The Banjo Faces Its Shadow
The banjo’s timbre cuts to some of the deepest seams of America’s past. To a number of contemporary banjo players and composers, the well of history and associations surrounding the banjo becomes a musical parameter to be bent, subverted, or used to evoke a particular landscape or time.
Is there an instrument that comes with more cultural baggage than the banjo? For many, it evokes a stereotyped image of the rural white Southerner, as in the scary hillbillies of Deliverance and many a comedy sketch. In the 19th century, by contrast, the banjo served as a caricature of enslaved Africans, gaining wide popularity through blackface minstrel shows. The instrument’s deeper story moves around and between the stereotypes. This is a timbre that cuts to some of the deepest seams of America’s past. To a number of contemporary banjo players and composers, the well of history and associations surrounding the banjo becomes a musical parameter to be bent, subverted, or used to evoke a particular landscape or time.
The Birth of the Banjo
The banjo has its roots in West African instruments such as the ngoni, and possibly some Near Eastern stringed instruments which also feature a stretched membrane over a gourd resonator. African slaves on plantations in southern Maryland were documented playing gourd banjos as far back as the 17th century. Later on, white musicians learned the banjo from freed blacks and slaves and incorporated it into minstrel shows in the 19th century, resulting in the first uniquely American popular music.
The popularity of the minstrel show, coinciding with the start of the Industrial Revolution, led to the mass production of banjos using wooden hoops and metal brackets—materials more easily sourced than the traditional gourds. Minstrel Joel Walker Sweeney, the first white person known to play a banjo on stage, has been credited with adding a fifth string to the instrument. While many believe that Sweeney introduced the characteristic drone string, tuned above the other strings with its tuning peg jutting up from the neck, historical evidence appears to contradict this claim. Sweeney’s more likely contribution is the addition of a lower string, as well as the shift from gourds to drum-like resonating chambers. Beginning in 1848, 5-string banjos made by William Boucher in Baltimore were sold through mail order catalogs. Other companies soon followed, as the banjo was “refined” through ornate decorations and promoted as a parlor instrument for the upper class (accompanied by a de-Africanized repertoire and technique, referred to as “classical” style). Eventually these instruments made their way into the mountains and were quickly embraced by the predominantly English, Scottish, and Irish settlers.
Minstrel songs, incorporating rhythms and melodic tropes from transplanted African music, took their place alongside the old English fiddle tunes, old ballads, and new ballads composed by Appalachian settlers to express the social and economic realities of their environment. This hybrid music came to be known as old-time. More directly transmitted influences from African-American music, particularly spirituals and the blues, continued to enter this repertoire into the 20th century.
The Folk Revival
The popularity of old-time music in its native environment had faded somewhat by the 1940s due to a population shift to factory jobs in cities, along with the widespread distribution of commercial music by radio. Yet even while old-time music was becoming an endangered tradition in its birthplace, it began to be rediscovered by folklorists outside of Appalachia. These scholars, including the Seeger family (composers Charles and Ruth Crawford Seeger, their son Mike Seeger and his half-brother Pete Seeger) along with John and Alan Lomax, sought out and recorded folk musicians, learning and transcribing their songs.
Seeing the Appalachian ballad tradition as expressing the voices of the downtrodden, Alan Lomax and Pete Seeger adopted this music as a rallying cry for social justice. Lomax organized concerts that brought together many of the folk musicians that he discovered through his travels while field recording, and sang the old ballads himself in union halls as well as ethnomusicological conferences. New songs in the older styles were written by Seeger, Woody Guthrie and others, and thus old-time music began to reach a wider audience. Pete Seeger’s banjo became a symbol of the 1950s and ’60s folk music revival, a new political awakening of the union movement, the civil rights struggle, and later of protest against the war in Vietnam.
