African music has always influenced other musical genres. When slaves came to the Appalachian Mountain region from Africa, they brought over a lot of their traditions. Most of these traditions are shown frequently in the music world, especially in bluegrass music. It is already known that the 4-string banjo originated from Africa, along with oral tradition. The first banjos were made with a gourd sound chamber. Five elements that compose a banjo include the sound chamber, head (vibrating membrane), neck, bridge, and the strings. The most important part is the bridge as it transmits sound from the strings to the head. However, early banjos from Africa did not have bridges.
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.
On the surface, bluegrass music is a style of country music heavily influenced by Appalachian folk music. As with almost all Appalachian folk music, the typical ensemble is a four- to seven-piece band made up of non-electrified string instruments. Many bluegrass songs are taken directly from the Appalachian folk repertoire and those that are original compositions show many of the melodic and rhythmic trademarks of the tradition. Bluegrass musicians, perhaps more so than in any other style of country music, are in constant contact with the communities of Appalachia and most of the musicians are from the region and frequently play there. These musicians and their audience are almost exclusively white, and it is undeniable that bluegrass music owes a great deal to the musical traditions of white Appalachians.
This week we hear some powerful string band music from white Appalachian performers including the legendary Camp Creek Boys, Tommy Jarrell, and the Buckstankle Boys. But that leaves us with the question of where African-Americans, who brought the idea of the banjo to America and learned tunes on the European fiddle, fit into the old time and bluegrass music story.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
In a recent book, Hidden in the Mix: The African American Presence in Country Music, editor Diane Pecknold rounds up some of the better music writers in academia in order to put a light on country's many black roots and the country's unease with said roots. It's not perfect, but what's good here makes the collection indispensable.