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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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A Part of My Story as a Bluegrass Musician

 

I found this surprising reference in the  Jerry Douglas Bulletin Board Archives.

Several years ago when searching The Internet I ran across this posting made by the guy I bought my upright bass from. Since that time I lost track of the posting but a little while ago I re-discovered it.  It follows here:

Subject: RE: Black Banjo Conference-very cool!
Poster: Daver
date: 30-Jan-05 08:32 PM

Thanks, Derka. I don't know all the reasons, but it's sad that there are virtually no African-Americans in professional Country Music (to my knowledge, only Charley Pride and bass players for Mary Chapin Carpenter and Russ Taff), and zero that I'm aware of in bluegrass. Please fill in the blanks if I'm missing someone obvious... A Chicago area bluegrass group in the 70's (the Unity Bluegrass Band - all members of the Bahá'í Faith) had an African-American bass player (I sold him my old Kay upright for the $80 I paid for it). Up until IBMA when I ran into the Ebony Hillbillies, he was the only African-American BG musician I had ever seen.

Guess I'm pretty unique.  *G*

Update: 6-16-13 - just checked the link of this message post and it no longer exists, it was good that I copied it here, otherwise it would be lost now and can't have my history disappearing on me...

Jess Morris

 
Jess Morris, born June 12, 1878, in Williamson County, Texas, was a noted fiddler in the western Panhandle region. In 1890, his father moved the family to a ranch near old Tascosa, in the northwest panhandle. The family lived for a time in the Casimero Romero home, built in the 1870s by some of the earliest settlers of the area.
 
By 1894, at age sixteen, Jess formed his first musical group, which played for dances and balls throughout the region. Reportedly, it was not unusual for Morris's group to receive one hundred dollars for an evening of music. He is said to have studied violin both in Austin, Texas, and at Valparaiso, Indiana, but he claimed he would never be anything but a cowboy fiddler.
 
Morris competed in Amarillo's Tri-State Old Fiddlers' Contest in 1928 and 1929 but did not place. The newspaper account of the 1928 contest, however, singled him out for his rendition of "Goodbye Ol' Paint." According to the article, "the audience forgot all dignity and joined in a hearty, lusty yell on the chorus." In the 1931 contest, Morris placed second behind A. E. Rusk of Canyon, who won the event, and ahead of Eck Robertson, who took third. 
 
Besides fiddling, Morris worked as a cowboy and a wolfer on the XIT, LS, and LIT ranches.  In the early 1940s, Morris registered several of his original songs and fiddle tunes with the Library of Congress, including "El Rancho Grande XIT Schottische," "XIT Ranch Cowboy Polka," and "Ridin' Ol' Paint an' Leadin' Ol' Ball."

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Deford Bailey A Legend Lost

Deford Bailey was the most influential harmonica player in the first half of the 20th Century. Despite such acclaim, Deford dies quietly without recognition of his place in American music history...

Black Hillbilly Music

DeFord's family played tunes that were part of a rich tradition of string band playing shared by both blacks and whites in the early nineteenth century.

"White and blacks would be playing music and dancing at what you'd call a barn dance—you clean the ground off and put sawdust down on it and make it soft where you can dance. Well, they'd look out and see the Baileys and they'd say, ‘Here come the Baileys, we'll turn the thing over to them. They would usually have a fiddle, guitar, banjo, harp, mandolin, and drums.’"

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Black Hillbilly - or - What you really know about the Upper South?

 

by Eric Brightwell

The first non-Native American settlers of Appalachia and later, the Ozarks, were of primarily of three ethnicities: Scots-Irish, English, and German. These hard-working farmers and craftsmen created a distinct culture which in the 19th Century came to be named “hillbilly.” Although the Northern European roots of hillbilly are routinely acknowledged, even scholars on the culture are far less likely to recognize hillbilly’s other significant place of ancestral origin, West Africa.

Hillbilly music’s biracial parentage should be immediately evident to anyone with any knowledge of the music’s primary instruments, the fiddle and the banjo. The modern fiddle (or violin) may have originated in 16th Century Italy but similar bowed instruments preceded its development by several centuries and the violin made its way to the Americas thanks to English colonists. The banjo, descended from the numerous plucked instruments of West Africa such as the akontingngoni, and xalam, was introduced to the Americas by African slaves. 

Famous slave owners like George WashingtonThomas JeffersonJames MadisonJames Monroe,Andrew JacksonMartin Van BurenWilliam Henry HarrisonJohn TylerJames K. PolkZachary Taylor, and Andrew Johnson routinely required their forced laborers to learn to play violin to entertain their friends and themselves at plantation balls and the White House. 

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