A Path Through the Bluegrass
In the midst of this folk revival centered in New York City, an independent revival of the banjo occurred around Nashville, Tennessee. In the 1920s and ’30s, the Grand Old Opry established itself as a weekly live stage and radio show devoted to country music, an urban transplant of old-time traditions to serve the many people who had moved to Nashville from the hills. The radio broadcasts also reached those still living in the country, and served to inspire many younger people to play this music. In the mid-1940s, the musical acts featured on this show began to increase the tempo of old songs to match the energy of the urban environment, most notably mandolinist and singer Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys. In 1948 a young banjo player named Earl Scruggs stepped into Monroe’s band and proceeded to redefine everyone’s conception of what the banjo could do. Scruggs developed a three-finger technique of picking, which allowed for a more agile rhythm in the execution of melody than the older downstroke style known as clawhammer. The instrument grew in prominence on the stage from anachronistic musical prop to a lead voice in the new style that emerged as bluegrass. In the early 1960s, the Scruggs technique of bluegrass playing reached a national audience through his recording of the theme for the TV show Beverly Hillbillies.
The fast, energetic finger picking established by Scruggs has become the banjo’s dominant sound image for most people. Depending on the geography and cultural environment in which this sound is received, the bluegrass banjo is often associated with a particular vision of America—either associated positively with the rural landscape, pride, and connection to cultural roots, or negatively to social conservatism or ethnic exclusivity. It is a strong sonic flavor, whichever mix of associations it has for the listener.
Bluegrass technique, defined by crisp rolls (arpeggiation and melodic embellishment across multiple strings) using metal finger picks, became the foundation for many innovative banjo players. In the 1970s, Tony Trischka developed the “melodic style” of bluegrass banjo playing. This style shifts focus away from arpeggiation to full attention on the lead melody, with chromatic embellishments. As a teacher, Trischka has been widely influential, releasing many instruction books and videos, as well as having some prominent players study under him.
One of Trischka’s students was a young Béla Fleck. Toward the end of the ’70s, Fleck adapted the bluegrass technique to harmonic and contrapuntal models from jazz and classical music, leading to a style that has become known as progressive bluegrass or new grass. Fleck is highly regarded as a master of banjo technique on the level of a classical musician, which he has applied to transcriptions of Bach partitas as well as his own compositions, exhibiting a wide stylistic palette. His collaborative exploration of the African origins of the banjo, traveling to West Africa to perform and record with master musicians there, may be experienced in the 2008 documentary Throw Down Your Heart.
Connections to the musical traditions of Africa may be traced more easily from the pre-bluegrass clawhammer style, which is the dominant tradition of old-time banjo playing. Maintaining a strong rhythmic groove through downstrokes with the back of a fingernail, interspersed with syncopated drone notes on the shorter fifth string (released by the thumb in between downstrokes), creates a strong rhythmic foundation for dance tunes traditionally played by the fiddle. Similar playing techniques with plucked string instruments may be found among griots of the Wasulu people. This connection may be plausibly traced through the little known history of black string bands in the late 19th and early 20th century.
Few if any recordings exist, but we have photographs, letters, and sheet music collections from black banjo players and fiddlers. One example is the Snowden Family Band of Knox County, Ohio—the group that may have taught the song “Dixie” to their white neighbor Dan Emmett, a minstrel singer. The meaning of the song’s lyrics change dramatically when viewed through the lens of this possible history, connected to Ellen Snowden’s childhood experience as a slave in Nanjemoy, Maryland. At a young age she was transplanted with one of the slave master’s relatives to Ohio, while her father remained behind. The black string band legacy has been reclaimed in the past decade through events such as the Black Banjo Gathering in Boone, North Carolina. This conference gave rise to the most famous group of black musicians playing old-time music, the Carolina Chocolate Drops.
Modern Perspectives on Old-Time Music
After the initial folk revival of the 1950s and ’60s, old-time banjo went underground. Mike Seeger played an important role in maintaining the fire by finding and promoting master musicians from the hills, revitalizing forgotten performance traditions such as gourd banjo and minstrel banjo through his own recordings, and passing on the craft to younger musicians. The record label Folkways, founded by Moses Asch in the late 1940s and acquired by the Smithsonian Institution in 1987, has released many recordings of outstanding artists in this musical lineage who had been discovered and recorded by the folklorists. Meanwhile, the mantle of old-time music has been taken on by a small but strong community that resembles in many ways the dedication and DIY ethos of the new music community.
