Saturday, December 14, 2013

A Bit of Black History: 
The African Origin of the Banjo

By Vincent Carroll   
The Denver Post  12/13/2013



It’s been a month of news about race, racial epithets and racial heroes — from the sublime in Nelson Mandela to the ridiculous in Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin.

Mandela’s death reminds us that the overthrow of institutional white supremacy, whether in its Jim Crow or apartheid forms, was one of the towering achievements of the 20th century.

The Incognito fiasco cautions us that even after decades of incessant warnings about the malignant power of speech rooted in bigotry, some people still don’t appreciate that the N-word is best avoided — whatever your ethnicity.

Now, race can be a tiresome subject for some whites, especially when it is used to leverage social advantage or to silence political adversaries under the guise of perceived slights. But race will never be something we entirely leave behind. It’s so central to our history — even odd strands of history most of us rarely have reason to notice.

That reality was brought home to me with special force some months ago when I began dabbling in 19th century banjo music — I’ve been playing the instrument for several years — and particularly the repertoire of the early minstrels. Anyone who doubts the full ugly history of the N-word and its message of condescension or contempt need only cast an eye over the playbills and broadsides for minstrel shows, or the sheet music of the time. The word is scattered liberally throughout, as are caricatures of plantation life and black dialect and entertainment.

White entertainers even performed in blackface, with the disturbing images captured in some cases by early photographers.

As Philip F. Gura and James F. Bollman write in “America’s instrument: The Banjo in the Nineteenth Century,” many minstrels “were recent Irish immigrants who melded the music of their home with the music of the plantation South.”

“Such exaggerated clothing and overall appearance,” the authors explain, “characterized minstrel shows on both sides of the Atlantic and presumably allowed working class whites to think of themselves as superior to the African Americans against whom they often competed for jobs, particularly in the urban Northeast.”

The banjo may be distinctively American, but its origins go back to the lute-like instruments of West Africa that were brought to the Western Hemisphere in the slave trade. In America, these folk instruments typically were made with gourds.

“The instrument proper to the [slaves] is the Banjar, which they brought hither from Africa,” wrote Thomas Jefferson in 1781.

Whites like Virginia’s Joel Walker Sweeney mastered and refined the instrument in the 1830s and 1840s, and its popularity took off.

“Sweeney somehow offered a connection to the instrument that African-Americans, denied access to public venues such as theaters and circuses, had been previously unable to provide the greater public,” writes Bob Carlin (a great banjoist in his own right) in “The Birth of the Banjo.”

“From our vantage point 150 years later, it is impossible to know whether it was his interpretations of black playing styles, the sonic improvements made by himself or others to his instrument, his charismatic stage presence, or simply his white skin that sold America on the banjo.”

Eventually the banjo moved into the mainstream, performers dropped the blackface and the African influence receded in public memory.

So why play early banjo music at all given its baggage? Because they’re great tunes, because the past is never as pretty as we might like, and because it’s important to remember the instrument’s origins.

When the old-time string band Carolina Chocolate Drops played at Denver Botanic Gardens last summer, it confronted the blackface phenomenon head-on, but that didn’t stop the black group from playing “Briggs Corn Shucking Jig” and “Camptown Hornpipe,” right out of the early minstrel playbook.

Perhaps the band realizes that knowledge of the past is not an invitation to racism; if you’ve got any sort of moral compass, such knowledge should inoculate you against it.

No comments: