Banjo

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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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.

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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.
 
 
 

Jimmy Collier

Jimmy Collier stands out in a crowd with his trademark cowboy hat.  But it's the sound of the tall, sturdy troubadour's music that has magnetized listeners across the land.  Today with the technological ease of CD recording and internet communication, Collier can bring his music to fans without leaving his ranch in rural Mariposa.  That wasn't always the case.
 
For many years Collier went on the road to favor audiences across America and Canada with his smile, his irrepressible sense of humor, and his music.  In his heyday, he opened for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., appearing on Sesame Street and played Carnegie Hall.
 
Born in Fort Smith, Ark., Collier was raised by his grandparents, both of whom loved music.  He remembers his grandmother playing the piano on Sundays with all of his relatives gathered around and singing their hearts out.  His grandfather even created his own musical instruments and played nearly anything.  "I grew up with a lot of instruments around, and music."  
 
 

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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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...

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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