As a composer and a self-taught banjo player, I have been drawn to the old-time music tradition for a number of reasons. I appreciate the wide expressive palette and range of tempo between dance tunes and murder ballads. I enjoy the ways that a tune can take on a very different sound and feel in the hands of different players, and appreciate that the tradition encourages this kind of personalization. I am also attracted to the variety of tunings used in old-time banjo playing beyond the standard G tuning (gDGBD, the small letter indicating the higher pitched fifth string) that bluegrass players tend to stick to.
Particular songs have given rise to tunings named after them, such as “Cumberland Gap” (gEADE), “Willie Moore” (gDGAD), and “Last Chance” (fDFCD). My own playing and composing for banjo has gravitated toward the relatively more common “Sawmill” or “Mountain Minor” tuning (gDGCD) and the “Double C” tuning (gCGCD, often transposed up a whole step to “Double D” for playing along with a fiddle tune). These tunings in old-time banjo serve to reinforce open-string drones and maximize the sympathetic vibrations within the instrument. Sometimes these drones result in interesting dissonances that are exploited for expressive effect and do not conform to traditional tonal harmony. I enjoy lowering the fifth string to an F# to produce a tritone relationship with the fourth string (bass), following the practice of the old master Dock Boggs. Old-time banjo players sometimes refer to these different tunings as “atmospheres.”
On a more fundamental level, I am drawn to the banjo as a means of grounding creative experimentation within a deep history that is relevant to connections that I am trying to make in my music. The legacy of slavery in the United States is one which is pushed fairly far back in our collective consciousness. The trauma of that institution still reverberates today in our economic structure, systems of social control, and self-segregation within our population. The banjo came into its own as an American instrument in the midst of that experience of slavery. It was brought into the white mainstream consciousness through the blackface minstrel show, a format which also continues to reverberate in mainstream American entertainment. In the process of this African instrument being adopted by popular society in America, it also took on the musical heritage of the English, Scottish, and Irish immigrants. It was embraced as an instrument of the Everyman, especially in the hollers and mining towns of Appalachia, where the banjo became a main outlet for expressing life’s troubles as well as a way of laying them aside through homespun entertainment. For the banjo to carry so many stories within it, charged with painful legacies and conflicting identities, makes it a potentially powerful medium for new music that creatively bends the associations with it.
This understanding of the banjo as an encapsulation of social history is one that makes sense to me when I think about my neighborhood of Hampden, Baltimore. The great bluegrass/country singer Hazel Dickens lived on one of these streets when she first moved to Baltimore from West Virginia, in search of factory work in the 1950s. While living here she met Mike Seeger at a rowhouse basement jam session, and was encouraged to become a songwriter. She remained in Baltimore and Washington DC for most of her life, and yet her songs express a constant sense of longing for the landscape of her childhood home. This tension of country identity and the urban environment is still palpable in the neighborhood today. When I play banjo out on my front stoop I often imagine Hazel’s experience, almost as an immigrant from another country, trying to navigate a new social structure in the crowded city. Hampden was built around textile mills that hired exclusively white workers from the Appalachian/Piedmont region during the 19th century. For many years this community has attempted to maintain an insular sense of itself, built upon its cultural background, as distinct from the city of Baltimore, which annexed it in the late 19th century. After the mills and then the factories pulled out, Hampden went into decline for a few decades. Some of the social tension that followed was translated into racism and suspicion of outsiders. Ku Klux Klan representation in community parades is noted as late as the 1970s. Today, underneath the economic regeneration of the neighborhood’s main street thanks to gourmet restaurants and boutique shopping, there remains a sense of racial tension in relation to the rest of the (predominantly black) city. One of my goals while living here is to start a pirate radio station and live show that will bring together old-time music and hip hop, among other hybridized folk music that mixes identities. It is my hope that through this medium I can make music that dissolves prejudice.
