History

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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AFRICA, APPALACHIA, AND ACCULTURATION: THE HISTORY OF BLUEGRASS MUSIC

AFRICA, APPALACHIA, AND ACCULTURATION: THE HISTORY OF BLUEGRASS MUSIC
by
Charles W. Perryman

D.M.A Research Project submitted to the College of Creative Arts at West Virginia University
in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of
Doctor of Musical Arts
in
Composition

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. It is equally irrefutable that bluegrass music shares a great deal in common with black musical styles such as jazz and the blues. Group improvisation, alternating solos, and swing are just some of the musical features that jazz, the blues, and bluegrass share. The banjo, an instrument which is inextricably linked to the bluegrass sound, is African in origin. Bluegrass singing was influenced by the blues, black field hollers, and African-American Psalm singing. The African, particularly West African, influence on bluegrass is perhaps more surprising, but is just as essential as the European influence. This study explores these two distinct strains of influence throughout the history (and pre-history) of bluegrass music. An examination of the musical characteristics of the style, the history of the music, the instruments, the playing and singing style, will reveal that the style has 2 roots in both West African and European cultures. These various elements will be traced from their origins in their respective cultures through the development of Appalachian folk music in the late nineteenth century to the emergence of bluegrass in the 1940s. It is my intention to explore how Bluegrass developed out of a synthesis of musical traditions that have their roots in European and West African cultures.

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Episode 8 (African-American string band, fiddle & banjo traditions)

Episode 8 (African-American string band, fiddle & banjo traditions)

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.  Music historian Bob Carlin joins host Paul Brown for an illuminating conversation supported by plenty of music. Hear 1940s field recordings of black string band musicians made in Tennessee – including on the streets of Nashville. Then follow the story to a more recent chapter, with the discovery by folklorists in the 1970s of the Thompson family of North Carolina, some of the last traditional African-American old time fiddle and banjo players carrying on a family tradition.  We hear a song from the Carolina Chocolate Drops too, a contemporary African-American band inspired in part by fiddler Joe Thompson and the music he shared with them before his death at age 93 in 2012.  The past comes alive, the present and future are on view and in our ears, on Across the Blue Ridge.

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Episode 8 Playlist

  1. Paddy On The Turnpike – Esker Hutchins & The Surry County Ramblers
    Album – FRC Esker Hutchins
  2. Let Me Fall – Camp Creek Boys  
    Album – Camp Creek Boys
  3. Poor Ellen Smith – The Buckstankle Boys 
    Album – Round Peak Home
  4. Sally Ann – The Hillbillies  
    Album – The Hillbillies Vol. 2
  5. June Apple – Tommy Jarrell   
    Album – June Apple
  6. BREAK 1 Molly Put the Kettle On – Joe Thompson 
    Album – Family Tradition 
  7. Old Corn Liquor – Joe Thompson
    Album – Family Tradition
  8. Eighth of January – Frazier & Patterson
    Album – Altamont
  9. Altamont – Gribble, Lusk & York
    Album – Altamont 
  10. Po Black Sheep – Frazier & Patterson
    Album – Altamont
  11. Rolling River – Gribble, Lusk & York
    Album – Altamont
  12. Black Eyed Daisey – Joe & Odell Thompson
    Album – Family Tradition
  13. BREAK 2  Twin Sisters – Sidna Myers
    Album – Clawhammer Banjo Vol. 1
  14. Little Brown Jug – Joe & Odell Thompson
    Album – Black Banjo Songsters of North Carolina & Virginia
  15. Soldier’s Joy – Joe Thompson
    Album – Family Tradition 
  16. Sandy Boys – Carolina Chocolate Drops
    Album – Genuine Negro Jig
  17. Goin’ Downtown – Joe Thompson
    Album – Family Tradition

 

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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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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Charley Pride's Big, Black, Country Cojones

Charley Pride
White Man's Blues
 
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.
 
The world of rock ’n’ roll was an open door for race relations almost from inception.  Black musicians and vocalists cozied up to white recording artists at the top of sales’ charts in the form’s earliest years.  [Although some artists’ recordings, such as those by Little Richard, were considered too “racy” by white bread America and were ripped off and re-recorded, notoriously by Dot Records, by “safe” WASPs.  Pat Boone’s toned-down rendition of the rollicking “Tutti Frutti” stands as a hilarious monument to such sanitizing.  Even Fats Domino came in for the Dot Records treatment with Boone’s version of “Blueberry Hill”.]
 
Country music, stemming from its earlier recordings known as “hillbilly”, was not (and is not) a racially integrated music, although historically blacks have played major roles in its evolution.  The artists and fans were not known as racially sensitive or particularly enlightened in matters of race relations; in many proven cases (as in Country records clearly using slanderous racial epithets) there was not only intolerance of African-Americans but downright hostility toward them. 
 
Bizarrely, a lone black man in America (to date, the only one of significance) decided early in his career to buck the system.  His love of the easy, laid-back twangy stylings of hillbilly music led that African-American man, against great odds and possible danger to his life, to embrace and insert himself into a culture that not only distrusted blacks in America but also hated them. 
 
Charley Pride (who early in his career could not even put his picture on his singles’ sleeves or LP jackets over concerns of a racist backlash) not only gained acceptance within the hostile racism of Country music and its fans but he was successful, selling over 70 million records and having many hits.  To date, however, he is the only black superstar Country music has ever produced.
 

 

Twang Is Not a Color

The Armstrong Brothers String Band
Where are African-Americans in Today’s Country Music?
By: Laurie Paulik
 
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.Carl Ray
 
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.
 
"I just love country music and I'm sharing country music," said aspiring black recording artist Carl Ray. "I'm part of the process of change. It's almost like a Martin Luther King movement without the crowds."
 
