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So You Think You Know the Banjo?
If you've ever considered banjo music to be an American creation, you don't know the banjo. In fact, if you think of the banjo as an inherently Southern instrument, you don't know the banjo. If you think that the banjo can teach us nothing about American history, Southern culture and modern race relations, then you certainly don't know the banjo.
And you’ve probably never heard the Carolina Chocolate Drops.
For those of you like me who are not formally trained musicologists, here's a super-quick summation of the first 400 years of banjo history:
1) The handmade gourd instruments that would become the modern banjo originated in West Africa. 2) Enslaved Africans carried the “banjar” and its music to North America by way of the Caribbean. 3) Traditional string music (and the banjo itself) was appropriated from slave culture and was spread into the greater American popular culture through minstrel shows and blackface performances. And 4) the banjo was popularized throughout the United States and Europe by white performers, with various regional playing styles emerging and evolving simultaneously – from the rhythmic role the banjo played in traditional New Orleans jazz to the fingerpicking sound of bluegrass that bloomed in the Appalachian mountains, among many others.
In short, we owe the banjo's modern presence in America to Africans who were brought here against their will. Thus has the banjo become like okra, an undeserved gift to all parts of Southern culture, but one that came only from the people our ancestors enslaved.
If any of this is news to you, welcome to the club.
"The Old Plantation" is an anonymous folk painting from the 1700s depicting slaves dancing to banjo music.
In the last five years, pop music has become a proverbial breeding ground for a not-quite-folk "revival" of sorts, with traditional string instruments being wielded in a way that is — intentionally or not — devoid of much historical context. Bands like Mumford & Sons have reintroduced and redefined the banjo to a new generation of listeners, but without drawing clear lines to deeper musical traditions.
Meanwhile, the once-country star Taylor Swift — the same one who passionately strummed her banjo onstage at the Grammy Awards just three years ago — has unapologetically traded in her five-string for an electronic beat machine on her latest album, “1989.” The fact that this drastic interchange was so easily achieved and widely unquestioned points toward the expendability of the banjo in pop music today.
We're seeing more banjos than we have in years, but the instrument seems more of a novel accessory than a necessity to many artists.
With its mixed bag of presentations in today’s popular music, it's easy to see how the banjo is suffering from an incredibly vast identity crisis. In this era of "fauxlk" music, [quite literally "faux-folk" music], the true origins of the banjo get lost in the broad sweep of popular culture.
But if we wind back the clock and parse out the pieces of the banjo's history that have been widely forgotten, the result is a fascinating picture of America (and, specifically, of the South) that can teach us incredible things about ourselves and provide a stepping stone to a greater understanding of one another.
Thankfully, the Carolina Chocolate Drops are here to help us out.
The Carolina Chocolate Drops: Malcolm Person, Rhiannon Giddens, Hubby Jenkins and Rowan Corbett.
Experiencing a performance by the Carolina Chocolate Drops is like taking a crash course in the parts of American history you had no idea you'd missed. As one of the few all-black traditional string bands performing today, the group has become a champion for the history of old-time string music, which they make clear by weaving historical and contextual information into their live performances.
The Drops' 2010 album, “Genuine Negro Jig,” won the then-trio of Rhiannon Giddens, Dom Flemons and Justin Robinson a Grammy for best traditional folk album and sparked a wider conversation about the rich lineage of string music in the Southern black community. The press release that accompanied the album called it "the sound of history revealing itself," and the revelations continue despite changes in the group's lineup. Rhiannon Giddens is the only member of that Grammy-winning trio still in the band today, but the spirit from which the Carolina Chocolate Drops were born — one of passion, talent and heritage – remains unchanged.
The Drops today are a quartet of multi-instrumentalists, each of whom arrived at old-time string music from a different place: Rhiannon Giddens through contra dances and playing with legendary fiddler Joe Thompson, Hubby Jenkins through playing country blues music, Rowan Corbett from a love of Irish music, and Malcolm Parson through old-time jazz and the cello. Despite their differing backgrounds, they're all united by their passion for traditional string music and an educational mission that aims to bring the true origins of their own musical tradition to light.
