Photo Essay - The Banjo and African American Musical Culture
Contemporary jazz banjoist Don Vappie, photographed in September 2007. (Photo courtesy of vappielle.com.)
The banjo and African Americans have traveled from Senegambian roots to Caribbean birth, to North America, and then to the world. Don Vappie (b. 30 January 1956), the New Orleans-jazz master of the tenor and guitar-banjo, and also a renowned bassist, guitarist, and mandolinist, epitomizes that journey. Vappie has revived the music of King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton and created his own compositions that range from Creole folk music to modern jazz and funk. A regular guest with Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center, Vappie has collaborated with master West African lute players like Cheick Hamala Diabate and Bassekou Kouyate of Mali and Demma Dia of Senegal. His compositions, recordings, and performance link the New Orleans banjo to the music of the Caribbean, where the banjo was born.
Banjos arose as a folk instrument powering the dances of New World Africans, but as American stages were gradually opened to black performers after the Civil War, black banjoists became national and international stars, occasionally even giving banjo lessons to British royalty. Banjo rhythms inspired ragtime, and in the second decade of the twentieth century, James Reese Europe led New York's orchestras with scores of black banjoists. Rural banjo dance traditions continued into the mid-twentieth century in banjoist Gus Cannon's blues recordings, and from the 1910s to the 1940s, jazz banjoists swung bands that brought jazz to the world.
However, twentieth century musical styles such as the blues, which were often accompanied by singing and slower-tempo dancing, came to require instruments with more sustain and bass than the banjo in all of its varieties can provide. As a result, the banjo receded from African American music of all kinds across the twentieth century. Recently, though, a twenty-first century revival of interest in the African antecedents, Caribbean birth, and African American history of the banjo brought a renaissance of black banjo playing, returning African American banjoists like Don Vappie to prominence within both African American music and the banjo world.
Patron Correa, a Manyago bunchundo master. Amon, Guinea-Bissau, 2003. (Photo by and courtesy of Ulf Jägfors.)
Africans in the New World drew upon West African instruments and European instruments to create the banjo.(1) Instruments played in Mali, Senegal, Gambia, and Guinea-Bissau, including the Jola ekonting and the Manyago bunchundo, share features of the earliest banjos. The ekonting and the bunchundo each have a gourd body covered by a skin that supports a two-footed wood bridge held by string tension. The highest string is a short string played by the thumb, and the necks of these instruments go all the way through their gourd bodies. Like early banjos, most of these instruments were folk instruments for social dancing, and their playing techniques resemble the down-picking banjo technique that early European American players say they learned from traditional black banjo players. (The technique has the player strike downward with the nail of just one finger, either the index or middle finger, and "thumb" the short string by landing the thumb on the short string and then releasing the thumb.) Players of these instruments or their ancestors were among the millions of enslaved West Africans. Slavers forced African musicians to play on their ships' decks for the "dancing" that was imposed on the enslaved for "exercise."
(1) This work on the evolution of the banjo is completely indebted to the research of Shlomo Pestcoe and Greg Adams, as expressed in their 2010 Banjo Roots Manifesto. The work of Pestcoe and Adams, awaiting publication in its definitive form, has placed our understanding of the banjo's origins and its place in the cultural interaction between Africa, the Caribbean, and North America on a new plane.
Two banjos and a harp from Sir Hans Sloane's 1707 book, "A Voyage to the Islands of Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers and Jamaica," that records Sloane's stay in Jamaica from 1687 to 1688. (Image courtesy of www.slaveryimages.org, compiled by Jerome Handler and Michael Tuite, and sponsored by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the University of Virginia Library.)(2)
This illustration is the earliest known definitive record of the banjo's Caribbean birth. A Scots naturalist and physician, Sloane visited Jamaica between 1687 and 1689. The two Jamaican instruments, called "Strum Strumps" (top left), resemble ekontings and bunchundos, having gourd sound chambers covered by skin and a neck that sticks through the gourd. Unlike any indigenous West African instrument, they have flat fingerboards and friction tuning pegs, features from European instruments. This combination distinguishes these instruments as banjos. Details of the illustration suggest that a short thumb string and a moveable bridge that once adorned Sloan's "Strum Strumps" are missing from this illustration. Like other illustrations of early gourd banjos and the few instruments now in European museums, Sloane's banjos were not crude jury-rigged products of castoff materials. Their makers knew how to make instruments whose sophistication involved not just their functional abilities, but their physical beauty as well as their place as spiritual and cultural symbols. There is nothing crude or primitive about them.