But what's to change? After all, Charley Pride broke the racial barrier long ago, didn't he?
 
From 1966 to 1989, the hits never stopped. Twenty-nine songs made it to #1 on the charts. And after Charley, there was, well, there was -- who?
 
Country music today remains the most homogeneous of all musical genres. The industry's myopic vision regarding minority artists not only thwarts the hopes and dreams of individuals, it disenfranchises African-American listeners.
 
Most damaging of all in the long run, business decisions made on Nashville's Music Row perpetuate the idea that country music fans respond first to what they see, and secondarily to what they hear.
 
Image is undeniably important in today's country music scene as evidenced by the marginally talented, but good-looking, artists who've achieved success. However, in implying that black is an image white country music audiences cannot embrace, the industry has managed not only to misread its audience and lose potential new stars, but to negate its own history.
 

African-American Presence in Country Music History

African-American influences in country music can be documented at least as far back as the 1920s. Harmonica ace, DeFord Bailey, appeared on the Grand Ole Opry stage in 1926. "Whites and blacks in rural communities in the South played in stringbands," said Frankie Staton, head of the Black Country Music Association. "Jimmie Rodgers, the father of country music, learned guitar from black laborers he worked with."
 
Robert Johnson was a black blues musician and contemporary of Jimmie Rodgers. Retrospective boxed sets of music from both artists are available today. "If you go back and play those two boxed sets, they're not very different from each other in sound. And you begin to understand, first hand, why they call country music the white man's blues," said Tom Roland, music columnist for the Nashville Tennessean. "Hank Williams was taught by a black street musician called Tee-Tot. In fact, the near inseparability of early country music and early blues is now documented in a 3-CD compilation released by Warner Bros. in 1998. Called "The Black Experience: From Where I Stand," the album presents 52 black artists' contributions to country music and includes not only African-American artists primarily known for their contributions to the blues, but those such as Charley Pride and Cleve Francis, who identified themselves solely as country artists.
 

Charley Pride - an Anomaly

Though many African-Americans have contributed their talents to country music, only Charley Pride has ever achieved true and lasting success. His career is even more remarkable when one considers that he entered country music in 1966 during a period of great racial unrest in this country.
 
Why was he successful when all others have failed?
 
"Charley Pride made it because Chet Atkins stood up for him," said the BCMA's Staton, "They didn't put his face on his album covers. They put out this album by a brother and nobody knew he was black."
 
Roland agrees, "They didn't send out any publicity photos, which is unusual. The idea, I'm sure at that time, that an African-American artist might even be trying, was absurd. He was really country, particularly when he started. He was called ‘Country’ Charley Pride the first few records. And, in fact, though Jack Clement was producing him, they put the names of four different producers on the records, the first couple of albums, just so people would know that there were a number of high-powered executives who all believed in this performer.
 
"So, radio stations were playing his records before they discovered his ethnicity and, at that point, how do you get off the record? How do you pull it without labeling yourself a racist? So, it was kind of shrewd on RCA's part because once they're on it, they can't just jump back out."
 
The approach taken by RCA in launching Charley Pride's career indicates that executives feared racism in their audience and media outlets. It will never be known whether Pride would have succeeded had he been presented as other artists of the day were. The instant communication of today's world, as well as the business climate in Nashville today, ensures that no new careers will ever be launched that way.
 
While one can list some of the reasons Charley Pride succeeded, explaining why all other African-American artists have failed to establish themselves is a much trickier proposition.
 
 

Race And Country Music Then And Now

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.
 
The best pieces in Hidden in the Mix form neat bookends. The first is "Black Hillbillies: African American Musicians on Old-Time Records, 1924-1932," by Patrick Huber, a professor of history at Missouri University of Science and Technology. By scouring and collating data from hillbilly and "race" record discographies, Huber documents at least 22 racially integrated proto-country music recording sessions, and almost 50, if not more, African American musicians who played on hillbilly records before 1932. He call his research "particularly challenging" due to incomplete personnel records. Plus, he writes, "it is often frustratingly difficult, if not impossible, especially in cases of common surnames like 'Smith,' 'Jones' and 'Johnson,' to locate a particular artist in census records and other public documents and to determine his or her race with any degree of certainty." One of the fundamental received wisdoms of popular music history is that due to taste and Jim Crow, white folks made one kind of music (which became the roots of country and western) and black folks simultaneously made what the industry labeled "race music" (blues, gospel, rhythm and blues). Though race-mixing in the studio was a rare phenomenon, Huber shows clearly that interracial recording sessions, and the general sharing of musical ideas across Jim Crow lines, was far more common than is imagined today.
 
 

Blackface

The mask which the actor wears is apt to become his face -- Plato

Blackface is more than just burnt cork applied as makeup.
It is a style of entertainment based on racist Black stereotypes
that began in minstrel shows and continues today.

 

History of Blackface  

 
 
 
The stock characters of blackface minstrelsy have played a significant role in disseminating racist images, attitudes and perceptions worldwide. Every immigrant group was stereotyped on the music hall stage during the 19th Century, but the history of prejudice, hostility, and ignorance towards black people has insured a unique longevity to the stereotypes. White America's conceptions of Black entertainers were shaped by minstrelsy's mocking caricatures and for over one hundred years the belief that Blacks were racially and socially inferior was fostered by legions of both white and black performers in blackface.
 
 
 
Racist Black Stereotypes
 
Originating in the White man's characterizations of plantation slaves and free blacks during the era of minstrel shows (1830-1890), the caricatures took such a firm hold on the American imagination that audiences expected any person with dark skin, no matter what their background, to conform to one or more of the stereotypes:
 

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