Reclaiming what's ours
0 comment Thursday, November 27, 2014 |
...just smash your piano, and invoke the glory-beaming banjo! - Mark Twain
On the other hand, Twain also said "A gentleman is a man who can play the banjo, but doesn't."
Still, I am a partisan of banjo music; readers of this blog will know that I love old-time string-band music and its offspring, bluegrass.
So, over at Winston Smith's Blog, I was delighted to see that he has a post on building a fretless mountain banjo.
Now, I am not looking to build a banjo but I love to read about how craftsmen build these things. Back in simpler times when music was something that was often homemade, not something you bought in a store and consumed passively, people knew how to make instruments with which they made their music. It is good to know that it is not a forgotten art everywhere.
I think of the humble "banjer" as a quintessentially American instrument, and Winston Smith has some thoughts about its origin:
There's a myth that the banjo (the "gourd banjar") is a Negro invention, and it came to America with Negro slaves. The implication us that our beautiful Appalachian and Bluegrass music is the child of Africa. B******T! In the first place, instruments like the banjo - strings over a stretched hide - have been in China, non-Negroid Egypt, the Caucasus, Near Asia, and many other places for thousands of years. Negro Africans may have developed such an instrument (highly improbable), but they didn't "invent" it. In the second place, the banjo existed in regions of Appalachia long before our excellent mountain kin folk had ever laid eyes on a Negro. Thirdly, if Negros invented it, then why did they abandon it?''
Those are questions I've wondered about, and posed to other people as well, so it's good to see that I am not the only one asking.
Some people have asked me why it even matters to me who 'invented' the banjo. It matters to me not only because I love the banjo, but because I think the truth matters. In recent years, as I've written so often about on this blog, we've been subjected to an all-out campaign to rewrite history and to take credit away from our people, assigning it, rightly or wrongly, to others. Why? To build others' fragile self-esteem? To diminish our own confidence and pride in our people? To make the gullible think that America was always a multicultural society and a melting pot in which we are only one minor ingredient? I think it's all of the above, and if there are any other possible reasons I am open to considering them.
This source is typical in crediting Africans with influencing Appalachian music and with introducing the banjo -- and the writers get extra PC points for tying the instrument to Islamic origins as well:
ONE of the greatest influences on Appalachian music, as well as many popular American music styles, was that of the African-American. The slaves brought a distinct tradition of group singing of community songs of work and worship, usually lined out by one person with a call and response action from a group. A joyous celebration of life and free sexuality was coupled with improvisation as lyrics were constantly updated and changed to keep up the groups' interest. The percussion of the African music began to change the rhythms of Appalachian singing and dancing. The introduction of the banjo to the Southern Mountains after the Civil War in the 1860s further hastened this process. Originally from Arabia, and brought to western Africa by the spread of Islam, the banjo then ended up in America. Mostly denigrated as a 'slave instrument' until the popularity of the Minstrel Show, starting in the 1840s, the banjo syncopation or 'bom-diddle-diddy' produced a different clog-dance and song rhythm by the turn of the century.
The instrumental tradition of the Appalachians started as anglo-celtic dance tunes and eventually was reshaped by local needs, African rhythms, and changes in instrumentation.''
Winston Smith mentions that the banjo is associated with the old minstrel show tradition, and yet blacks, since the 1960s era, have disclaimed this tradition as being an offensive racial stereotype. I've also heard that such entertainment was something that many blacks feel their ancestors were ''forced'' to do by Massa, and that it was demeaning to them. I have noticed that there are very, very few blacks who play the banjo today. If it was 'their' instrument originally, it seems they've abandoned it.
It does seem, too, that there are no home-grown analogues to the banjo in Africa, no apparent antecedent that I'm familiar with, and I do know a little about world music. There are, however, many related instruments in the Western tradition, making it much more plausible that the banjo was a European-derived instrument, probably being developed to its present form in our country, among our people.
I think it's important for us to take credit for our own traditions. The politically corrected cultural history has just about taken away every American folk tradition from us and credited it to blacks -- traditions such as buck-dancing, flatfoot dancing, and later traditions such as rock 'n roll music.
Anyone who is familiar with the dance traditions of the British Isles recognizes that buck dancing and flatfoot dancing, as well as clogging and 'square dancing' are derived from traditions that came with our early English and Scots settlers.
If we're to believe the popular historians of today, we have no culture of our own; blacks had to teach us everything when they came here from Africa. And this idea fits with the current demeaning stereotype of Whites as being mere blank slates with no innate character or culture to speak of. This is particularly said, maliciously, about White Americans. So it's important for us to confidently claim our own traditions back again, and to refuse to let ourselves be stripped of our traditions, however humble they may be. They are part of us.
Read the rest of Winston Smith's post at the link.

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