Banjo

CHRONICLING “AMERICA’S AFRICAN INSTRUMENT”: LAURENT DUBOIS ON THE CULTURAL HISTORY OF THE BANJO

Banjo

In The Banjo: America’s African Instrument (Harvard Univ. Press, 2016), Laurent Dubois weaves a narrative of how this instrument was created by enslaved Africans in the midst of bondage in the Caribbean and Americas. He documents its journey from 17th- and 18th-century plantations to 19th-century minstrel shows to the bluegrass of Appalachia to the folk revival of the mid-20th century. In the process, Dubois documents how the banjo came to symbolize community, slavery, resistance, and ultimately America itself. A historian of the Caribbean and a banjo player himself, Dubois relied on the work of academic historians as well as insights from musicians, collectors, and banjo makers to tell this story.

Why do you call the banjo the “first African instrument”? By “African,” I’m talking about a construct of the African continent that emerges in the 18th century and into the 19th century as a way to connect people from diverse African groups enslaved on the plantations of the Americas. The use of a drumhead over the resonator was a feature of lots of different stringed instruments throughout Africa; I argue that this is the key part of the instrument that literally and figuratively resonated with people.

You talk about how the banjo is uniquely positioned to bring together disparate groups of people. What are some of the qualities that enable it to do this, and what is one historical example of it doing so? The banjo was made to cross boundaries, and having been created within a blending of cultures, it ultimately took its place in lots of different spaces in the Americas. The drumhead itself creates a sonic experience that attracts a lot of people: it’s not just something you hear; it’s something you feel. Another point people make about the banjo is its ability to condense rhythm and melody, which gives it flexibility.

Additionally, the banjo has been a symbol as much as a physical instrument from its beginnings. Within the American plantation context, it carried spiritual and cultural symbolism rooted in African religious traditions. By the 19th century, the banjo becomes emblematic of the institution of slavery itself, and by the late 19th century when it seems firmly anchored in Appalachia, it gets presented quite clearly as an instrument that is of the folk of America more broadly. To the present day, the banjo connects different musical traditions, but some of that history has been forgotten, and there have been attempts to either forget about the instrument’s African roots or break that identification with black culture.

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Why These Four Banjo-Playing Women Resurrected the Songs of the Enslaved

“Songs of Our Native Daughters”

Music producer and composer Dirk Powell pointed to the back of the control room. I was filming him at Cypress House, his studio in Louisiana.

“Rhiannon was sitting right there on that green Naugahyde couch, and I was in that little room playing the guitar, and she had the talkback mic.”

Powell was talking about the day before, when he and musician Rhiannon Giddens, who teamed up for the recording of Folkways’ new release Songs of Our Native Daughters, were laying down a “guide track” for a song they would later name “Barbados.” As Powell stressed, a guide track isn’t meant to be saved. Musicians mine the track for its tempo and feel, layering their instruments over the top, before the guide instruments or vocals are redone. It’s a first step in recording a song.

Giddens—a native of North Carolina and the lead singer and a founding member of the GRAMMY award-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops—researched the songs and haunting narratives of enslaved Africans. Native Daughters is a collaboration with three other African-American songwriters whose work interrogates history and, as Giddens writes in the album notes, shines “new light” on stories of “struggle, resistence and hope.”

“Rhiannon had brought in this handwritten music from the 1700s, the first slave melody ever annotated in the New World, and we started working on it, adding chords to it,” Powell says. “She was very close to the mic, and her voice was so unselfconscious and unassuming, her intention so pure, and things got very intense emotionally. We just had to keep it.”

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Kaia Kater

A Montreal-born Grenadian-Canadian, Kaia Kater grew up between two worlds: her family’s deep ties to folk music and the years she spent soaking up Appalachian music in West Virginia. Her old-time banjo-picking skills, deft arrangements, and songwriting abilities have landed her in the spotlight in North America and the UK, garnering critical acclaim from outlets such as NPR, CBC Radio, Rolling Stone, BBC Music, and No Depression

Kaia started her career early, crafting her first EP Old Soul (2013) when she was just out of high school. Since then, she’s gone on to release two more albums, Sorrow Bound (2015) and Nine Pin (2016). Her second album wove between hard-hitting songs touching on social issues like the Black Lives Matter movement (“Rising Down”) and more personal narratives speaking to life and love in the digital age (“Saint Elizabeth”). Nine Pin won a Canadian Folk Music Award, a Stingray Rising Star Award and sent Kaia on an 18-month touring journey from Ireland to Iowa, including stops at The Kennedy Center, Hillside Festival and London's O2 Shepherd's Bush. For her third album, Grenades (October 2018, Folkways/acronym Records), she took a decidedly different direction, choosing to lean into a wider array of sounds and styles, in order to convey a wider array of emotions and topics, most notably her paternal ancestry.  Grenades was nominated for a 2019 JUNO award for Contemporary Roots Album of the Year and long-listed for the Polaris Music Prize.

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James Allen Bland

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.