Hill Hop Fusion
The fusion of old-time music with hip hop is a concept that I first encountered through a radio program from the Appalshop organization in Whitesburg, Kentucky, called “From the Holler to the Hood.” This program arose from a perceived need to reach out to the population housed in the numerous prisons that have sprung up in the wake of the declining coal economy in Eastern Kentucky. The prisoners are predominantly African Americans transferred from outside of the region. Appalshop began programming a show called “Calls from Home” during which family members could call in and dedicate songs to loved ones in prison. As the requested songs were mostly hip hop, programmers at Appalshop became interested in the idea of setting up collaborations between hip hop artists and traditional Appalachian musicians. In 2003, a friend of mine from Kentucky played me a tape of one of these collaborations, between old-time musician Dirk Powell and hip hop producer Danjamouf. Since then, the hip hop subgenre known as “hill hop” has been carried forward by the group Gangstagrass, among a few others.
Sometimes the use of the banjo is as simple as the desire to evoke a landscape. Since the 1990s the banjo has made occasional appearances in indie rock as a signifier of a different age, or to cast a rustic or countrified hue over a song. “Chocolate Jesus” (1999) by Tom Waits is a prime example, where the banjo is incorporated as an element of a sound that Waits described as “sur-rural.” Other examples may be found in the work of The Magnetic Fields, Feist, and The Books. In these instances, the raw sound of the banjo stands as an alternative to the technology and pacing of the modern urban environment and to invoke a common folk language.
Because of the banjo’s sonic links to ancient instruments from Africa and even further East, the banjo can take on the role of a shape-shifter in its cultural associations. Multi-instrumentalist Jody Stecher brought the banjo into the field of “world music” in 1982 with his album Rasa, which features Indian sitarist Krishna Bhatt, along with vocals by Stecher’s wife Kate Brislin. Through this album, Stecher, Brislin and Bhatt reveal a natural affinity between old-time/early country tunes and the melodic ornamentation of Indian classical music. Béla Fleck made his own contribution to cross-cultural banjo fusion with his 1996 album Tabula Rasa, a collaboration with Chinese erhu player Jie-Bing Chen and Indian mohan veena player Vishwa Mohan Bhatt. On this album, musical sources from each of the cultures have a turn at center stage while the other instruments provide tightly composed reinforcement and counterpoint. Through the tight interaction of these three players, we can hear a hybrid of complimentary sounds, transcending the specific associations of any culture individually. The erhu, as a bowed string instrument, may remind us of the fiddle that is so often paired with banjo in traditional Appalachian music. The mohan veena is a stand-in for the guitar, another frequent banjo partner. Fleck’s banjo playing defines a well-balanced meeting point and assimilation of different influences.
Played with a bow, the nasal tone and sympathetic vibrations can sound a bit like a sarangi from India or the Iranian rabab. Played with a pick to produce single-string rhythms and tremolos, it can sound like a Berber gimbri. In Morocco, the banjo has effortlessly found its place in the traditional music of that country. A fine example of this cross-cultural assimilation of the banjo may be heard in the music of the Moroccan group Imanaren, with banjoist Hassan Wargui. In the context of Imanaren’s music, the banjo doesn’t appear to reference its American legacy at all. Instead it seems to be a native timbre to their Berber melodies.
In experimental and modern classical music, the banjo’s historical weight is treated with a variety of approaches. Eugene Chadbourne has used the banjo in a way that naturally and seamlessly spans country music, punk rock, and free jazz, with a somewhat antagonistic stance toward the white rural culture commonly associated with the instrument. Equally at home within the structure of blues-based chord changes and uptempo drum beats as within irregular rhythms and spasmodic gestures, Chadbourne’s performances convey an intentionally skewed but well-defined aesthetic that he has pieced together for himself. On another side of the spectrum, the music of Paul Elwood moves between old-time/bluegrass sources and modernistic chamber ensemble sonorities. These two worlds are not always reconciled with each other, occasionally treated as juxtaposed blocks of music (original passages vs. quotation/arrangement), and sometimes heard as superimposed, warring influences over the direction of a long-form composition. When the banjo moves beyond familiar bluegrass riffs and explores a greater sense of rhythmic space and pitch direction, Elwood’s music reaches some passages of incredible transcendence. As a listener, I feel that I have been on a journey of clashing cultures and eventually discover a unified sonic field that moves beyond the past.
