Banjo Blues and The Invisible Republic

Harry Smith’s 1952 anthology of American Folk Music is the best place to start if you are interested in learning more about the Banjo for sale and the blues or just to get a general idea of American music. Bob Dylan began his journey here. He learned Blind Lemon’s “See That My Grave is Kept Clean” from Smith’s anthology. Listening to Roscoe Holcomb’s raddled vocals as well as Doc Boggs’s sometimes bizarre lyrics will reveal that Dylan returned here in the nineties. This is a return datable to the 1991 release of the three volume Bootleg series with its masterful “Blind Willie McTell.” As if his many decades of peregrinations were all about returning to the place he started, the unmapped continent Greil Marcus calls the “invisible republic”.

The Disappearance of Blues Banjo

The guitar is the main instrument in blues as we know it today. Guitars weren’t widely available in the United States until the 1890s. This is clearly not the case. The banjo and the fiddle were both common in the rural bands at the start of the century. Both instruments have been kept in the bluegrass and country musics of the white South while they seem to have almost disappeared from blues. This is why I use the word “seems” in my statement. It is not true of the banjo, which I would like to discuss in this essay.

The banjo appears to have vanished because of an incredibly simple, but crucial fact: market concerns, record labels and concert tours determine our current picture of blues. These categories are too simple for historical truths as wormy-squirmy. Because they sell music, they also need godlike figures who can play the guitar–from Robert Johnson and Eric Clapton.

Piedmont Blues and Minstrel Shows. String Bands

Urban blues is the style of blues that has spread across North America and the globe. It was born in Chicago and developed with electricity in Chicago. But, to fully understand the role of the banjo in blues, we must also consider those blues that have stayed at home. The southeastern US is located along the Appalachian Mountains, in the Carolinas, Virginias, Georgias, Kentucky and part of Tennessee. This area is where a more relaxed version of the blues emerged. It focuses on instrumental virtuosity, rather than the rawness that characterizes blues from Texas or the Delta. This is known as Piedmont, or East Coast, blues and it includes Blind Boy Fuller, Blind Blake, Gary Davis, and the last, a skilled banjo player.

Evidence suggests that the Piedmont’s first black musicians to learn to play guitars was in the late 1800s. They adopted open-tuned banjos and were able to recreate the banjo’s droning thumb string and counterpoint rhythm in the treble. They quickly integrated the guitar into fiddle-and banjo ensembles and adapt their repertoire of banjo-songs and reels to the new instrument.

The Piedmont style of guitar emerged within the black string-band tradition. It is therefore not surprising that many of the oldest songs played by Piedmont players are very similar to 19th-century banjo tunes, reels, and rags. For example, “Boil Them Cabbage Down” and “Get Along Little Cindy” are two of the string-band songs that were also popular among white “old-time” musicians. It is difficult to determine the origins of any particular tune from one ethnic group because there is so much overlap between instrumental dance tunes written in black and white. Some African-American songs, like “John Henry” or “Railroad Bill”, and popular lyrics such as “Going Down That Road Feeling Bad,” are also standard in the Piedmont’s guitar repertoire that predates the introduction of the blues.

Popular culture today tends to link the banjo to white southern music. However, the banjo was not adopted by white musicians until the mid-1800s. Historians often state that black musicians in the south abandoned the banjo by 1890s in response to the Minstrel show, which featured white musicians wearing ragged clothes and blackened faces, and perpetuated racist stereotypes.

This is a part of the truth, but there is more. As Elijah Wild points out in Escaping the Delta (2004), the most popular black bands of the 1920s and 1930s–Jelly roll Morton’s, Louis Armstrong’s, Duke Ellington’s–continued using banjos, and they only stopped when amplification made guitars viable. The guitar, with its “ringing” sound, was not audible in concert and large dance settings. The banjo returned to its original home after the guitar was plugged in with greater versatility.

Present Day Player

The question returns to the present. Blues banjo music is not for museum purposes. Otis Taylor and Taj Mahal are two of the most well-known names in popular blues. We are currently experiencing a revival of string-bands that includes such groups as the banjo-driven Carolina Chocolate Drops. Rounder Records keeps Odell Thompson’s work in stock, as well as Doc Boggs and Elizabeth Cotton. My shelves include the Mountain Music of Kentucky (based on field recordings made in 1959) and North Carolina Banjo Collection which contain cuts by Dink Roberts, John Snipes, and The North Carolina Banjo Collection . Roscoe Holcomb’s work is both bluesy and Baptist church-influenced in the latter.

Cultural Mixing, and the Old Weird America

As a Japanese citizen, I was able to see non-Americans from Japan playing blues and jazz. It occurred to me that American popular music has become a global music because of the cultural mixing that was part of the democratic social experiment. This was evident in the music’s texture. Cultural mixing creates cultural wealth. Cultural exclusivity makes it poor, which is why museums and government subsidies are necessary to protect “tradition”. The history of bluegrass and the banjo is part of a larger story about inclusion. It’s a story that in the Appalachians created a mix of English, Irish, Scots, and African cultures. Perhaps this was more heady than any other area of the country.

When we listen to the Old Time music from Appalachia, and the Delta in its original form, unpackaged for mass consumption, we can hear what Greil Marcus refers to as “the old, strange America”. This is the America before it was reorganized for corporate marketing and mass consumer and identity was reduced down to ethnic differences and reality television. The Anthology of American Folk Music was its last great musical document. Harry Smith, an eccentric with no fixed address, created it. Smith specialized in music from “traditional” subcultures of America. He recorded it between 1927 and 1932 when accurate reproduction was possible. This was before the Great Depression. Smith brought musicians from the quiet 50s to contact musical forms and subcultures that they might not otherwise have known about. Smith’s six-record collection was the inspiration for the American folk revival. This, in conjunction with the Civil Rights movement, led to the Blues Revival. It also opened the doors to world music.

By the way, subsequent editions Greil Marcus’s The Invisible Republic were retitled The Old Weird America. This phrase was created to describe Harry Smith’s unmistakable blend of blues, country and folk musics. I would like to be able to reach Mr. Marcus and tell him to keep his first title. It is the right resonance for the subject.