This past October, I had the chance to sit down with the Carolina Chocolate Drops on the stage before the second show of a two-night stand at the Clifton Center in Louisville, Ky. With their instruments surrounding us but not too close at hand, we talked at length about the stories and historical tidbits that normally fill the time between songs in their live performances. I wanted to learn about the banjo itself — not just its history, but its cultural and racial significance.
The Drops were happy to oblige, and their words still resonate in my head and heart months later.
In all honesty, this project may have affected me more deeply than any other I've had the chance to work on. The quartet's insights into the greater narrative of the banjo and what it means for all of us demonstrated real wisdom, punctuated with intentionality and passion. The Drops synthesized vast information about the banjo's lineage into a comprehensible body of knowledge, and then conveyed it to me with tact, emotion, poise and honesty. I actually left that stage with a new outlook on the world and my place in it. I felt more aware and challenged than ever, but also exhilarated and inspired. My hope is now to "get to the roots of things," as Hubby put it — to seek a similar level honesty and truth in all that I do.
And I have the Drops to thank for that.
In that spirit, it felt most apt to share with you the thoughts and ideas the Drops so graciously shared with me in the most direct way possible. To read their words is one thing. To hear Rhiannon, Hubby, Malcolm and Rowan speak them is quite another. I hope they will be as meaningful to you as they were to me.
So now, let me tell you this story in an unconventional way — with a few of our own words in front of your eyes, while the Drops speak to you directly. Grab your headphones and listen — with an open mind and heart — as we set the record straight about the banjo.
In its first 400 (or so) years, the banjo has spanned continents, crafted musical genres and crossed borders of many varieties. Without missing a beat, Rhiannon Giddens sums up the "bullet points" of banjo history and playing styles.
Jenna Strucko interviews the Drops on stage at the Clifton Center in Louisville.
Why does the banjo have so many origin stories? Some consider the banjo a Scots-Irish instrument, some think it hails from the hollers and front porches of the Appalachian Mountains, and some have only ever heard it as a passing addition to a Top 40 song. But the African roots of the banjo have not been entirely forgotten.
In spite of the American tendency to appropriate cultures without attribution or apology, our melting pot at large often produces incredible synergies, and the modern banjo is no exception. This is why the banjo's evolution through a "clash of cultures" is a beautiful thing.
We already know the banjo has the power to define the South. Look at “Hee Haw,” “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “Deliverance.” But what would happen if that narrative were more well-rounded? Beyond those TV reruns, the banjo tells tales of finding hope and connection in the most unlikely of places. Here's to taking back the narrative and setting the story straight.
These days, the need is greater than ever for genuine conversation about the intangible parts of our culture that are difficult to discuss — race relations, privilege, fear and many more. And while the voices are louder and more numerous than ever, entry points into genuine conversation are harder to come by. Thankfully, music can offer an avenue to begin productive discussions, but only if we listen.
I've heard it said that most people can transform vast amounts of information into knowledge quite easily, but gaining true wisdom about a subject often comes only after someone provides context and connections to help us synthesize our solitary pillars of knowledge. In no small way, the Carolina Chocolate Drops stand in the gap between knowledge and wisdom, providing the context we all need to better understand our shared musical history and better relate to one another.
As this exploration draws to a close, I find myself reflecting most on Rowan Corbett’s simple but potent questions: What other stuff have I been missing? What other things have I only scratched the surface of?
Exploring the history of the banjo has shifted my perspective on the way that I want to move through the world. I used to think I knew the banjo; now I know differently. I will no longer accept anything at face value, but I will choose to dig deeper, to find the roots and truths of things, and peel back the layers until the inevitable wisdom reveals itself.
And like the Carolina Chocolate Drops, I choose to see the beauty and hope in the banjo’s history, as well as its potential to bring people together.
Besides, just like Hubby Jenkins told us, the banjo is the friendliest of all instruments.