“The banjar arrived here–it was called the banjar and other things–in 1740 in Maryland and Virginia, and later in North Carolina,” says Dr. Cece Conway, a folklorist, author, film maker and professor at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C. Conway is also the co-producer and co-annotator of the Black Banjo Songsters of North Carolina and Virginia CD, a companion piece of sorts to her book African Banjo Echoes in Appalachia (see below), and she was the second wife of the late Tommy Thompson, a guy who knew a little something about playing a banjo. Thus, to say that she speaks fluent banjo is an understatement. Her statement of origin seems straightforward enough; however, dig a little on the Web or elsewhere, and you’ll encounter claims that the instrument reached these shores in the 17th century. Onward from its time of arrival as a gourd instrument brought to the New World by Africans (whenever you think that might have been), the banjo has presented puzzles that remain unsolved and points that can occasionally get contentious. For example, why did it take almost 100 years, sometime in the 1830s, for whites to start learning to play the banjo? What of the long-held belief that the downstroke, or clawhammer, style of playing was African while the other style was not, which is a debatable contention these days? And what role, if any, did minstrelsy play in bringing the banjo to Appalachia?
If you’d like to get waist deep in some of these discussions and/or learn more about string bands and banjo players in North Carolina and elsewhere, here are a few places to start:
African Banjo Echoes in Appalachia: A Study of Folk Traditions by Cecelia Conway (University of Tennessee Press 1995). Conway examines black banjo music in the Upland South, focusing on its influences on the whites of the same region and its similarities to traditional musical performances in West Africa.
America’s Instrument: The Banjo in the Ninteenth Century by Philip Gura and James F. Bollman (University of North Carolina Press 1999). The evolution of the banjo from gourd instrument to minstrel-show centerpiece and beyond is detailed, along with a fascinating look at the music business in the 19th century.
That Half-Barbaric Twang: The Banjo in American Popular Culture by Karen Linn (University of Illinois Press 1994). A study of the banjo and the “idea of the banjo” in American society.
String Bands in the North Carolina Piedmont by Bob Carlin (McFarland & Company 2004). Clawhammer-style hero Carlin covers all aspects of string band music in the Piedmont region, from the introduction of banjo and fiddle to the area to the significance of square dances and fiddler’s conventions.
To get your ears involved, track down these CDs:
Black Banjo Songsters of North Carolina and Virginia (Smithsonian Folkways). This 32-song collection, coproduced by Conway and Scott Odell (head of the musical instrument laboratory of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History from 1963-1978), features recordings made between 1974 and 1997 by Joe and Odell Thompson, Etta Baker, a fascinating gentleman by the name of Dink Roberts, and others.
From Where I Stand: The Black Experience in Country Music(Warner Brothers). The first disc of this three-disc box set focuses on the music of the string band era, rewarding the listener with songs from the Mississippi Sheiks, the Memphis Jug Band, the Mississippi Mud Steppers, and a trio that serves as one of the Ebony Hillbillies’ biggest influences: Murph Gribble, John Lusk and Albert York.
Violin, Sing the Blues for Me: African-American Fiddlers 1926-1949(Old Hat Ent.). This is a 24-track collection that spotlights bluesy fiddle playing while serving as a truly important document of the black string band movement and its aftermath.
Sabrina’s Holiday –The Ebony Hillbillies (Subway Records). Ballads and dance music created by banjo, fiddle, dulcimer and bass in the core of the Big Apple. To hear clips and order the CD, visit ebonyhillbillies.com.