Gathering have worked to reclaim it’s African heritage – and explain it to younger American blacks – while the tremendous popularity of the Carolina Chocolate Drops has presented black banjo music to festival and concert audiences worldwide.
 
Now, we have the latest release from blues artist Otis Taylor, entitled Recapturing The Banjo, which is a move in just that direction. Due on February 5 from Telarc Records, the CD features not only Taylor, but other black banjoists Guy Davis, Corey Harris, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Keb’ Mo’ and Don Vappie as well.
 
 
 

The Reunion Band

The Reunion Band

Here is a rare occasion for me to share information on a bluegrass band that has an African American Member.  It is The Reunion Band out of Boston.  Here is the info from their home page reunionbluegrass.com.  Their "token" African American member in Richard Brown who plays mandolin.

Known for its tight vocal harmonies and solid traditional bluegrass sound, the Reunion Band features veteran Boston-area musicians Richard Brown (mandolin), Dave Dillon (rhythm guitar), Margaret Gerteis (acoustic bass), Laura Orshaw (fiddle) and most recently BB Bowness (banjo) . The band, which has been around since 2002, takes its name from the fact that its members have played together off and on and in various configurations for over 30 years.

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