Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The banjo: Civil War, minstrel shows, ragtime and popularity today: It's complicated

Union cavalryman did double duty (Library of Congress)

Pick up an old-time, five-string banjo and take a close look.

Notice the wooden hoop and other components. By mid-19th century America, the banjo – inspired by one or more West African plucked lute instruments made of strings and often a gourd covered by animal skin  – was becoming widely available, as was sheet music. The hoop, which creates the instrument’s shape, helped make mass production of the banjo possible.

Now look at the bass string credited to the first white man documented to play the banjo on stage. 

With that innovation, the instrument shifted from a more rhythmic sound to one suitable for European melodies, including the roots of bluegrass. The old-Time clawhammer and bluegrass three-finger picking are evolutions of African playing styles.

Of course, to appreciate the banjo, you have to hear it played. It’s been on a long musical journey, with many turns. The Civil War soldier tapped his toe to performances that borrowed from minstrel shows of the time, while a young man today can savor innovative sounds that are not bound by stereotypes or a certain musical style.

The banjo is a survivor. At times, it gave way to other instruments. But it’s never gone away. And while it keeps finding new audiences, the banjo brings its past along for the ride.

Greg Adams (Craig Evans)
“I think there at least two issues that are unfolding concurrently,” says Greg Adams, an archivist and musician living in Maryland.

“On one hand, you have the banjo projected in popular music. Today, you have the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Mumford & Sons and the Avett Brothers projecting the instrument into a wider cultural view. With that, the banjo can be played in any context.”

“The second thing,” Adams tells the Picket, “is when people think of the banjo, we have a whole lot of stereotypes and preconceptions. How do we unpack the baggage of the history of this music so people can use it any way they choose?”

Those stereotypes and preconceptions are largely the result of minstrel shows that were wildly popular during mid-19th century America, including the Civil War. The rollicking songs and skits savagely made fun of African-Americans and other minority groups, including the Irish.

Another belief about the banjo is that it was much more popular in the South than the North when war broke out, says Adams. Not so, he and other experts say.

“Music is part of the front lines of the war,” he says. “It is also part of a broader American experience, not just one narrow sense of geography.”

By the Civil War, the banjo had been part of white American popular culture for nearly 25 years. Musicians were typically white men in blackface, engaging in caricature and using the supposed language of enslaved blacks.

The banjo was a mainstay in minstrel bands, which might include a fiddle, tambourine and bones or other forms of percussion. Influences included African and Caribbean musical styles.

Sule Greg Wilson plays a variety of musical instruments (Catherine Sebastian)

“The appropriation of the newest thing out of black culture became institutionalized,” says Sule Greg Wilson, a musician, folklorist and writer living in San Diego.

Today, the banjo is a “bigger than life” instrument that is considered quintessentially American – a blend of African roots and Western musical styles.

Adams has been part of the Banjo Project, which includes a film and hundreds of hours of interviews and musical recordings.

“In its long history, the banjo has symbolized patriotism and protest, pain and pleasure, low entertainment and sophisticated leisure,” the project’s website says. “It's been a black instrument, a white instrument, a laborer's pastime and a socialite's diversion, a young person's fad and an old-timer's friend. But mostly it's been a snubbed instrument.”

Members of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a traditional string band currently on tour, are among African-American artists “reclaiming” the banjo’s African roots and importance to generations of black Americans.

Like them, Adams and Wilson must make their way through the minefield of the minstrel show’s legacy.

Chocolate Drops member Rhiannon Giddens speaks of the “gray areas” around that form of music.

“It is not hard to love it, because the music is awesome,” she said in a music video recorded two years ago. “There are some horrible words … It is really important to acknowledge that the stuff was horrible. (But) that is not a reason to consign a whole 80-year stretch of music to the dust bin. It is part of our history.”

‘Ground zero for the banjo’

Joel Sweeney, born about 1810 to an Irish-American family in what is now Appomattox, Va., was exposed to music early.


His father was a wheelwright who did repairs on coaches that rumbled through the southwestern Virginia countryside.

The young Sweeney is believed to have picked up banjo music from his family’s slaves and others in the area.

“By the time of Sweeney and minstrelsy, we see the transition of gourd body to wooden hoop,” says Adams. “The nature of the Industrial Revolution changes the way it is built. It becomes increasingly ornate and mechanized.”

The African-American tradition championed a down-stroke technique, with the lead finger stroking downward with a fingernail.

Sweeney, who went on to play with the Virginia Minstrels, was the beneficiary of cultural exchanges carried by roads and rivers in frontier America and Delmarva – a region that includes portions of Delaware, Maryland and Virginia. “This is ground zero,” for the banjo, says Adams, 39, an archivist for the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.

Typical minstrel show of the era (Library of Congress)

Christopher J. Smith, in his book, “The Creolization of American Culture,” writes about the collision of white and black culture, music and dialects in the United States.

