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.
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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.
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.
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.
Little is known of Blake's life. Promotional materials from Paramount Records indicate he was born blind and give his birthplace as Jacksonville, Florida, and it seems that he lived there during various periods. He seems to have had relatives in Patterson, Georgia. Some authors have written that in one recording he slipped into a Geechee or Gullah dialect, suggesting a connection with the Sea Islands. Blind Willie McTell indicated that Blake's real name was Arthur Phelps, but later research has shown this is unlikely to be correct.