Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Banjo Ballads & the Blues

It's funny that the banjo has become the symbol of the Bluegrass and Hillbilly music of the Southern Appalachians. The banjo is derived from an ancient African instrument, brought to this country on slave ships along with their dismal cargo.

The first European settlers of the Appalachian Mountains were the Scots and Irish immigrants. They brought with them the music of home; along with the reels and dance tunes, they brought the darker music of the ballads.

Until the traveling minstrels and the medicine shows made their way into the hills and hollows of the mountains, the music heard at weekend barn dances and church picnics in the mountains sounded very similar to the music heard in any village on the Emerald Isle. I've talked about this major change that shaped American music many times, but it's importance bears repeating. The influence of the African-American on the music that would become country and bluegrass was significant.

Start with the banjo. It was quickly adopted by the folks of the mountains. Then of course there was the sound that we know as the Blues. The subsistence farmers of this rocky region, the coal miners, and everyone who scrapped a living out of these mountains were familiar with the hardships of just getting by. When the medicine show brought black musicians from the lowlands with their unique blues stylings and licks were traded, the Celtic-based mountain music took on a new sound.

The two cuts I've posted today are examples of the period of that transition. The songs are still in the traditional mountain ballad/story style, played on the African-derived banjo.

Gaither Carlton - Omie Let Your Bangs Hang Down.mp3

Clarence "Tom" Ashley - Dark Holler.mp3

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Blogger Woodshed said...

Nice one. It's not pointed out often enough how much bluegrass and its kin are influenced by African music. There's a great article on the subject by Mike Seeger here.

It's even rarer that it's recognised how much African American music was influenced by European music.

One thing I would disagree with, I'd say bluegrass owes as much, if not more, to English folk music as Irish/Scottish. But, being an English folkie, I would say that.

August 30, 2006 5:28 AM  
Blogger Ed said...

Hi Woodshed,
Thanks for the link to that great article by Mike Seeger. You are absolutely correct about the influence of English folk music as well as the influence of European music on the African-American.

It is the interplay of all these varied styles that makes the period from the mid-1800’s to the first half of the 1900’s so interesting.


August 30, 2006 8:40 AM  
Anonymous G-Dub said...

That is the coolest picture! Where did you run across it?

I love banjo music. Maybe that's why I'm not an uber-rich stuffed shirt on one of the coasts...not that there's anything wrong with that.

August 30, 2006 7:36 PM  
Blogger Joel @ Postmodern Sounds said...

Do you know anything about the banjo in blues? A while ago you posted Etta Baker playing banjo. Do you have or know of anything else?

August 30, 2006 11:43 PM  
Blogger Ed said...

Hi Joel - It seems that most of the banjo blues pre-dated the era of recording, although there are a few early examples. I know I have some somewhere. I'll try to dig some up in the near future.

August 31, 2006 6:30 AM  
Blogger Ed said...

Joel - As soon as I hit the "publish" button it occured to me that there are a few modern examples of the banjo blues: Guy Davis, Taj Mahal, and Harmonica Hines have all recorded some very fine examples.

August 31, 2006 6:33 AM  
Blogger kjk said...

woodshed -- check out Dan Gallert (http://orphonon.utopiandesign.com/). when i saw him live, he pulled out a reproduction of what a precursor to the banjo might have looked and sounded like for a couple of tunes. very interesting ... and sweet-sounding.

September 03, 2006 9:21 PM  
Blogger kjk said...

woops. that's "Gellert" with an "e"

September 03, 2006 9:33 PM  

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