February 6th - Black Banjo Songsters of North Carolina and Virginia

First off, apologies for the shortness of yesterday's post and the lateness of today's. It's actually much easier for me to write during the week, when I have a little time on the subway to and from work, than on the weekends, when I try to equitably take care of a four-month-old who is now old enough to feel total unrelenting fury. On to today's album!

Over the past few decades a consensus has developed in old-time music that seeks to recognize the contribution of black musicians and their influence on folk, country, bluegrass, etc. music - pretty much all of the branches of American popular music that sprung from the south and today are considered almost entirely the province of white people. This consensus aims to credit enslaved and free African-Americans with influencing the transplanted musical traditions of Irish and Scotch-Irish settlers. It's also wrong.

This is actually the perfect instance of an actual "politically-correct" myth - a fiction that is spun in order to make history palatable to a specific group. Because African-Americans didn't influence American Southern popular music. They invented it. Whites influenced black music - with fiddling, with certain historical and contemporary ballads - but the lion's share of what we think of as "roots" music can be directly traced to African-Americans. It's not even a mysterious history - the banjo is explicitly based on gourd instruments made by slaves. The biographies of like every white string band leader from the 1920's always mentions the black person they learned their instrument from. That this history has been largely erased is confounding - I mean, people at least joke about rock and roll being stolen from black people. Most people who actively listen to bluegrass or folk music don't realize that this is African-American music that we basically stole.

Today's album is actually the first I bought from Smithsonian Folkways, several years ago. I had just started playing banjo myself and was looking for recordings of banjo music I actually, uh, liked. I have really specific tastes - I much prefer clawhammer and thumb-lead banjo styles to Scruggs style, and while I appreciate instrumentals I always would rather listen to songs with lyrics. The music on this album - collected from several black artists from 1974-1997 - is literally my favorite album of banjo music, coupled with extensive, scholarship-level liner notes. With both established and previously unrecorded artists performing a wide variety of different versions of standards like "Shortnin' Bread" and "Coo Coo Bird," this is an excellent recording of a tradition that has been almost completely forgotten.

But not only that, some of my favorite music put to tape is on here - Cora Phillips and Etta Baker's "Jaybird March" is beautiful and intricate and the artists laugh about it while playing it. I absolutely love this album. Everything I've covered so far has been from the pre-Smithsonian years of the archive - but they continue to release great, important albums. This just happens to be my favorite.

Click here to read liner notes and purchase this album online