Innovators drew on West African roots and took advantage of New World opportunities to create the banjo. They replaced the stick necks of West African lutes with flat fingerboards. Tuning pegs made banjos easier to tune than Senegambian lutes tuned with sliding tuning rings. Most early gourd banjos had four gut or fiber strings (often three long strings and one short thumb string), although some had three strings, two long and one short.
From the late 1600s to the early 1800s, banjos rang across the Caribbean: in Barbados, Martinique, Guadeloupe, Haiti, Barbados, Jamaica, St. Kitts, Antigua, and Saint-Croix, as well as in Guyana and Suriname. Yet major areas of African population in the Caribbean with prolonged and intense exchange with Central and West Africa, such as Cuba and Puerto Rico, and similar areas on the mainland of Central America and South America, such as Brazil, yield no reports of early banjos. Though both folk and manufactured banjos spread in Africa in the late nineteenth century after the tours of North American and British banjo entertainers, no early banjos have been found in Africa. Rather than an African import, banjos were a creation of West Africans in specific areas of the Caribbean.
(2) This section, and the next, is completely indebted to Shlomo Pestcoe's paper, "The Banjar Pictured: Considering the Depiction of The African American Early Gourd Banjo in 'The Old Plantation'", presented 17 May 2012 at the joint meeting of the American Musical Instrument Society (AMIS) and the International Committee of Musical Instrument Museums and Collections (CIMCIM) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
In "The Old Plantation," painted in South Carolina between 1785 and 1790, a banjoist, a drummer, and percussionists play for dancers. The African Americans are slaves of South Carolina plantation owner John Rose, who is assumed to be the painter. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)
This is the oldest depiction of African American dance and music, and the oldest known image of a banjoist. However, 1785 was nearly fifty years after the first record of banjos in the current United States. On 7 March 1736, the New-York Weekly Journal published an anonymous and probably fictitious letter that begins with a description of an enslaved black servant tuning up his "banger" (banjo). It describes New York's common, filled with "the Negroes divided into Companies, I suppose according to their different Nations, some dancing to the hollow Sound of a Drum, made of the Trunk of a hollow Tree, othersome [sic] to the grating rattling Noise of Pebles [sic] or Shells in a small Basket, others plied the Banger." Across the eighteenth century, newspaper articles, books, runaway slave advertisements, and other documents describe black banjoists from Massachusetts to Louisiana. The highest concentration was in areas of Maryland, Virginia, and Delaware around the Chesapeake Bay. The eighteenth century appearance of African American banjoists coincides with a shift in the origin of the enslaved in North America, from the early and mid-seventeenth century's Central African castoffs from Dutch, Spanish, and Portuguese slave ships, to the late seventeenth- and eighteenth-century infusion of enslaved West Africans, who had often "seasoned" in or were purchased from the British Caribbean. The banjo originated in the Caribbean in the 1600s and was transported to North America in the 1700s.
Joel Walker Sweeney (1810-1860), a white banjoist in blackface, on the cover of the sheet music for the song "Jenny Get Your Hoe Cake Done" (1840). (Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.)
By the late 1830s, white entertainers wearing blackface makeup and singing what they called black songs had adopted the banjo. Known as "minstrels" by the 1840s, they became widely popular, touring the United States, Britain, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand. They created horrid caricatures of African Americans that justified slavery and segregation, violence, and discrimination against free African Americans. Though much of their music drew on white American and European folk and popular music, even opera, minstrels claimed that they learned their music from African Americans. They made up fictitious sources like "Gumbo Chaff, A.M.A. First Banjo Player to the King of Congo" and frequented black neighborhoods, dances, work sites, and slave quarters to learn tunes. They adopted African American banjo songs and wrote their own songs with similar structures that, in turn, passed into black folk tradition. Real black performance clashed with the racist stereotypes that antebellum minstrelsy nourished. With a few minor exceptions, established minstrel companies excluded African Americans until the Civil War. Yet, minstrelsy spawned opportunities for black performers. A few black minstrel groups appeared outside the main minstrel venues and in the late 1850s white promoters put together an African American minstrel troupe that toured Britain without blackface.