Bland was educated in Washington, DC and graduated from Howard University in 1873. He wrote over 700 songs, including "In the Morning in the Bright Light" (1879), "In the Evening by the Moonlight" (1879), "Oh! Dem Golden Slippers" (1879) (the theme song for the long-running Philadelphia Mummers Parade), "Hand Me Down My Walking Cane" (1880) and "De Golden Wedding" (1880). His best-known song is "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny" (1878), which, in a slightly modified form, was the official State Song of Virginia from 1940 to 1997. It was retired and designated "state song emeritus" in the latter year, because of controversy over its racial nature.

Often called "The World's Greatest Minstrel Man", Bland toured the United States, as well as Europe. Bland's earliest recorded minstrel performance was with the Original Black Diamonds of Boston in 1875. Beginning in 1881, he spent 20 years in London before returning to the United States. Bland toured Europe in the early 1880s with Haverly's Genuine Colored Minstrels and remained in England to perform as a singer/banjo player without blackface. Appearing as "The Prince of Negro Songwriters," he was invited to give command performances for Queen Victoria and the Prince of Wales. Music historian Alec Wilder calls Bland the black writer who "broke down the barriers to white music publishers' offices." Bland was one of the most prolific minstrel composers of all time; he is reputed to have written over six hundred songs, though only about fifty were published under his name.

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The Banjo: African Echoes

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.

banjo-player

The History of the Banjo

However, the banjo is actually a descendant of African musical instruments, and was created in the American and Caribbean colonies by African slaves and occupied a central place in African American traditional music. It made its way into white music when slaves interacted with white sharecroppers and their music melded.

English Zither-Banjo, c. 1895

“…and their music melded”. That is a very polite phrase. Institutionalized slavery in America “melded” Africans and colonial whites in particularly violent ways. That phrase is also polite. When you have a literal master/slave relationship you must be aware of the dynamics present in any “cultural exchange”. Africans brought their knowledge of their own musical instruments to America and the Caribbean and modified them and created unique versions of them with the different materials at hand. Which were then co-opted by their white masters. Politely speaking.

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Bringing The Banjo From 'Africa To Appalachia'

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.

Originally, the banjo traveled across the ocean on slave ships coming from West Africa in the 1600s and 1700s. The instrument was "later passed off to curious 'white folk' like me," Stone says. "Although a few people play some of the crossover styles that happened early on in the new world, [it] didn't seem like there was much knowledge of the music that it came from."

The Banjo's Evolution

Naturally, at that time, the instrument was not the modern-day banjo that most people recognize. Instead, it was more of an early incarnation that evolved over time.

"It's hard to say exactly what it was," Stone says. "More than anything, it was the blueprint of the banjo that traveled over in musicians' minds, and then they built a similar thing with what they had here: dried-out gourds, goat skin, whatever they could find. The instrument changed, and with the advent of metal, it became an African instrument that went through the Industrial Revolution."

The banjo in its current form has frets and employs a short droning string — what banjo players call the fifth string. But in Africa, these early predecessors sometimes used only one string and as many as 21. They have all kinds of names, depending on the region and dialect the people are speaking. Most common are the ngoni, which can have anywhere from three to nine strings; the two-stringed konou; and the one-stringed juru keleni, all found in various parts of Mali. Stone says that Senegal has instruments that are even closer in relation to the modern banjo — especially the akonting.

Sissoko specializes in the kora, a 21-string West African harp made from a calabash — a dried-out gourd also used to play percussion, as well as carry fruits and vegetables from the markets. Stemming out from the calabash, the kora has a long pole with leather straps tied to it that hold the 21 strings, which are made from fishing line. Despite the evolution of the instrument's physical aspects, when played side by side, the banjo and the kora have a very similar sonic quality.

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Gus Cannon

Gus Cannon (September 12, 1883 – October 15, 1979) was an American blues musician who helped to popularize jug bands (such as his own Cannon's Jug Stompers) in the 1920s and 1930s. There is uncertainty about his birth year; his tombstone gives the date as 1874.

Career

Born on a plantation in Red Banks, Mississippi, Cannon moved a hundred miles to Clarksdale, then the home of W. C. Handy, at the age of 12. His musical skills came without training; he taught himself to play a banjo that he made from a frying pan and a raccoon skin. He ran away from home at the age of fifteen and began his career entertaining at sawmills and levee and railroad camps in the Mississippi Delta around the turn of the century.

While in Clarksdale, Cannon was influenced by local musicians Jim Turner and Alec Lee. Turner's fiddle playing in W. C. Handy's band so impressed Cannon that he decided to learn to play the fiddle himself. Lee, a guitarist, taught Cannon his first folk blues, "Po' Boy, Long Ways from Home", and showed him how to use a knife blade as a slide, a technique that Cannon adapted to his banjo playing.

Cannon left Clarksdale around 1907 and soon settled near Memphis, Tennessee, where he played in a jug band led by Jim Guffin. He began playing in Memphis with Jim Jackson. He met the harmonica player Noah Lewis, who introduced him to a young guitar player, Ashley Thompson. Lewis and Thompson later were members of Cannon's Jug Stompers. The three of them formed a band to play at parties and dances. In 1914 Cannon began touring in medicine shows. He supported his family through various jobs, including sharecropping, ditch digging, and yard work, but supplemented his income with music.

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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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