The Black String Band Tradition
It is generally recognized that the origin of the American banjo lies in Africa, in particular West Africa. Instruments such as the Wolof halam, Mandinka konting, and the Soninke gambare are all skin-faced lutes played by praise singers and oral historians known as jelis or jalis amongst the Manding people and sometimes referred to as ‘griots.” These instruments no doubt were the models from which the banjo evolved.
What is not realized by most people today is that string bands incorporating the banjo, along with the fiddle and a variety of other instruments (kazoos, jaws harps, tambourines, spoons and jugs), were very much part of the African American music scene throughout the Appalachians and the Southern States up until the mid 1940s. While blues became the preferred music at house parties from the mid-1930s onwards, fiddles and banjos were played by African Americans at rural dances and parties from the days of slavery until the early twentieth century. African American string bands such as the Mississippi Sheiks and the Memphis Jug Band played for audiences across the South at house parties, fish fries and picnics. Itinerant musicians known as songsters popularized a repertoire of what is known today as old-time music.
While old-time and country music has come down to us through white performers there is no doubt that much of this music originated amongst African Americans. Much of the neglect of black string band music can no doubt be attributed to the recording industry that either ignored black performers or even recorded black artists and sold their work as white string band music.
The heart of the early Southern string band was the fiddle and banjo ensemble. Writers and observers in colonial America first observed banjos among Africans held in slavery. Early settlers from the British Isles and Germany brought the fiddle to Southern colonies though some African fiddling traditions may have survived the passage across the Atlantic. Even though the European fiddle predominated in the Antebellum South, African American musicians quickly adopted the instrument. Most likely, it was black musicians in plantation communities who first paired the fiddle with the banjo.
Surprisingly, this blending of radically different cultural traditions sparked an explosion of interest among musicians, both black and white, for fiddle and banjo music. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, thousands of tunes and songs were composed or adapted for these instruments. Some of these pieces, such as “Turkey in the Straw,” entered popular culture through the minstrel stage. Others, such as “Georgia Buck” and “Hook and Line,” become standards among black and white musicians throughout the South. Many tunes, and even the particular techniques used for playing fiddle and banjo, remained localized and were associated with particular communities or with specific musicians who played at dances, work gatherings, and “frolics.”
It is difficult to speculate about the characteristics of African American string band music prior to the advent of sound recordings. Judging by the repertoires of modern-day fiddlers such as Joe Thompson, some tunes may also have been distinctive to African American communities. Joe’s “Pumpkin Pie,” “Riro’s House,” and “Doney Got a Ramblin’ Mind” have rarely been documented from white musicians.
String band music allowed some African Americans to cross the strict race boundaries that have existed in the South. Black and mixed race musicians were often hired to play for dances and other entertainments in white communities both before and after the Civil War. Beginning in the early twentieth century, the popularity of string band music waned in African American communities, replaced by new musical genres such ragtime and blues. By World War II, relatively few black fiddlers and banjo players remained active. Some, like Joe, Nate and Odell Thompson, resumed playing in the 1970s and 1980s, encouraged by folklorists and white revivalist musicians. In recent years, however, young African Americans such as the Chocolate Drops have apprenticed themselves to Joe Thompson and are actively reclaiming the string band tradition created by earlier generations of black musicians.
Justin Robinson, fiddle, banjo, voice
Rhiannon Giddens, banjo, fiddle, voice
Dom Flemons, guitar, banjo, harmonica, jug, voice