The Banjo, the 1800s and the Blues

There is a deep connection between the banjo and the blues, but this influence was no doubt exhibited in different ways in different parts of the country. The fiddle and the banjo were the most popular instruments in African American life from practically the earliest forced importation to the early 20th century - a span of almost 250-300 years. There's been interchange between whites and blacks on the banjo from at least the early 1700s, maybe even sooner. So, it's hard to generalize on so sweeping and broad a historical phenomenon. Dena Epstein's "Sinful Tunes and Spirituals" is the best book length treatment of black music in the United States before the Civil War. There's much information here on the banjo.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, there was much more regional variation in performance styles than today, especially in rural areas. Cultural contexts also have had a strong hand in the development of black styles (a very complex issue to deal with here in an email post - but, for as just one example, the ratio of blacks to whites was greater in places like the Delta than in North Carolina, therefore the nature of African American music would be different in these regions). Banjo styles in the Virginia Piedmont were no doubt different than in the Mississippi Delta. Some of this evidence is circumstantial, gathered from the analyses of early 20th century recording-era African American guitar styles. But if you join general historical knowledge to musical knowledge, it's safe to make some assumptions. Folklorist Bruce Bastin has written about this in the introduction to "Red River Blues," his excellent book on the historical development of Piedmont guitar styles. By the way, Charlie Patton's mother was a banjo player!

In addition, there are a few recordings of black banjo players whose styles were shaped in the late 1800s. As previously mentioned, Gus Cannon might be the most remarkable of these players. As Banjo Joe, with accompaniment by Blind Blake, Gus cut several tunes for Paramount in 1927 that feature frailing type techniques, roll patterns and slide banjo playing. This is available today on a Document CD. On a University of Mississippi archive tape, Gus plays what he calls "square dance" style, which is basically a percussive clawhammer style, a la Grandpa Jones, and then plays a bit of classic/parlor material before playing a rather complex fragment of one of the pieces he played with the W. C. Handy Orchestra, again in finger style. As a professional banjo player in the Memphis area, he might have needed to play all of these styles to increase the number of gigs he could get.

An earlier post asked about syncopation and mid 19th century minstrelsy. There are about ten of these minstrel manuals which form the basis of what we know about this banjo style (there's an excellent recent Rounder compilation called "Minstrel Banjo Style" that has generous helpings of these sounds and has a good booklet as well - lots of books about minstrelsy too). Yes, there is a great deal of syncopation in this music, but it is probably a different kind of syncopation than what most of us think of as syncopation today, at least in the resultant sound. Remember, ideas about "swing," are really 20th century notions. If you listen to a version of Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag," (written in the 1890s) there are dotted rhythms and accents on off beats, but there is not the same sense of *swing* as one hears in Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, or bluegrass banjo player Allen Shelton for that matter. It's still rather stiff by today's standards (as a comparison, listen to Jelly Roll Morton's version - which really swings!). In minstrelsy, you find juxtaposition of triplets, dotted and straight rhythms - but it's still rather stiff and stilted by 20th century standards. But to the mid 19th century, it was raucous, savage rock and roll! Folks had never heard such things before in music!! In some ways, I'm beginning to feel that this notated music was the song compiler's version of what mid 19th century African American music sounded like - it tells us just as much about what others (namely whites) thought about this music as it tells us about what black banjo styles might have actually been like.

By the time that early Delta blues musicians were recorded in the 1920s, and the Lomaxes and others began to considerable bodies of field recordings, one easily hears the highly flexible and dynamic treatment of rhythm that rural black musicians possessed, whether they be church musicians, blues or ragtime players. But the rhythmic subtleties can't really be notated. So minstrelsy gives us *some* idea of what black banjo players played, but it is my bet that this music was indeed far richer, both rhythmically and melodically, than what the minstrel manuals indicate.

Finally, Jeff Todd Titon has written at some length about how the recording companies tended to compartmentalize various styles to suit marketing needs in "Early Downhome Blues." Check it out!

Thanks to Bill Evans for this information.