Recent Posts, Blogs & Articles

Fiddle Tune History -- Minstrel Tales: Picayune Butler and Japanese Tommy "Hunky Dory!"

 

Andrew Kuntz
2012-05-24

For much of the 20th century onward, blackface minstrelsy has held an especially vilified place in American culture. Not that it was entirely embraced prior to that, for even in its prime in the mid-19th century minstrelsy was considered a “low” form of entertainment. Period social reformer Frederick Douglass minced no words about it, deriding the “filthy scum of white society, who have stolen from us a complexion denied to them by nature, in which to make money, and pander to the corrupt taste of their fellow white citizens.” His words will be appreciated by many today who still consider blackface minstrelsy the “poster child” of cultural exploitation of one race by another. However, minstrelsy has also been called the seedbed for all subsequent developments in American popular song, dance, and entertainment. For several decades, minstrelsy has been inspected through various revisionist lenses—it has, for example, been seen as an expression of cultural curiosity, an interface and point of cultural engagement between race and ethnicity, and, like rock-and-roll, an expression of a rebelliousness, “a raucous working-class alternative to the prissy ballads and light classical music that were popular at the time.” It has long been identified that minstrelsy contributed to the style, repertoire, and development of American traditional music, and that there is a continuous line of development between early minstrel bands, old time string bands, and modern bluegrass bands.

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The Carolina Chocolate Drops with Bill Hinkley and Judy Larson: a benefit for "Black String Revival"


 

A benefit performance for Black String Revival, an hour-long documentary from Fretless Films which will tell the story of the rise and fall and the rise again of the Black string band tradition. Before the Blues--and the phonograph-- revolutionized popular music, African-American string bands featuring banjo and fiddle played for “frolics” (square dances), parades, house parties, corn shuckings, funerals, and baby christenings. Largely forgotten, this vital musical tradition survived into the 1950s. Now a new generation of blacks is rediscovering and reinvigorating the string band tradition. Black and white scholars are documenting the African origins of the banjo and how African-Americans adapted it. At the same time, young African-American string bands like The Carolina Chocolate Drops, The Ebony Hillbillies, Sankofa Strings, and Don Vappie and His Creole Jazz Seranaders are reinventing traditional banjo and fiddle music.

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Why Black Folks Don't Fiddle

 

January 29, 2007
By Tony Thomas

Many unfamiliar with the real history of Black fiddling forget that fiddling was extremely common among African Americans until the early 20th Century. In the we have many reports of Africans in America fiddling and making fiddles almost as soon as they arrived from Africa. The excellence of Black fiddlers performing both for white masters, patrons, and paying audience and for the dances and parties of other Africans in America, speaks not only to the training in European violin playing some slaves received, but also to traditions of fiddling on African bowed instruments that slaves brought here. No wonder, fiddling was the most reported musical activity of African Americans during colonial times. Studies, particularly Bob Winans' survey of instruments mentioned in the WPA interviews of former slaves, show that fiddling was the most widely known instrumental music in Black folk life in the 19th Century.

Yet, today there is relatively little knowledge in the Black community, let alone appreciation of traditional Black fiddling. As far as anyone know, Joe Thompson of Mebane North Carolina remains the last traditional African American fiddler, though a small group of younger African Americans like Earl White, Rique Prince, Rhiannon Giddens, and Justin Robinson are trying to continue the tradition in revivalist bands.

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Bluegrass, string music deeply rooted in African-American tradition

Strains of African-American music beat in the deep heart of bluegrass, from the African-derived tones of the five-string banjo to the blue notes that give the music its characteristic lonesome sound.
 
At least two African-Americans who play bluegrass and string music – Tennessee picker Carl Johnson and Carolina Chocolate Drops member Hubby Jenkins – will perform at this week’s World of Bluegrass festivities in Raleigh. And acoustic-music giant Bela Fleck and banjoist/wife Abigail Washburn will likely explore the banjo’s African roots during their duet appearance Friday.
 
Johnson, 59, a powerful five-string banjo player and singer, grew up in the Virginia mountains. In the segregated South of the 1950s, he came to bluegrass through a family affection for gospel music, a style in which black and white traditions often merge.
 
“I’ve been listening to it all my life,” Johnson said during a recent interview, referencing the bluegrass stars he heard near Roanoke, Va. “We were lucky because we had Don Reno and Red Smiley on TV in the morning and Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs in the evening.”
 
Jenkins, 28, a New York-based musician in his fourth year with the wildly popular, Grammy-winning Chocolate Drops, also tours the United States and Europe with his solo mixture of old-time string music, blues and ragtime.
 
“Definitely in the band, and as a personal mission, I want to bring this music forward,” Jenkins said. “We’re trying to spark more interest in the African-American community, not just as museum music, but as music for the people.”
 

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The Banjo's African American Heritage

*The Banjo’s African American Heritage is celebrated on this dates Registry. Since Caribbean Blacks created the banjo in the 17th century and carried it to North America in the 18th century, the banjo has been part of African American heritage. An African New World combination of European and African elements, early banjos resembled plucked full spike folk lutes like the akonting of Gambia, Senegal, and Guinea-Bissau and the bunchundo of Gambia and Guinea-Bissau. Like these instruments, early banjos had gourd or calabash bodies covered by a skin membrane and wood bridges held by string tension. Most early banjos had four gut or fiber strings, often three long and one short drone string, though some had two long strings and one short string. Banjos’ flat fingerboards and tuning pegs, not found on indigenous West African instruments, came from European instruments.

First reported in Jamaica in 1687 and in Martinique in 1698, until the 19th century the banjo was identified exclusively with Black people. Banjos rang in Barbados, Antigua, St. Kitts, St. Croix, Suriname, and Haiti in the 1700s and early 1800s. First reported in North America in Manhattan in 1736, by the early 1800s, Black folk played banjos from New England to Louisiana. The Old Plantation, painted before 1790 by South Carolina planter John Rose, depicts a Black banjoist and a Black drummer playing for Black dancers. By the 1830s, white entertainers wearing black face makeup and singing what they called Black songs adopted the banjo. Known as “minstrels” by the 1840s, they became widely popular, touring the United States, Britain, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand. Though they reflected American racism, their music and dance launched worldwide interest in Black music and the banjo.
 
By the 1840s five-string banjos with four long strings and one short string one short string, the highest in pitch, but set next to the lowest pitched long string, had developed. Wood frame rims to stretch the skin replaced the gourds. A commercial banjo industry appeared linking entertainers, sellers of banjo music, and manufacturers. By the late 19th century metal covered or replaced the wooden frame rims entirely, frets were added, metal strings replaced gut, and a variety of mechanisms were added to banjos to produce a loud, clear, treble sound. Black banjoists adopted these innovations to make even more powerful music. Black dances powered by banjo persisted into the twentieth century. Though Black banjoists, white show business banjoists, parlor banjoists, and white Southern folk banjoists exchanged tunes and techniques, the drive of Black banjoists to play for African American dancers preserved Black banjo’s distinctive West African musical approaches.

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