Minstrels, especially Joel Sweeney, who began playing a four string gourd banjo, popularized banjos with four long strings and one short string, as well as wood frame rims rather than gourds to stretch the skin. A new string tuned four or five notes below the lowest string on the old four string banjos had been added. While rural blacks and whites continued to make gourd banjos into the 1900s, by the 1850s, even among the enslaved, frame-headed five string-banjos had become dominant. Still, many of the oldest African American banjo tunes, such as "Reuben" and "Old Joe Clark," can be played easily without the "new" fifth string, exactly as they could have been played on the original four string banjo.
"The Sabbath among Slaves," illustration from "Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, an American Slave," 1849. (Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.)
Across the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth century, the banjo energized dances among the enslaved and the "freed." Scholars such as Samuel Floyd and Michael Gomez explain that these dances were among the sites where African Americans forged a unified culture out of disparate African cultures. Like its West African ancestors, the banjo joined small drums, homemade percussion instruments, hand clapping, and the stomping dancers' feet to create polyrhythms. Dances that were born in Africa merged with European and European American dances like the Virginia Reel and the quadrille, all with West African-inspired harmonies and rhythm. The banjo provided these dances with a driving beat, the syncopated counterpoint of shifting accents, and endless rhythmic and melodic variations.
Judging by newspaper articles, runaway slave advertisements, and narratives of the enslaved, African American banjo playing had been relatively rare compared to black fiddling in the 1700s. Yet similar materials and the memories of former slaves gathered by the WPA in the 1930s suggest that banjo playing spread widely in the first half of the nineteenth century. The forced migration of hundreds of thousands of slaves from Virginia and Maryland, where banjo playing had first been concentrated, to slave states across the Appalachians and in the Cotton South, spread the banjo and intensified the role of its dances in bringing African Americans together.
Changes in banjos popularized by the white minstrels made banjo more accessible to the enslaved. Frame-headed banjos were easier to make than the old gourd banjos. Not needing a harvest of gourds, the enslaved used old cheese boxes, grain measures, barrel rims, and wood they bent themselves to make banjo heads. Even homemade frame-headed banjos were louder and sturdier than the old gourds. Moreover, a growing number of slaves who "worked out" for some wages, as well as others who gained cash in the underground economy of selling what they produced behind their masters' backs, were able to purchase manufactured banjos. The minstrels' popularization of the banjo and black music gave black banjoists opportunities to make money busking on street corners and at gatherings such as elections, holiday celebrations, and markets.
Horace Weston in an S.S. Stewart publicity photo, ca. 1880. (HTC Photographs 1.1073, courtesy of Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University.)
Horace Weston, was born in Derby, Connecticut in 1825 and died in New York 22 May 1890. Weston was billed as "the world's greatest banjoist" and "Champion Banjoist of the World," and toured the United States, Britain, and Germany. S. S. Stewart, the leading contemporary figure of the banjo world, built custom banjos for Weston and published Weston's compositions and arrangements.
After the Civil War, black banjo playing developed through constant interaction with white show business banjoists, European American folk banjoists themselves inspired by black influence and white minstrelsy, and a new commercial banjo industry of banjo manufacturers, entertainers, and the purveyors of music, lessons, and instruction books. Four major banjo techniques emerged. Two had West African roots: down picking, described above, and two-finger picking, which involved striking the strings down with the thumb and pulling up with the index or middle finger. White minstrels first popularized the third technique, "guitar banjo," which borrowed heavily from popular music and parlor guitar playing of the time. In this technique the banjoist hits down on strings with the thumb and pulls up on individual strings with two or three fingers. Influenced by the mandolin's popularity, the fourth major playing technique, flat pick or plectrum playing, emerged toward the end of the century. All sorts of variations and combinations of these techniques appeared among black players. By the end of the nineteenth century, metal either covered or replaced the wooden frame rims on banjos, frets were added, metal strings replaced gut, and a variety of mechanisms were added to banjoes to produce a loud, clear treble sound. Black banjoists welcomed these innovations.