On occasion the banjo seems to be treated as a stand-in for a mandolin, which has a longer history in the context of classical concert music. In this approach, the instrument is treated purely as an interesting timbre without any overt inference of folk music or traditional playing techniques. George Crumb’s 1969 song cycle, Night of the Four Moons, is one example of this ahistorical use of the banjo. In this work, it is one distinctive tone color among many in a mixed ensemble, supporting poetic images from the selected texts by Federico García Lorca. Through this set of four songs, the banjo explores a variety of textural relationships with the alto voice, alto flute, electric cello, and percussion. Avoiding the rhythmic propulsion of traditional banjo playing, Crumb creates a new identity for the instrument through isolated gestures, and textures based on call-and-response between the banjo and the other instruments in the ensemble. At times the banjo is made to sound vaguely Eastern, though a particular set of intervals used as a mode. Elsewhere, it fulfills an accompaniment role that suggests an older idiom of Western classical music, but nothing tied to the history of the banjo itself.
The kinship with sonorities from the Middle East and beyond may be easily recognized in the playing of Paul Metzger. This Minnesota-based artist focuses on improvisation and composition with a self-modified banjo which has been expanded to include 23 strings. His playing techniques span classical guitar finger style to orchestral bowed textures, touching on many different sound worlds. Within a single piece there seem to be hints of a number of different cultural heritages, woven together to produce a unified landscape. To hear the full range of Metzger’s banjo palette, take a listen to his 2013 album Tombeaux on the label Nero’s Neptune.
Another improviser, Woody Sullender is a multi-media artist, electronic composer, and banjo player based in Brooklyn, New York. While his most recent work at the time of writing focuses more on installations and electronics, he is one of the most adept improvisers in the somewhat specialized field of experimental banjo. His approach is particularly aware of the instrument’s past associations and seeks to both evoke and counter them. Mountain music is suggested in some of the hammer-ons and other musical gestures, which gravitate to open fifths and minor modes. Yet rhythmically and dynamically, listeners are being guided in another direction. His album with harmonica player Seamus Carter, When We Get to Meeting, is available as a free download.
Baltimore-based musician Nathan Bell states that he uses the banjo “as a shapeshifting tool,” describing a fluidity between stylistic associations along with a range of timbres that he draws from the instrument. Bell shifts easily between different styles of playing: old-time clawhammer technique, finger picks, and bowed banjo all occupy a place in his personal soundscape. Auxiliary percussion, such as antique cymbals suspended from the neck of his banjo, are also frequent companions to the sounds drawn from his main instrument. His 2011 album COLORS is an excellent example of Bell’s use of the banjo as a vehicle for defining a landscape that draws on memory and nostalgia connected with the instrument, while coloring our experience of it with effects processing, noise elements, and slowly moving background voices. Bell’s recorded projects may be heard and purchased from his Bandcamp page.
Renegade banjoist Brandon Seabrook of Brooklyn, New York, also comes to the instrument from a guitar background. He claims not to listen to other banjo players and explains his choice of instrument as a way to bring another level of challenge and difficulty into his music, due to the banjo’s shorter sustain time relative to guitar tones. Above all, his playing is defined by dissonance, intensity, and speed. Repetitive chromatic patterns cut quickly to measured tremolos and dynamic builds, always maintaining a sense of urgency. Seabrook brings an aggressive, punk-meets-free-jazz type of energy to his playing, like a prolongation of the most intense passages in Eugene Chadbourne’s music, sounding nothing like the bluegrass type of banjo virtuosity.
