When I approached Jamie about writing a guest column for Black History Month, I provided a list of suggested topics. Of course, being a horror novelist, my list of suggestions tended towards the dark and violent: “How about a study of Tula, who led a slave revolt on Curacao only to be tortured to death at the hands of his overseers? Or Bentura, who single-handedly hounded the Dutch slavers until they relocated an entire city just to be free of him? Or perhaps the Red Summer of 1919, when whites killed blacks by the thousands, and how that inevitably led to the Watts Rebellion of 1965?”
“Those are pretty heavy topics,” Jamie wrote back, and she gave her blessing only to a study of Bentura. I could sense her hesitance, and it bothered me. Am I only capable of writing about violence? Have I completely suppressed my softer side? I thought for a moment, and tried to think of something cheerier, yet appropriate. I turned to my even darker, more tightly-kept secret than those things that drive me to write horror: I play the banjo. Not just those mass-produced five-string things that you see Steve Martin trying to make cool again, but obscure banjos that no one plays anymore: I play the cello banjo and the tango banjo.
What most people don’t realize is that the banjo is a modernized version of a traditional African instrument. Music historians have fun arguing about precisely which African instrument inspired it, with choices like the West African kora, the xalam from Senegal, and the ngoni from the Ivory Coast. All of these instruments are basically a hollowed-out gourd with an animal skin stretched across it, a big stick, and some strings, so I don’t think it matters much to us which historians are right. They all agree that Joel Sweeney looked at the instruments being played on the various plantations around him, replaced the gourd with a wooden drum body, and made an instrument that we would all recognize as a bluegrass banjo today. Unfortunately, much like America preferred to listen to Elvis Presley instead of the black musicians whose songs he sang, Sweeney played in an all-white minstrel show, and his modernized banjo became a mainstay of blackface minstrel bands.
That doesn’t mean that blacks didn’t adopt the newer banjo, or that blacks suddenly stopped making music. It just means that it takes that much more research and effort to find actual black music from that era instead of imitation, and, when you reach that far back in the past, it requires a willingness to play the music again, recreating the sound, because no commercial recordings exist that far back. Eventually, what were called “race records” were created to feature the music of black musicians: these can be found, but it’s hard for even avid music fans like myself to appreciate them fully, for the simple reason that the modern ear has become attuned to a sound reproduction quality that was unachievable at the time. To reproduce the music enjoyably means to dedicate yourself to learning to play it.
One group that has worked to research and perform authentic black music from the minstrel era and beyond is the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a group that has had various lineups over the last decade, but has always been headlined by Rhiannon Giddens, aka “Beyonce for nerds”. Their first album, 2005’s Heritage, focuses on music from the 1920s and 1930s. 2006’s Dona Got A Ramblin’ Mind casts a wider net, with songs dating from the 19th century. Genuine Negro Jig, from 2010, focuses on the minstrel era, with a few surprises: a stringband version of Blu Cantrell’s Hit ’em Up Style (Soundcloud here and YouTube here) and Elvis Costello’s Trampled Rose. 2012 brought us Leaving Eden, which mixes historical music with new material based on historical styles.
Rhiannon Giddens is now touring and recording as herself, with a new backup band. I had the pleasure of listening to much of this band live in concert in Phoenix last October when they provided backup for the Carolina Chocolate Drops, and can say that it was a beautiful night of music. They play so well that it appealed not only to a music-history-geek like me but to my far more mainstream wife. Giddens has a brand-new album, released on February 10: Tomorrow is My Turn. This record steers a bit away from historical roots, but who’s to say that what Rhiannon Giddens does won’t be history in and of itself. I bought the pre-release 4-song tracklist and just let it cycle for hours. I can’t review the rest of the album until next week, but I am definitely looking forward to it.
For those that crave information on the authentic recordings by original musicians, the works of Robert Crumb can’t be neglected. Quoted as saying that the worst thing to ever happen to music was electricity, Crumb devotes himself to researching old original recordings by jazz, blues, bluegrass, and country artists. While he doesn’t focus on black artists in particular, he doesn’t neglect them, either, and most of the images in his two most popular trading card sets, Early Jazz Greats and Heroes of the Blues, feature primarily black musicians. If you want to hear the music instead of just look at pretty pictures, Crumb’s Chimpin’ the Blues is hard to beat as an introduction, mixing music from old 78RPM records with commentary and history.
One final note: you will notice that this blog post is full of embedded links to places where people can actually buy things, not to places where they can be illegally downloaded for free. That’s on purpose: all of us that create things, from music to art to writing, depend on people buying them to live. Please patronize your favorite musicians, artists and writers by purchasing their works legally.
Kevin Wayne Williams, author of Everything I Know About Zombies, I Learned in Kindergarten, has been an engineer for much of his life, beginning with GTE in 1980. He rose through the ranks and eventually became an executive in Silicon Valley. In 2004, tired of it all, he fled the country with his wife, Kathy. They opened a hotel on Bonaire, a small Dutch island north of Venezuela. In 2009, for reasons he still doesn’t quite understand, they returned to the United States. He has since resumed his engineering career, but writes novels to help dull the pain.
Always an amateur musician, he plays tricordia, tenor guitar, bouzouki, cello banjo, tango banjo, bass ukulele, alto saxophone, tenor saxophone, harmonica, and bass harmonica. At least he owns them all and makes noises with them. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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