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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.

Read More

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.

Charley Pride's Big, Black, Country Cojones

Charley Pride
White Man's Blues
 
In the world of musical entertainment many artists sometimes find a love of a musical type outside their cultural sphere. 
 
White rappers (jokes in the music industry, for the most part) have managed to carve out a niche by usurping, emulating, and co-opting “black” culture in their “music”.  Such artists, however, are tolerated (if not embraced) in that world and many of them (Beastie Boys or Eminem, for example) sell millions of dollars’ worth of product.
 
The world of rock ’n’ roll was an open door for race relations almost from inception.  Black musicians and vocalists cozied up to white recording artists at the top of sales’ charts in the form’s earliest years.  [Although some artists’ recordings, such as those by Little Richard, were considered too “racy” by white bread America and were ripped off and re-recorded, notoriously by Dot Records, by “safe” WASPs.  Pat Boone’s toned-down rendition of the rollicking “Tutti Frutti” stands as a hilarious monument to such sanitizing.  Even Fats Domino came in for the Dot Records treatment with Boone’s version of “Blueberry Hill”.]
 
Country music, stemming from its earlier recordings known as “hillbilly”, was not (and is not) a racially integrated music, although historically blacks have played major roles in its evolution.  The artists and fans were not known as racially sensitive or particularly enlightened in matters of race relations; in many proven cases (as in Country records clearly using slanderous racial epithets) there was not only intolerance of African-Americans but downright hostility toward them. 
 
Bizarrely, a lone black man in America (to date, the only one of significance) decided early in his career to buck the system.  His love of the easy, laid-back twangy stylings of hillbilly music led that African-American man, against great odds and possible danger to his life, to embrace and insert himself into a culture that not only distrusted blacks in America but also hated them. 
 
Charley Pride (who early in his career could not even put his picture on his singles’ sleeves or LP jackets over concerns of a racist backlash) not only gained acceptance within the hostile racism of Country music and its fans but he was successful, selling over 70 million records and having many hits.  To date, however, he is the only black superstar Country music has ever produced.
 

 

Twang Is Not a Color

The Armstrong Brothers String Band
Where are African-Americans in Today’s Country Music?
By: Laurie Paulik
 
They giggled and reached out, trying to touch the big, shiny buckle. The hat too. For sure, they'd never seen anyone like him before. But there he was, one of their own, singing that hillbilly stuff and looking like he rode into town on Trigger.Carl Ray
 
They were only children but society's prejudices had already seeped in and stolen something from them. Brothers didn't dress like cowboys and they didn't sound like that.
 
"I just love country music and I'm sharing country music," said aspiring black recording artist Carl Ray. "I'm part of the process of change. It's almost like a Martin Luther King movement without the crowds."
 
But what's to change? After all, Charley Pride broke the racial barrier long ago, didn't he?
 
From 1966 to 1989, the hits never stopped. Twenty-nine songs made it to #1 on the charts. And after Charley, there was, well, there was -- who?
 
Country music today remains the most homogeneous of all musical genres. The industry's myopic vision regarding minority artists not only thwarts the hopes and dreams of individuals, it disenfranchises African-American listeners.
 
Most damaging of all in the long run, business decisions made on Nashville's Music Row perpetuate the idea that country music fans respond first to what they see, and secondarily to what they hear.
 
Image is undeniably important in today's country music scene as evidenced by the marginally talented, but good-looking, artists who've achieved success. However, in implying that black is an image white country music audiences cannot embrace, the industry has managed not only to misread its audience and lose potential new stars, but to negate its own history.
 

African-American Presence in Country Music History

African-American influences in country music can be documented at least as far back as the 1920s. Harmonica ace, DeFord Bailey, appeared on the Grand Ole Opry stage in 1926. "Whites and blacks in rural communities in the South played in stringbands," said Frankie Staton, head of the Black Country Music Association. "Jimmie Rodgers, the father of country music, learned guitar from black laborers he worked with."
 
Robert Johnson was a black blues musician and contemporary of Jimmie Rodgers. Retrospective boxed sets of music from both artists are available today. "If you go back and play those two boxed sets, they're not very different from each other in sound. And you begin to understand, first hand, why they call country music the white man's blues," said Tom Roland, music columnist for the Nashville Tennessean. "Hank Williams was taught by a black street musician called Tee-Tot. In fact, the near inseparability of early country music and early blues is now documented in a 3-CD compilation released by Warner Bros. in 1998. Called "The Black Experience: From Where I Stand," the album presents 52 black artists' contributions to country music and includes not only African-American artists primarily known for their contributions to the blues, but those such as Charley Pride and Cleve Francis, who identified themselves solely as country artists.
 

Charley Pride - an Anomaly

Though many African-Americans have contributed their talents to country music, only Charley Pride has ever achieved true and lasting success. His career is even more remarkable when one considers that he entered country music in 1966 during a period of great racial unrest in this country.
 
Why was he successful when all others have failed?
 
"Charley Pride made it because Chet Atkins stood up for him," said the BCMA's Staton, "They didn't put his face on his album covers. They put out this album by a brother and nobody knew he was black."
 
Roland agrees, "They didn't send out any publicity photos, which is unusual. The idea, I'm sure at that time, that an African-American artist might even be trying, was absurd. He was really country, particularly when he started. He was called ‘Country’ Charley Pride the first few records. And, in fact, though Jack Clement was producing him, they put the names of four different producers on the records, the first couple of albums, just so people would know that there were a number of high-powered executives who all believed in this performer.
 
"So, radio stations were playing his records before they discovered his ethnicity and, at that point, how do you get off the record? How do you pull it without labeling yourself a racist? So, it was kind of shrewd on RCA's part because once they're on it, they can't just jump back out."
 
The approach taken by RCA in launching Charley Pride's career indicates that executives feared racism in their audience and media outlets. It will never be known whether Pride would have succeeded had he been presented as other artists of the day were. The instant communication of today's world, as well as the business climate in Nashville today, ensures that no new careers will ever be launched that way.
 
While one can list some of the reasons Charley Pride succeeded, explaining why all other African-American artists have failed to establish themselves is a much trickier proposition.
 
 

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