Friday, April 24, 2009

Old time mountain banjo

Buell Kazee - The Wagoner's Lad (buy) (1928)

When Cecil Sharp went to the Appalachian mountains in the 1910s (see previous post), the area was already changing, with the rise of the coal industry. Immigrants came in numbers to build roads and work in the mines.
Among them were Afro-americans, freed from slavery and looking for better life conditions. The meeting of these musical traditions, the Appalachian and the Afro-american gave birth to what would soon be called country music.
While the British and Celtic tradition relied on violin and singing, Black musicians added rhythm and the guitar.
Minstrel and blackface shows in the XIXth century had already brought Afro-american influences to the mountains, and spread the use of the 5-string banjo.

Whitter, Hendley & Small - Shuffle Feet Shuffle (buy)

While until 1920 the guitar was seldom seen in the mountains (it was difficult to get one), the banjo was easy to build, easy to play and widely spread.
While Afro Americans progressively turned away from the banjo because it wasn't easy to play blue notes on the instrument, white musicians in the Appalachian invented new styles, new built instruments, sometimes fretless, and new tunings. These home made styles, like the famous clawhammer (that you can hear on the Buell Kazee recording), asociated with the "classic" playing from the Northern states, were the ancestors of the bluegrass banjo as popularized by Scruggs.
Banjo players like Charlie Poole, Doc Walsh or Frank Jenkins did a lot for the evolution of old-time banjo into bluegrass. We will come back to these musicians, and I'll have to make a whole series of posts about the history of the banjo, but for the moment, let's hear a great instrumental by Frank Jenkins.

Frank Jenkins - Home Sweet Home (buy) (1927)

Thanks to Gadaya at Times Ain't Like They Used To Be, I discovered that strange and very interesting compilation called The Library Of Congress Banjo Collection. It is a collection of field recordings made in the 1930s and 1940s by the Lomaxes (them again). A great document, with a raw sound, not made for commercial release but for song collection. Among a lot of old time banjo tunes, I love this one played by a Black performer from South Carolina and recorded on the plantation where he lived. This is one of the rare recordings of Afro Americans from the Appalachian playing banjo.

Belton Reese - McKenzie Case (1939)

The last track was recorded at a banjo contest in Virginia in 1941. The player, Raymond Sweeney, performs a version of "John Henry" with a 3 finger style that was evolving into the style known as Scruggs or bluegrass.

Raymond Sweeney - John Henry (1941)

If you want to hear more of this album, just go there

If you want to see a video of Buell Kazee explaining different old time banjo styles, just go there.


Anonymous said...

hey boy, i love it. keep it up. i've been TRYING to play clawhammer on an open back for almost a year and not getting too very far. i'll keep checking up on what you can let us in on. where are you? best wishes

gadaya said...

Hello Nicolas if you're interested in black banjo player i recommend to you a cd on the Smithsonian Folkways label called "Black banjo songsters" and another one called "Altamont" on Rounder. You can search also The Digital Library of Appalachia website, there's a lot of black banjo players recordings for free...

Nicolas said...

To Anonymous : Thanks, man. I'm from Paris, France. I never tried clawhammer, but I know it ain't easy.

To Gadaya : Thanks for the recommendations. I already have "Black songster" and I planned to use it for a second post about moutain banjo. I'll look at the digital library, looks great !