David Wooldridge, a banjo enthusiast and museum technician with Appomattox Court House National Historical Park, tells the Picket that Sweeney and his siblings helped bring the banjo into white, middle-American culture.

“It is said that at a young age, Joel would visit the slave quarters and listen to the banjar music being played there,” according to a lesson plan produced by the National Park Service, which operates Appomattox Court House. “One account even has him learning to play the instrument from a former African chieftain who was a coach driver for a local family.”

Joel Sweeney made his own wooden banjo and most likely added a bass string. He played at local events before traveling with various troupes – all by the time he was in his 20s.

Sweeney is believed to be the first white man to play the instrument on stage, in about 1836. He is considered by many to be America’s first pop star, due in large part to the spread of sheet music.

“It is not the (Earl) Scruggs picking style that would come more than 100 years later, says Wooldridge. “The playing style was very similar to what they would have heard from African or African descendants. I think it would have been very rhythmic.”

Sweeney had two brothers that took up music, integrating European-inspired chords into the banjo repertoire.

“They bombard you with a bunch of notes. Whereas the African (style) would be rhythmic, not melodic,” says Wilson.

“If you look at the akonting and other African antecedents to the banjo, they are plucked and strummed. They are not changa changa changa.”

Wilson considers the Sweeneys to be early crossover artists.

"I would say (the banjo) became a more harmonic instrument. The European sense of rhythm and melody is a different aesthetic than the African one.”

Images of blackface conjure painful history (Library of Congress)

Wilson says African players improvise around an established melodic/rhythmic pattern. "Rather than being funky and using space and anticipation to create rhythmic complexity -- as Africans do, European players 'bombard you with a bunch of notes' to create drive. Speed and intensity, instead of complexity."

Africans contributed melodies that pervade folk and popular music in America today, he says.

Sweeney and other white performers became famous on the minstrel show circuit. They usually performed in blackface. “It involved mocking all sorts of people of all walks of life,” according to Wooldridge.

“The minstrel show existed before Joel Sweeney and the banjo, but (the banjo) quickly became a centerpiece of the minstrel show,” says Wooldridge. “It was considered low brow, it was a guilty pleasure.”

Most of the comedy and songs dealt with the stuff of life or local and national politics of the time. Singers or characters could play the part of the town fool, offering kernels of truth in the midst of buffoonery.

“You put on the blackface, (and be) just like the jester, and you can say anything to the king . ...” says Wilson.

He offers a comparison of Sweeney’s story to that of Solomon Northup, made famous in “Twelve Years a Slave.” A free-born African-American, Northup was kidnapped by slave traders, who enticed him with a job offer as a violinist.

“Joel Sweeney may have suffered prejudice as an Irishman, but he did not have to worry about that,” says Wilson.

Sweeney brother rode with the cavalry

By the beginning of the Civil War, the banjo was popular throughout the land.

Music was an important part of camp life during the conflict. There were fife and drum bands and the more raucous minstrel band.

Sam Sweeney

Away from the front, the banjo drew tens of thousands to concert halls and village greens.

Author Mark Twain famously wrote in 1865, “The piano may do for love-sick girls who lace themselves to skeletons, and lunch on chalk, pickles and slate pencils. But give me the banjo.”

Siblings Joel and Richard Sweeney died before the Civil War, but brother Sam Sweeney joined the Confederate cavalry and rode with and played for Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart.

“Jine (Join) the Cavalry” was a standard among Confederate horsemen. “Lorena,” “Cottage by the Sea,” “Soldier’s Dream and “Old Gray Mare,” were among Stuart’s favorites, and Sweeney was often accompanied by a bones player and tambourine.

"Sam Sweeney's personality was much the same as his fun loving general and … he followed the dashing cavalier playing and singing songs that he and his brothers performed for many thousands of people," wrote John R. Broughton in a J.E.B. Stuart Birthplace Preservation Trust newsletter. "Wherever Stuart went, Sweeney was not far behind, his banjo ready."

Two years into his military service, Sam Sweeney passed away at age 32 on Jan. 13, 1864, in winter camp. He likely never fired a shot in battle.

“His brother cast a long shadow and for a long time his brother got all the credit,” says Wooldridge. 

“Sam was supposed to be just as good as his brother, or better.”

Adams has performed at Civil War re-enactments and other living history events.

“I personally cannot bring myself to use those original words, especially the N word. I change the words, but I let my audience know. That way, they are informed.”

“The foundation of lyrics in minstrel music is based on the imagined sense of how African-Americans spoke at the time.”

Greg Adams at the annual banjo gathering at Antietam

The 19th century banjo is celebrated at the Antietam Early Banjo Gathering at the Pry House Field Hospital Museum at the Maryland battlefield. This year’s event is scheduled for June 20-22.

“The event is a truly unique forum for both experts and novices to meet and share knowledge, playing technique, and passion for banjo history and its meaning in the 21st century,” according its website.