Black minstrel companies emerged after the Civil War offering real black music and humor, not pale imitations. Some white audiences objected that African American minstrels did not behave as the white minstrels did. African American criticized black minstrels for perpetuating racist stereotypes, but many of these minstrels subverted racist stereotypes through satire. Black minstrel banjoists like Weston became show business stars in the United States and beyond. James Bohee (1844-1897) and George Bohee (d. 1930) began performing as banjoists and dancers in Boston in the 1860s. After touring with a minstrel company in the late 1870s, the Bohees remained in Great Britain from the 1880s, where James Bohee ran a banjo instruction studio patronized by London high society. The Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII, took banjo lessons there. Hosea Easton (1854-1899), born in Hartford, Connecticut, arrived in Australia in 1877 with a black show business troupe that called itself the Fisk Jubilee Singers, although they had no connection with Fisk University. Easton became a seminal figure in banjo entertainment in Australia and New Zealand.
Eleven Hampton Institute members of a typical turn-of-the-century college banjo, mandolin, and guitar club, Hampton, Virginia, ca. 1898. (Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.)
The working class whites of the minstrel shows, Southern folk banjoists, and African American country banjoists could not pay for expensive banjos and might make their own if they needed one. Consequently, the nineteenth century commercial banjo industry created a market for the banjo in the proper middle class, and even in upper class Victorian parlors. Philadelphia capitalist S.S. Stewart published a cascade of books, pamphlets, sheet music, and his S.S. Stewart's Banjo and Guitar Journal, championing the idea of "elevating the banjo" and often denying the African ancestry and black origin that had been accepted by all until after the Civil War. Using the guitar banjo style and demanding sight reading from standard musical notation (and thus the purchase of the sheet music Stewart and others sold), a parlor banjo movement joined parallel operations for the mandolin and the guitar to set up clubs in neighborhoods, work sites, and colleges that played sentimental, light classical, and pseudo-black music sold by Stewart and his competitors. The banjo lessons that Edward VII, Queen Victoria's son, took from the Bohees registered the success of Stewart and his competitors in repositioning the banjo in the late Victorian world.
Middle class African Americans later set up black banjo, mandolin, and guitar clubs. In the early 1900s black newspapers across the country covered the concerts of the most important black club, Washington D. C.'s Aeolian Mandolin, Guitar, and Banjo Society, as "society" news. In April 1902 the Aeolians had performances scheduled in Washington, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. In April 1903 more than two thousand filled Washington's Zion Baptist Church for a program featuring the Aeolians.
This movement fostered the musical literacy and technical skill that the generation of African Americans born after emancipation used to create their own new music, "ragtime," which was rooted in the rhythms of black string band dance music popular in Kansas and Missouri, and applied older banjo syncopations to the piano. In 1895, ragtime's foremost composer Scott Joplin set up his shingle in Sedalia, Missouri, as a teacher not only of the piano, but of parlor music's trio, the banjo, the guitar, and the mandolin.
James Reese Europe (1881-1919) leading the Clef Club Symphony Orchestra at the Manhattan Casino, New York City, 11 May 1911. (Photo courtesy of the Eubie Blake Collection at the Maryland Historical Society.)
Ragtime dominated American popular music from the late 1890s until the First World War. It included composed piano scores, black country dance music, white and black popular songs, the all black Broadway of the early 1900s, and the early jazz and blues both initially seen as new forms of ragtime. Ragtime brought an explosion of new black-originated dances that swept out of the south, some "cleaned up" for white urban tastes by white dance entrepreneurs like George and Irene Castle, who created the foxtrot in order to make the blues-based slow drag acceptable for white "society."
