A new generation of artists have brought African Americans back to the forefront of the banjo scene. Take, for example, Rhiannon Giddens, whom you can hear behind me. Black musicians have been a part of the instrument’s history from the beginning, but their contributions have often been overlooked or ignored. Now, the Library of Congress has published a comprehensive catalog of its resources on Black banjo music – recordings, pictures, writings and more. Joe Johnson, a PhD student in ethnomusicology at Indiana University Bloomington, put the online guide together.
JOE JOHNSON: It’s important to demonstrate a Black perspective on the material that we have in the archives. Previous works who have looked at African American banjo players have used sort of a colonialist Europeanized lens that does not do proper credence to Black culture.
RASCOE: I recently spoke to him and Jake Blount, who is also an incoming PhD student in ethnomusicology, though he’s best known as an award-winning banjo player. I asked Jake Blount to explain what first drew him to the banjo.
JAKE BLOUNT: I got really interested in it because I was interested in my own family’s history and in what types of music my ancestors would have been playing. I’ve been playing various types of music since I was about 12 years old, and I found out that one of the earliest sites of growth for the banjo tradition here in the United States was in the Chesapeake Bay region, which is where my ancestors were enslaved. So I felt like it was a real solid connection to my own family history and lineage.
RASCOE: And Joe, you’re not only a researcher, but you’re a musician yourself, and you play the banjo. And you took some lessons from Jake. So, Jake, I want to ask you now – what type of student was Joe?
BLOUNT: I mean, well, this is the awkward thing…
BLOUNT: …About teaching people a folk instrument, which is that frequently you wind up teaching people who know more about the thing than you do. So our lessons are very fun. We’re part of this wonderful program called the Black Banjo Fiddle Fellowship that’s run by the Oakland Public Conservatory out in Oakland, Calif. And it’s a really wonderful exchange. Joe has so much scholarly acumen, so much deep knowledge. I have more practical performance experience with this particular instrument. And it’s really fun to be able to bring our different expertises together.
RASCOE: And Joe, how does it feel to move from scholarship to playing the banjo itself? Or I guess I should ask first, what came first? Was it the studying and the learning about the banjo, or was it you actually picking up the instrument?
JOHNSON: Yeah. For me, it’s been – I guess it’s been a sort of a chicken or egg situation because I first got – started playing banjo when I was in college. I was studying classical music. And I heard Rhiannon Giddens perform, and I heard – I learned about the African American origins of the instrument and the relationship to specifically Appalachia and North Carolina, which is where my family comes from. And as part of my education and musical practice, I started to learn the instrument. And then I started learning more about history. And they all sort of started building on one another until I decided to go and pursue a PhD researching it and performing it. Working with Jake has been quite wonderful because we’ve known each other for a number of years, but particularly with the Oakland Public Conservatory’s Black Banjo Fiddle Fellowship, it’s been really nice to have a space that is a Black space where we can talk about these Black issues and have a Black perspective on African American banjo players that we don’t typically get in other spaces.
RASCOE: And Jake, you’re a no stranger to NPR. You’ve done a Tiny Desk, you’ve gone on tours, and you’re really known for your banjo prowess. What caught your eye about the guide that Joe has put together?
BLOUNT: Well, a number of things – firstly, that, you know, I’ve made a number of trips to the Library of Congress myself. I grew up in D.C., so it was right down the street. And once I started getting into this music, I did make a few trips and listen to some of the recordings that Joe included in the guide. And there’s wonderful stuff. And it’s also cool that I’m on it.
BLOUNT: And you know, you try not to let that go to your head in any real way. But I think for those of us who are performing this traditional music, there’s something really significant about seeing yourself become part of the archive that you learned to play from. For those of us who are learning, especially Black string band traditions, very, very few of those folks in the 20th century survived to pass on their music directly to the next generation of people. We all have to do a lot of reconstruction, and I think it’s really powerful to me as someone who learns the music in that way, who performs this music and who has such a deep relationship with the archives as a performer, to know that, you know, 100 years from now, 200 years from now, when some other Black kid goes, oh, I heard we used to play the banjo, and goes and looks it up, they might find me on the guide.
RASCOE: And Jake, you have your banjo with you. Was there a particular entry that attracted your attention, and could you play it for us if you will?
BLOUNT: I can do that.
RASCOE: Like, what was it about this piece of music that was special to you?
BLOUNT: So that tune is called “Leather Britches.” There are a lot of different versions of it. That particular one comes from a banjo player named Nathan Frazier. And I felt really drawn to Nathan Frazier’s playing from the time that I first heard it, because I learned to play from a bunch of hippies up in a town called Ithaca, N.Y., and they kind of have their own unique regional style in the way that they play the music. And I love it very much. And there’s a lot of banjo stuff that tends to get credited to that scene or to the people who helped build the scene, were there maybe before it started. And listening to Nathan Frazier, I find him using a lot of similar techniques to those people who allegedly invented those sounds about three, four decades down the line.
RASCOE: And Joe, what did you think of that piece of music?
JOHNSON: I thought that it was an excellent way to interpret and reinterpret what was coming out of the archive because that particular tune was recorded by John Wesley Work in Middle Tennessee, which is actually a region of the United States in the upland south that’s not typically thought of as being a place where Black banjo players are, when in fact it helps demonstrate that there are Black banjo players all throughout Appalachia and in the South. And there’s even more recordings that can come from folks further west.
RASCOE: And you both know a lot about banjo history. But Joe, I’m wondering – did you learn something new, or was there something that really stood out to you from the making of this guide that you didn’t know before?
JOHNSON: Yeah. So something that was new for me was seeing particularly the Elizabeth Cotten banjo recordings, because we typically hear about Elizabeth Cotten being a blues guitarist, but hearing her banjo repertoire and listening, it made it clear to me how she combined her banjo technique with her guitar technique to create her really unique Cotten picking style.
RASCOE: And Joe, I mean, Jake kind of talked very beautifully about, you know, him being in the guide and that maybe someone, you know, 100 years from now, a young Black child might read the guide, look at the guide, and see Jake in it. I guess I have to ask, what, now that you have compiled this guide, would you want for people to think about a hundred years from now?
JOHNSON: I would want someone 100 years from now to recognize that the banjo, I mean, fundamentally is not a white instrument, the way that it’s been branded. I want people to understand that even though there was a century of scholarship that was focused on a very European, tokenizing lens of African American banjo players, but also folk musicians, roots musicians in general, there are people in the early 21st century who are starting to rewrite those wrongs and trying to provide a Black perspective to this, our musical culture. And I hope that in 100 years from now, there will be a lot more widespread knowledge, general knowledge about African American banjo players and incorporation of this music into other contemporary Black music genres like rap, hip-hop, R&B, house, disco, things like that.
RASCOE: That’s researcher Joe Johnson and banjo musician Jake Blount. Thank you both so much.
BLOUNT: Thank you for having us.
JOHNSON: Thank you for having us.
RASCOE: And before we let you go, though, Jake, could you play us out with one of your favorite tunes?
(Playing banjo). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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