Banjo not just not for hillbillies

by Jordan Green

The ghosts of anonymous slaves hover over this music.

Bob Carlin’s new book,The Birth of the Banjo: Joel Walker Sweeney and Early Minstrelsy, published earlier this year by the Winston-Salem imprint McFarland, is the reason for the night’s gathering at Winston-Salem’s Garage. That, and his own storied career as an exemplar of clawhammer-style banjo playing. The capacity crowd, mostly falling within a middle-aged to elderly demographic, waits expectantly for Carlin’s chautauqua to begin. Soon proprietor Richard Emmett will be hustling up some metal folding chairs to accommodate the overflow.

Dressed in a stylish blue and black shirt tucked into high-riding khakis, a checked jeff cap, rectangular glasses and a beatnicky soul patch, the honored lecturer and musician sits at the side of the stage submitting to an interview minutes before showtime, as his ad hoc band rehearses in the back-stage lounge.

“It’s difficult to come up with a lot of hard information,” Carlin says of the black musicians who bore the instrument from the time of its origins in slave communities – and perhaps even before the slaves’ transatlantic voyage from west Africa to the Americas – up to the dawn of the bluegrass age. “Information was primarily passed down in the oral tradition. They did not have access to the media except in the mid-nineteenth century through books published by abolitionists, and then in the twentieth century through black-owned newspapers.”

If there’s one thing Carlin – a Lexington, NC musician who’s been making field recordings for at least two decades, with musician and producer credits ranging from 2003’s Songs and Ballads of the Bituminous Miners to Dolly Parton’s 2002 Sugar Hill disc Halos and Horns – wants to set straight, it’s that Joel Walker Sweeney did not invent the banjo.

Carlin contends in his book that it is a myth that Sweeney added the fifth drone string and developed the instrument’s hoop resonator. Carlin likes to describe Sweeney, who grew up in present-day Appomattox County, Va. and likely learned to play music from area blacks, as the “Elvis” of the 1840s. Aside from reportedly being a charismatic and talented performer, Carlin writes that Sweeney is renowned for popularizing the banjo by taking his act to New York and then on to England, and that his fame coincided with the first mass manufacture of the instrument.

It’s impossible to disentangle the banjo’s early popularity from the blackface minstrelsy that was its entertainment bosom buddy in the in mid-19th century. “Jenny Get Your Hoe Cake Done” is one of the less obviously racist songs in Sweeney’s repertoire. In keeping with the banjoist’s blackface appearance, the lyrics are written in a white imitation of black dialect and seem to reflect white notions of who black people are. “Now white folks, I’d hab you know/ Dare is no music like de old banjo/ And if you want to hear it ring/ Just watch dis finger on de string,” goes one verse.

Carlin rejects my suggestion that the minstrelsy songs amount to mostly white preoccupation with and mockery of black life. Before they were removed from their Southern rural context, the songs carried a coded subtext that gave voice to authentic black experiences, he suggests.

“”Jim Crow’ is a very flexible song in which they could use the song to talk about class relationships,” he says.

Still, it’s easy to understand why young African Americans – and many young whites – want to distance themselves from this music, and why the banjo has acquired so much baggage. After Sweeney, Carlin writes, one of the most popular white banjoists was Polk Miller, a Virginian who launched a successful professional career performing at Confederate memorials and giving a story-song presentation entitled “Old Times Down South.”

Carlin and his old-time banjo-playing friends are duly respectful of the African roots of the instrument, but they appear to hold little hope that the banjo will come to be embraced by a new generation of African Americans. I mention that Dom Flemmons is the only young black banjo player that comes to mind.

“Young African Americans, like young hillbilly Americans, are moving away from their roots,” Carlin says. “They jettison all the baggage. A generation like Dom’s comes along and it’s almost too late.”

The quiet audience, mostly white, listens with rapt attention as Carlin sits on the stage and riffs on the banjo’s musical and social history, demonstrating on various instruments how styles and makes evolved. Then he summons friend Marvin Gaster, a retired farmer and teacher from Lee County, to the stage.

Gaster nimbly steps onto the platford and pulls out a banjo, and Carlin switches to guitar to accompany him. When he plucks the strings with his thumb and forefinger, Carlin purses his lips like a workman intent on tying a proper knot or some other similarly vexing task.

“I lived where the land flattened, where there were plantations,” Gaster says. “A lot of the music came from black folks. This is a song – I used to call it “Possum Up a Gum Stump,’ but then I learned there was another song called “Possum Up a Gum Stump.’ A lot of the black people had animals that talked [in their songs]…. I call it “Going Down to Cindy’s House’ just because of that other song.”

And he makes the banjo ring.

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