Banjos were at the center of ragtime, but no American cylinder recordings of black ragtime banjoists have been found. The early recording industry largely shunned black performers. Yet, more white ragtime banjo recordings were made than piano recordings. Top white recording artists such as banjoists Fred Van Eps and Vess Ossman recorded banjo versions of Joplin's piano rags. Most ragtime popular songs were published with banjo arrangements, and ragtime composers like Joplin dedicated scores to black banjoists and annotated their piano scores with instructions for the pianist to play like a banjoist.
In the first decade of the 20th century instruments with heads like banjos, but with fingerboards and strings such as one might find on guitars, mandolins, and mandolas, became popular in dance bands that played ragtime and tangos, as well as the new blues and jazz. New York-based pianist, arranger, and band leader James Reese Europe's bands reflected the confluence of the banjo and the most sophisticated forms of ragtime. Europe believed banjos and other string instruments like mandolins and fiddles reflected African American heritage. In 1916, his Society Orchestra, then New York's top dance band, contained five banjoists among its nine musicians. The Clef Club Symphony Orchestras that Europe organized for benefit concerts at the Manhattan Casino in 1910 and 1911 and Carnegie Hall in 1912 and 1913 had banjos of every kind: five-string banjos, cello banjos, true mandolin banjos, mandola banjos, and tenor banjos. The concerts featured dance, show tunes, and formal ragtime-influenced compositions by Europe and African American composers such as Fredrick Bryan, Ford Dabney, and Will Marion Cook.
Gus Cannon (1883-1979), ca. 1920. (Public domain photo, courtesy of the author.)
The traditional black dances powered by banjos, increasingly joined by fiddles and guitars, did not go away. At the turn of the century, banjoists such as Gus Cannon played music that showed how ragtime lived along with the older dance musics and the new styles of jazz and blues. Born to a Northern Misssissippi musical family, Cannon learned fiddle and banjo as a child. At fifteen, Cannon could make as much playing fiddle and banjo at old-time country "balls" in the Mississippi Delta near Clarksdale as he could in a week's labor in a levee camp. Cannon played down-picking banjo for square dance tunes and picked jigs in the thumb and index finger two-finger style. He strummed ragtime tunes with his whole hand and claimed that this technique replicated tenor banjo. He mastered blues and black ragtime withn the guitar banjo technique using four, and sometimes five, fingers.
While Gus Cannon never worked as a full-time musician, from 1914 to 1930 several months each year he starred as "Banjo Joe" in medicine shows that toured the South and the Midwest. Often in blackface, Cannon played banjo, performed tricks like juggling his banjo and catching it in the middle of a song, and told jokes. He sometimes billed himself as "the colored champion banjo pugilist of the world," and claimed he would give a thousand dollars to anyone who could outplay him.
From 1927 to 1930 Gus Cannon made thirty-four recordings for the Paramount, Victor, and Brunswick companies. Except for one old-time banjo song, they were all blues, ragtime popular songs, and rocking country ragtime, played in the guitar banjo finger picking style. Yet, the high pitch and treble timbre of Cannon's banjo required low pitched rhythm guitar and jug accompaniment to support blues singing and dance. The juke joints at the center of the Deep South blues circuit hired soloists, and guitarists who sang could work these venues. A banjoist who required a band could not, and as a result banjoists disappeared from the country blues.
In 1962 the Rooftop Singers, a folk group led by banjoist Erik Darling, took their version of Cannon's 1929 recording "Walk Right In" to the top of the Billboard "Hot 100" chart. Folk and blues enthusiasts helped Cannon, who by this time was an aging yard man in Memphis and in poverty so deep that he often pawned his banjo, gain some royalties. He appeared at folk venues and at New York's Friends of Old Time Music concerts. In 1963 he cut the Stax album Walk Right In, whose folk oriented selections contain the gusto of his early recordings, if not their vocal or banjo excellence.
The Washingtonians, New York, 1924. Band members, from left to right: Sonny Greer, Drums; Charlie Ivis, Trombone; Otto Harwick, reeds; Elmer Snowden, banjo; Bubber Miley, Trumpet; and Duke Ellington, Piano. (Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.)
