Week 7 Music Notes

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From the syllabus: In their 1947 book Folk Songs U. S. A., John A. and Alan Lomax referred to the banjo as “America’s only original folk instrument.” They were wrong. The banjo first came to the Americas with the Africans who played it. Slaves in the Americas continued to make and play banjos, and the instrument was not widely adopted by whites until popularized by minstrel players in the 1840s. After Emancipation, the banjo was virtually abandoned by black musicians, and the myth of its American origins took hold.

This week’s CD includes a wide range of performance styles. The black songsters Cecelia Conway found represent the pre-blues banjo tradition, which derived directly from slavery days. Dave Macon’s playing provides a direct link to minstrel banjo, while Charlie Poole and Mack Woolbright look ahead to bluegrass and the Scruggs style. Ossman and Van Eps were popularizers of ragtime music, and we have some real old time music, too. Let’s get started.

John Snipes and Dink Roberts are featured in Cecelia Conway’s book, African Banjo Echoes in Appalachia, and the selections here are taken from a CD of field recordings issued as a companion to the book. Old Rattler (Fox Chase) is another animal song (like Pick Poor Robin Clean) that might be seen as an allegory, with the hunted fox playing the robin’s part here. Dink Roberts sings and plays on Old Blue. We’ve met Old Blue before, in Jim Jackson’s version on the Anthology. We’ve talked in class about “front porch” as opposed to professional “folk” performers, and nowhere is this difference more apparent than in Roberts’s and Jackson’s performances. Jim Jackson had been a professional entertainer for years before he ever saw a recording studio; Roberts played for friends, family and local dances, and never recorded commercially.

Coal Creek March was recorded by Dock Boggs in 1963, after his rediscovery by Mike Seeger. Dock is the main subject of our week 11 reading and listening, and he does Country Blues and Sugar Baby on the Anthology.

Jeff noted last week that the banjo medley on last week’s disc had a lot in common, rhythmically at least, with early Duke Ellington. Charlie Poole’s version takes on a similar medley and points it in a different direction, toward bluegrass. Charlie learned to play on a home-made gourd banjo, starting at the age of eight. He and his band perform White House Blues on the Anthology.

The title of Otis Taylor’s CD, Recapturing the Banjo, says it all. It brings together a group of black blues musicians who have reintroduced the banjo to its black roots over the last decade or so. Deep Blue Sea is a traditional number performed here by Alvin Youngblood Hart, who names Dink Roberts as an influence on his playing. Note the recurrence here of the “silver spade…golden chain” burial motif we’ve heard in Old Blue and See That My Grave is Kept Clean (Anthology 76).

Scott Joplin advised playing ragtime slowly, but the virtuosic Vess Ossman pays him no heed on Maple Leaf Rag (the first instrumental to sell over one million copies of sheet music). Its reappearance in Paul Newman and Robert Redford’s The Sting heralded a brief ragtime revival in the 1970’s. I’m not sure why I stuck Doc Watson between Ossman and Van Eps, but there he is, playing banjo Humpbacked Mule. Doc is a national treasure. I can’t quite figure out the instrumental makeup of the Van Eps Banjo Orchestra (three banjos, piano and castanets???) but it’s a great sound: a maxixe is a tango-like dance from Brazil that enjoyed a brief North American vogue in the late 1910’s.

It’s a long way from Fred Van Eps to Joe and Odell Thompson. Old Corn Liquor is a very old dance tune. “I got drunk and lost my hat,” Odell Thompson sings. “Old corn liquor was the cause of that.” The Thompsons were recorded by Cecelia Conway in 1974. Joe Thompson, still active at 90, received a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in 2007 and was the direct inspiration for the Carolina Chocolate Drops, three young African-Americans determined to carry on the black string band tradition of which Joe Thompson is the last surviving example. They’re doing a European tour in November, so maybe this music is really still alive!

It’s a shame there’s no good Uncle Dave Macon video – by all accounts he was quite the showman, and that comes across even on the old 78s that are all we’ve got left. He was a pretty good banjo picker, too. Uncle Dave’s Beloved Solo was recorded in September of 1926.

Earl Scruggs, bluegrass banjo’s greatest innovator, was greatly influenced by Mack Woolbright’s playing, and especially by hearing him play on The Man Who Wrote Home Sweet Home. “The G7 chord he played in this number was one of the most thrilling sounds I had ever heard,” Scruggs later wrote. Like Joe Thompson, Dink Roberts and John Snipes, Scruggs and Woolbright are from the Piedmont area of North Carolina.

We close with The Blood-Stained Banders, played and sung by Jimmie Strothers, who, when John Lomax and Harold Spivacke recorded him in 1936, was a resident at State Farm, Virginia. Strothers plays a four-string banjo.

The picture is Tanner’s The Banjo Lesson.



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One Response to “Week 7 Music Notes”

  1. George Y Cha Says:

    Hi Don and My Fellow Classmates,

    CD Week 7 has some of the great banjo music. Now I am not nearly at that level, but I enjoy the instrument.

    I’ll bring my banjo to class next Tuesday, plays a few songs, and 2 CD’s of Jimmy McCown, a person that I took some lessions with some years back. Maybe Don can play his “Snow Drops” on his Mac, one of my ultimate favorite banjo instrumental.

    Looking forward to share some small pleasures with all of you; ’til the next time.

    George Y Cha

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