In the realm of notated music, Washington DC-based banjoist and composer Mark Sylvester is deeply committed to promoting the banjo in the concert hall. Sylvester comes to the banjo from a classical guitar background, and while he teaches and is proficient in bluegrass and clawhammer styles of banjo, his own compositions place the instrument squarely in a classical chamber music context. Sylvester’s Trio #1 and Trio #2 occasionally employ finger picking patterns familiar to bluegrass audiences, such as ostinati featuring hammer-ons and pull-offs, but largely gravitate toward a style of writing that could easily be conceived for guitar. Progressions of chromatic harmony predominate over more familiar banjo harmonies derived from the open strings.
Continuing the development of notated compositions for banjo as chamber music, a new album by the Boulder, CO-based Jake Schepps Quintet, Entwined, features long-form classical compositions for the traditional bluegrass string band instrumentation of banjo, mandolin, violin, guitar, and double-bass. The featured composers—Marc Mellits, Matt McBane, Mark Flinner (the group’s mandolinist), and Gyan Riley—explore tight ostinato grooves, expansive melodies, and extended techniques, applied within a comfortable blend of styles. Multi-movement works such as Marc Mellits’s Flatiron provide room to range from ballad-like sections featuring a nostalgic harmonic vocabulary to more contemporary-sounding minimalist syncopated rhythmic layers. While enriching the soil of bluegrass/classical fusion, first tilled by Béla Fleck as well as Marc O’Connor and Edgar Meyer, the Jake Schepps Quintet articulates a wider sound palette without anything sounding self-conscious in its merging of musical cultures. The sound of these instruments together is already well-defined in most listeners’ ears, so that modern classical approaches to form can take advantage of expectations of particular roles within the ensemble while exposing alternate timbres from the instruments. This instrumentation may yet become as enduring for composers as the classical string quartet.
The banjo is suggestive of many different things to different people. It clear that it has had a lasting power beyond just one cultural place and time, and that musicians continue to develop new ways of conceiving its sound. Whether it is overtly addressed or not, classically trained composers creating new music with the banjo enter into dialogue with a folk tradition, a history, and a set of expectations on the part of the listener. To use the instrument in a vastly different way from these expectations is a potential tool for shaking up old ideas about its stylistic limitations or caricatured image. To embrace certain musical aspects of the folk lineage and place them in new contexts may be seen as part of a general shift away from an exclusive view of the classical tradition as purveyor of innovation. Today musical experimentation, complexity, and the development of a personal style can be founded on many sounds that are not connected to the concert hall tradition. While the adoption of instruments from other cultural contexts into classical music has been occurring for centuries, this has only recently taken on some characteristics of a two-way communication between musical cultures. Experimental hybrids are continually being created by musicians coming from folk, rock, hip hop, and many other backgrounds. Composers and new music performers are collaborating with musicians from these other backgrounds, often participating in non-classical performance traditions, and collectively shaping new ways of listening to and participating in the music. Examples may be heard in collaborations between Brian Harnetty and Bonnie “Prince” Billy (Silent City, 2009), or Nico Muhly and Sam Amidon (The Only Tune, 2008).
Where classical instruments and musical structures have been founded on an aristocratic legacy, supported by royal courts or the church, the banjo’s historical evolution has grown out of struggle and conflicting cultures. It can be painful to look back on the history of slavery or the ongoing situations of injustice faced by the people of Appalachia. The banjo may be a reminder of these things, and personal reactions to such a reminder may also bring up prejudices towards one group of people or another. Yet the hybrid cultural heritage of the banjo, kept alive by traditional players and continually reinterpreted by musicians from many different backgrounds, may be uniquely equipped to break through the divisions that separate people. It is an instrument that was originally embedded in the lives of enslaved Africans as well as the rural white settlers later on, and it has assimilated musical elements from both cultures. The tangled thread of minstrelsy that endures in popular media to this day is one that needs to be examined and understood in all of its complexity. Artists and musicians should attempt to examine that shadow and address it in a conscious way in contemporary art. The banjo stands squarely at the intersection of Anglo and African cultures at a formative period in American history, spanning different conceptions of heritage. Perhaps it can also be a tool to help to unravel the pain or prejudice and uplift us to better way of coexisting and collaborating in this world.