From just before World War I to the mid-1930s, the tenor banjo and the guitar banjo's propulsive rhythm drove everything from small trios to large orchestras. The tenor banjo emerged around 1910. The mandolin-like pairs of strings on the mandola banjo were hard to tune and did not produce the same strong clear tone that single strings did. Musicians eliminated one string from each of that instrument's four pairs of strings, reducing the number of strings from eight to four. Banjo manufacturers followed, marketing the instruments as tenor banjos. Tuned like a viola, the tenor banjo instrument had the banjo's loudness and access to the harmonic possibilities of the mandolin. Pitched higher than five-string banjos in fifths with the strings at C, G, D, and A, tenor banjos allowed their players to easily play treble block chords that cut across several octaves up and down the banjo's neck. Played with a flat pick like a mandolin, without the five-string banjo's fifth string locked at a fixed note, tenor banjos could produce brilliant chords in any of the keys required by horn-based bands, making them popular for dance music.
Even in a small jazz band like the Washingtonians pictured above, blaring brass and saxophones could overpower rhythm accompaniment from the small guitars then available. The band, let alone the audience and dancers, could not hear such rhythm. However, the tenor banjo's driving treble chords could cut through screaming brass and strident piano. By 1920 this instrument propelled the hundreds of African American jazz orchestras that swept the United States and then the world. Jazz banjoists like Elmer Snowden, Zach White, Johnny St. Cyr, Bud Scott, Noble Sissle, Fred Guy, Icky Robinson, Danny Barker, and Freddie Green later became major jazz guitarists, band leaders, and composers.
Many African American jazz banjoists, particularly players with New Orleans roots such as Johnny St. Cyr and Bud Scott, were guitarists who switched to the banjo and played banjos configured like the guitars (called guitar-banjos). St. Cyr said that he made his own guitar banjo at first because he could not get work as a guitarist, as his guitar was not loud enough.
In 1924, "Papa" Charlie Jackson (1887-1938, born William Henry Jackson), who played guitar banjo with a flat pick, became the first male African American to make solo blues records. A Chicago street busker who had worked in minstrel and medicine shows, Jackson recorded show business blues and ragtime-influenced tunes from 1924 to 1934.
The jazz banjoists of the 1920s and 1930s were the last major expression of black popular banjo playing. Their cosmopolitan lifestyle and urbane, often tuxedoed, appearance, dignified demeanor, and increasing musical sophistication all contrast with the mistaken idea that African Americans abandoned the banjo due to shame over its association with degrading racist imagery, rural roots, or slavery.
Rufus Kasey Huddleston, Virginia, 1984. (Photo courtesy of the Ferrum College Collection/Blue Ridge Institute.)
Over the course of the 20th century, the banjo declined from its position as an instrument played in most forms of popular and folk music and some art musics, both black and white, to an instrument generally played only by folk music revivalists and bluegrass enthusiasts. The old time black dances died out. Pianos and guitars ruled the blues. Large arch top and, later, electric guitars displaced banjos in jazz and most dance music. In 1941 African American ethnomusicologist, educator, and composer John Work III could not find a working black old time string band in Nashville for Fisk University's seventy-fifth anniversary celebration. Work put Nashville street banjoist Nathan Frazier together with Murfreesboro, Tennessee fiddler Frank Patterson to recreate the black string band music of the early 1900s. North Carolina black fiddler and banjoist Joe Thompson, who played in a family band with his brother Nate on banjo and his cousin Odell on guitar, found little interest in this music when he returned from World War II. Joe Thompson put away his fiddle, and Odell Thompson began playing blues and, later, rock and roll, on an electric guitar.
In a few small patches of the piedmont and mountain South, however, the older black music of square, round, and buck and wing dances persisted into the forties and fifties. In 1946 folklorists Stu Jameson and Margaret Mayo found and recorded fiddler John Lusk's great black string band, powered by three-finger-style banjoist Murphy Gribble and guitarist Albert York in Campaign, Tennessee. Black old time dances accompanied by banjo and fiddle continued in the Kenmore section of Kensington, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C., into the 1950s.
