Q: Since I retired, I've had a lot of time to listen to jazz, bluegrass, blues, folk
music et al. Given all the images in the museum of Americans of African descent and
banjos, I've heard nary a single American musician of African descent perform on the
banjo. Is my sample size too small that I'm just missing performers? Or are there
Former Jim Crow Museum Director
A: Thank you for the question John,
We thought we would answer this Question to the Museum a little differently. We decided to provide links to other resources that give insight on the topic of the banjo and its historic connection with Africa and the African American community.
As a start, one of my favorite Apple playlists features Rhiannon Giddens. She is an amazing musician! She has done solo work and performed in a three-person group called the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Giddens lectures about the history of the banjo and the lack of African American musicians in the bluegrass/folk/Americana genres because of mainstream stereotypes and/or misinformation about the genres. Some listeners may not seek out diversity in these genres based on mainstream stereotypes and/or misinformation about the histories.
Here is a video of an interview with Rhiannon Giddens as she talks about the lost history of the banjo in African American culture.
Rhiannon Giddens: On the Lost History of the Black Banjo
Dom Flemons was also a member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops and offers his perspective on the history of the banjo and African American culture.
Dom Flemons: On What Happened to the Black Banjo?
In February, The JCM created a Black History Month Calendar post with a brief history of the banjo since we have a few in the museum collection:
Within the American plantation context, the banjo carried spiritual and cultural symbolism rooted in African traditions. By the 1800s, the banjo is emblematic of the institution of slavery itself, and by the late 19th century, it was presented as an instrument of Appalachian folk music. The banjo connects different traditions, but there have been attempts to forget or break the identification with black culture and unhinge it from its African roots. There were efforts by banjo supporters to present it as a respectable instrument that whites could embrace. The 150 plus years of African American banjo playing is diminished by connecting the instrument to the emergence of minstrelsy and blackface in the 1830s. Playing music and creating a space of cultural autonomy helped African Americans imagine themselves and their communities in ways that were radically different from the white, mainstream stories of enslavement.
Although I haven’t seen it yet, I would guess that Ken Burns PBS series on Country Music covers a bit of banjo history, as well as the Latin American influence on country music and may be worth checking out.
In the meantime, some my colleagues have compiled more resources that may be of interest:
- In 2016, Collectors Weekly had a very in-depth story about African Americans and the banjo. https://www.collectorsweekly.com/articles/how-the-african-banjo-got-a-racist-reinvention/
- This NPR story mentions the Akonting. It is one of the many stringed instruments and styles of playing that influenced the modern versions that we are more familiar with today. https://www.npr.org/2011/08/23/139880625/the-banjos-roots-reconsidered fbclid=IwAR1XGEBEpgHYaX7SE7pOzKGWcE3ijYDZQl5pDfMDJIpmN0QwJjZv_p4sSSA
- One of the instruments we have in the “Africa Before Slavery” case is an Adungu String Instrument. This instrument sounds a lot like the banjo. https://www.fugitivekatcreations.com/listing/583675050/vintage-adungu-string-instrument-african
Here is the Adungu being played.
|Another video of the Adungu.
- There is a young African American woman, Jillean McCommons, from Detroit, who is trying
to bring the message of the banjo and black Appalachia back to life.
- This opinion piece was written by Jillean McCommons about her banjo journey that brought her to Kentucky. https://www.kentucky.com/opinion/op-ed/article100984992.html
- The documentary film Throw Down Your Heart with Bela Fleck is a fun exploration into the banjo’s roots stemming from Africa. The soundtrack is good too! https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1185405/
- The Smithsonian ran an article for their Year in Music series in 2019 and spend quite a bit of time on the banjo and its African roots. https://music.si.edu/story/banjo-crossroads-smithsonian-year-music-object-day-august-27
The Banjo Lesson, by Henry Ossawa Tanner
Jennifer Hasso and the Jim Crow Museum staff
Allen, G. (2011, August 23). The Banjo's Roots, Reconsidered. Retrieved May 6, 2020, from https://www.npr.org/2011/08/23/139880625/the-banjos-roots-reconsidered
Davidson, J. (n.d.). Rhiannon Giddens' 21st-Century Sound Has a Long History. Retrieved May 6, 2020, from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/rhiannon-giddens-american-music-history-21st-century-sound-180971449/
Khalid, Farisa. “Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Banjo Lesson (Article).” Khan Academy, Khan Academy, www.khanacademy.org/humanities/art-1010/american-art-to-wwii/symbolism-america/a/tanner-banjo-lesson.
Kingsley , S. (2017, July 19). Chronicling "America's African Instrument": Laurent Dubois on the Cultural History of the Banjo: Perspectives on History: AHA. Retrieved May 6, 2020, from https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/summer-2017/chronicling-americas-african-instrument-laurent-dubois-on-the-cultural-history-of-the-banjo