“It started out as being re-enactor-centric. It has blossomed to be a lot more than re-enacting. It explores context and source material,” says Adams. The gathering also can be a time to experiment with a variety of 19th century musical styles whose roots come from other parts of the world.

Evolution of the banjo and new uses

Music experts and observers say minstrel shows became more blatantly racist after the Civil War.

African-Americans wore blackface in order to get work, says Wilson. “Do you want to wear a tie?” he asks by way of comparison. “Why do you wear a tie? To get a job.That’s why blacks did it.”

“You see African-Americans having to black up to get on the stage,” says Adams. "It is horrifying.” 

Still, for nearly 80 years, minstrel music fed a steady interest in banjos. Well before the turn of the century, factories were churning out the instrument.

“There is an attempt to legitimize the banjo and bring it into higher culture,” says Wooldridge.

The banjo was played during the advent of ragtime and the blues.

Wilson performs at Appomattox

“By the time you get to recorded music, the people playing banjo in ensembles are strumming. They are not doing this virtuoso picking,” says Wilson.

The migration of African-Americans to cities and the end of certain gatherings based on agricultural events – corn shuckings and tobacco tyings, for example – were the “last nail in the coffin” of the banjo in rural black America.

By the 1910s and 1920s, music had become largely built around the keyboard.

“The piano is imitation orchestra,” says Wilson.

The prevalence of European music theory proved difficult for many forms of banjo music and the guitar offered more variety.

The banjo reaches a high-water mark by the 1920s and 1930s. Then, in the 1940s and 1950s “it is being reprojected in popular awareness by the folk revival, bluegrass and interest in old-time music,” says Adams.

Peter Seeger (Wikipedia, Anthony Pepitone)

The late Pete Seeger used the banjo as a tool in his social activism.

Uncle Dave Macon, a white musician, is considered a bridge between minstrel shows and what has become popular folk and bluegrass music today.

Adams, who is a guest co-curator for a banjo exhibit that opens next month at the Baltimore Museum of Industry, says a prevailing question is whether the instrument is associated with the stereotype of white, Southern hillbilly music.

The television show “Hee Haw” essentially was a modern-day minstrel show, he contends.

“Instead of a Southern blackface buffoon character juxtaposed with a Northern dandy, you have white men in overalls. … creating this stereotype of a specific geographic area.”

“The banjo (in many ways) is a measure of how dysfunctional our society really is,” he argues. “I am working to broaden the discourse of the history of this instrument. My goal is to bring the history to as diverse a community as possible.”

Taking listeners to the precipice

Today, Adams and others say minstrelsy needs to be viewed in the prism of what other musical forms came out of the African-American tradition.


The Carolina Chocolate Drops (above) and Wilson are among those in the vanguard of the reclamation of the banjo as part of the African-American experience.

Many early minstrel tunes came from black performers, says Giddens.

She and other members of the band say they treat the musical form with dignity and respect. Another member cautioned they “don’t just want to go back in time.”

“It tells a lot about what was going on in the country at the time and the more we know we know about that, the better we understand what is going on now,” says Giddens.

In their video, the Carolina Chocolate Drops talked about the blackface minstrel show. Giddens played a replica banjo based on a Joel Sweeney instrument. She said the group won't play certain songs with particularly offensive lyrics, or may make edits.

They consider the minstrel era and early African-American string music the beginning of American music.

Today, most string music is marketed to young white people, says Wilson, who plays banjo, washboard, the tambourine, bone and the ukulele, among other instruments.

Wilson got his first banjo in 1982. “The only black musician (playing it) who I knew of was Taj Mahal.”

The Carolina Chocolate Drops were promoted as the people holding traditions of Joe Thompson’s North Carolina Piedmont music, says Wilson. “That was a really good marketing hook.”

Thompson, a fiddler who died in 2012, was credited with helping preserve the black string band.

When he toured with the band, Wilson says, some black audience members said they remembered the music but felt embarrassed to acknowledge it.

Adams has become friends with members of the group and saw them perform at Gettysburg.

“They were there to entertain. But what they did so effectively was to bring people to the precipice, seeing the depth and complexity and they brought them back.”

Rhiannon Giddens of the Chocolate Drops

How far we have come

Adams spends much of his time educating audiences about the power of the banjo and its rich history. He believes the instrument represents the American story.

He also addresses the negative connotations, beginning with race.

“That is the first question people should be discussing,” says Adams. “We are all tied to these persistent cultural traumas that have not gone away.”

He is pleased with noted banjoists, including Bela Fleck, Tony Trischka, Bill Evans and Jayme Stone, who he says are exploring the instrument’s musical depths.

This modern interest in the minstrel banjo “is a measure of how far we have come as a society about talking about it critically" and through inclusiveness.

Adams sees the instrument as intertwined with broader American experiences.

“Calling the banjo a happy instrument is a fa├žade to make people feel safe, to not look at its deeper history.”

1 comment:

  1. An erudite survey of a complicated topic, for sure!

    ReplyDelete