The 1960s folk music, blues, and old time music revivals inspired folklorists like Kip Lornell to scour North Carolina and Virginia back roads in the 1970s and early 1980s for African American banjoists. Surviving black banjoists such as Dink Roberts, Nate and Odell Thompson, Rufus Kasey, John Snipes, Jake Staggers, Clarence Tross, Elizabeth Cotten, John Lawson Tyree, Leonard Bowles, Irvin Cook, Lewis Hairston, John Jackson, Frank Hovington, John "Uncle Homer" Walker, and Etta Baker were located, interviewed, and recorded by folklorists and banjo enthusiasts. Some had not played the banjo outside of their homes for decades. Jackson, Baker, and Cotten, who were better known as guitarists, and Odell Thompson and his fiddler cousin Joe Thompson, performed at folk music venues and traditional music festivals across the United States and beyond. Outmoded racist stereotypes of African American banjoists began to be replaced by the dynamic swinging music of these black banjo survivors.
African American musicians at the 2010 Black Banjo Reunion at Appalachian State University Boone, North Carolina, 27 March 2010. Banjoists in this picture have a (B) after their names. Back row: Boo Hanks (with cane), Don Vappie (face hidden) (B), Cheick Hamala Diabate(B), Otis Taylor(B), Gerald Dean Murray(B), Afi Scruggs (face covered), Angela Wellman(B), Diane Ferlatte(B), Norris Bennett(B) (in black hat), Carl Johnson (in billed cap) (B), Tony Thomas (B), Gloria Thomas Glassaway, Rique Prince (braids only), "Salty" Bill Salter (derby), Joan Dickerson (B), Big Ron Hunter. Front Row: Jerron "Blind Boy" Paxton (B), Thomas Justin Robinson (B), Rhiannon Giddens Laffan (B), Dom Flemons (B), Hubby Jenkins (B). (Photo courtesy of Skye McFarland.)
Launched in the late twentieth century by folk performers such as Jim Collier, Julius Lester, Sparky Rucker, and Taj Mahal, and reinforced by blues performers such as Otis Taylor, Corey Harris, and Alvin Youngblood Hart, a black banjo revival blossomed in the early twenty-first century. It is firmly rooted in the growth of pride in African American identity and culture and the reexamination of African American and American history produced by the civil rights and Black Power movements. The revival has been nourished by scholarship on the banjo's African roots, Caribbean origin, and African American history begun in the 1950s by Dena Epstein and continued in the work of Cece Conway, Kip Lornell, Robert Cantwell, Robert Winans, and, more recently, Shlomo Pestcoe, Greg Adams, Daniel Jatta, and Ulf Jägfors. Black traditional banjo music became widely available again with the 1990 release of Altamont: Black Stringband Music from the Library of Congress, which combined most of Work's recordings of Nathan Frazier and Frank Patterson with Stu Jameson's 1946 recordings of Murph Gribble, John Lusk, and Albert York; the 1998 release of Black Banjo Songsters of North Carolina and Virginia by Smithsonian Folkways records; and the establishment of the Digital Library of Appalachia, which put scores of recordings and interviews with the last generation of traditional black banjoists on the Internet. Starting in 1975, all of Gus Cannon's 1927-1930 recordings also became available.
African American percussionist-turned-banjoist Sule Greg Wilson; black old-time string bands like the Ebony Hillbillies and the Carolina Chocolate Drops; the soul, jazz, and rhythm and blues bassists- and guitarists-turned-banjoists Al Caldwell and Don Vappie; and scholar banjo players like Rex Ellis of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Tony Thomas have expanded the black banjo revival. Musicians, black and white, have even taken up the ekonting and other West African banjo ancestors. The 2005 Black Banjo Gathering at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina; the 2005 release of Recapturing the Banjo; the 2011 Grammy award for Best Traditional Folk Album for the Carolina Chocolate Drops album Genuine Negro Jig; and the 2013 publication of Thomas's "Why African Americans Put the Banjo Down," the first scholarly essay by a black scholar on black banjo history, in Hidden in the Mix: The African American Presence in Country Music, have been high points in this revival. Black banjo playing is no longer a relic of the past, but a growing feature of African American music and culture.
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