The Banjo’s uncomfortable past

2 pm.

Background: As some of you may unfortunately know, this past year I’ve been indulging myself with a musical mid life crisis. I’ve started to learn how to play 5 string banjo.

The short story is this. For just about my entire life there had been this old dusty banjo in the house that no one played. It belongs to my father. In the mid fifties he helped organize a Pete Seeger (a known communist) concert on campus. This means he probably has his very own file folder deep in the Hoover building. My father also has his very own Pete Seeger story but that will have to wait for another blog post. A short while after the concert, inspired by Seeger and other folk artists, my father purchased the least expensive banjo available at Sears. Since he was already making progress learning the guitar he figured the banjo would be easy. After all, it had less strings!

After another short while, frustrated, the banjo was put back in its case to collect dust for five decades. A couple decades in the attic, then about 10 years in the basement, another 10 years below the plant rack in the den next to the LPs we haven’t played since we couldn’t find replacement needles for the old HiFi. Followed by some time in the garage before moving to a storage unit.  Except for the few times I’d sneak it out of the case and strum it as a little kid looking for trouble, this specific instrument has had a pretty uneventful life. Until recently at least. Now I annoy people with it for at least 5 minutes every day. I know, I know, 5 minutes a day is not enough to make any measurable progress but I don’t want to drive the people I live with completely insane.

I’m not sure exactly what drew me to rescue the banjo from storage and start playing it at age 46. Maybe it was Seeger visiting Occupy Wall Street. I’m sure that was a factor. I was also a band geek in high school. One of my greatest achievements was making it into the All-State Band playing Small Tuba aka Euphonium. It’s been a long time since I’ve been The Best at anything and I admit to missing the stage and everything that goes along with it. Anyone who says they don’t like the cheers and adulation is just lying.  Small Tuba does have its drawbacks. There’s not much you can do with it beyond joining a circus or military band. While a circus band would be loads of fun, the musicians who play in them are world class. And it’s been a quarter century since I’ve played seriously. So I asked myself, why not find a new passion? Why not lead people in a robust chorus of Solidarity Forever & Which Side Are You On? Everybody and their brother plays guitar. But banjo? That would be bad ass cool!  I knew where I could find an instrument, and of course the most important factor – it was FREE – just sitting there in storage waiting for me. Enough about my  uncomfortable past…

About the Banjo’s uncomfortable past…

The banjo is a four-, five- or (occasionally) six-stringed instrument with a thin membrane stretched over a frame or cavity as a resonator. The membrane is typically a piece of animal skin or plastic, and the frame is typically circular. Early forms of the instrument were fashioned by Africans in Colonial America, adapted from several African instruments of similar design.[1]

The banjo is frequently associated with country, folk, Irish traditional and bluegrass music. Historically, the banjo occupied a central place in African American traditional music, before becoming popular in the minstrel shows of the 19th century. In fact, slaves both were influenced by and influenced the early development of the music, which became country and bluegrass, particularly in regard to the innovation of musical techniques for both the banjo and fiddle.[2][3][4] The banjo, with the fiddle, is a mainstay of American old-time music.

Part of learning a new instrument is learning its’ history. What I meant by its past being uncomfortable, is not the banjo’s fifteen minutes of pop culture fame as the sound track for Appalachian man on man rape in the movie Deliverance (BTW if you’re ever on Jeopardy, the Dueling Banjos tune is traditionally performed with banjo and guitar, not two banjos). I’m talking about the history of the banjo, heavily promoted at the time as “The American Instrument“, and its association with American blackface minstrel shows of the 19th and early 20th century. Basically you have an instrument with African roots, being popularized by white American performers in blackface, then later black Americans in blackface, using exaggerated stereotyped… well you can understand why the instrument lost a great deal of popularity over the 20th century.

So how are actual black American minstrel show artists and performers viewed? As you might imagine, their work has a long history of being celebrated and vilified. Even now there are black banjo performers getting called Uncle Toms in the comment threads on You-Tube.  

While looking for tunes to add to my part of The Breakfast Club series, I came across this performance. A song about Booker T. Washington’s dinner at the White House with Teddy Roosevelt.

Gus Cannon

Which lead me to this more recent performance of the same song by Don Flemming

And this deep article about it –Can You Blame Gus Cannon? Published on  December 16 2013– by Don Flemming in the Oxford American.

…Granted its proper historical context, “Can You Blame the Colored Man” emerges as a complex satire. Each line is completely tongue-in-cheek and the song can function as both a message of empowerment and one of disparagement-Booker T. as a black man deftly transcending social boundaries or as a rube come to the city, just another bon ton with a superiority complex. (“Bon ton” was a term used at the time to refer to a black person who wore fancy clothes and sported expensive carriages despite being actually financially broke.) For example, in the opening verse, the mention of Booker “in his car . . . feeling fine” implies that he is riding in a segregated train car, as he always traveled, and evokes an Uncle Tom-like character finding comfort being “in his place.” Yet in the next verse the song exploits the ridiculousness of the situation in the first place:

   Now when Booker knocked on the president’s door

   Ole Booker he began to grin

   Now he almost changed his color

   When Roosevelt said to come in

   “We’ll have some dinner

   In a little while”

In the chorus, a subtle shift is employed as Booker T. “sits down at the President’s table he begin to smile” compared with his grin at the door, suggesting that he is using different faces to handle whatever the social situation might call for. Booker T. eats “lamb, ham, veal, and roast / chicken, turkey, quail on toast,” indulging in the riches of a white household, exaggerated to show how disproportionate American society was. (In fact, writer Gilson Willets described the eating habits of the Roosevelts as “plain food and higher thinking.”)

In the second verse, the song jabs at Booker T.’s ideals in a different way. Washington was known for being very frugal and conscientious, never doing anything frivolous or extravagant to distract from his work, so I found the following image to be hilarious:

   Now Booker was so delighted

   That the social was given to him

   Well he hired a horse and carriage

   And he taken the whole town in

   He was drunk on wine

   A’was feeling fine

Given Booker T.’s real-life demeanor, the scene is ridiculous, but within the context of the song I had to wonder: Why is he drunk? Was it simply the result of an overstimulating dinner? Had he been nervous? Or was he celebrating the accomplishment of sitting as high up as a white man, eating at the president’s table? The word delighted in the first line can suggest either plain happiness or surprise, thereby coloring the nature of Booker T.’s capers. All of these interpretations work for the song, and the title and chorus assert the central question: Can you blame him for acting this way? (Whichever way that may be.)

“Can You Blame the Colored Man” takes us to a time when basic civil rights were not a universal part of American culture, when black Americans had to ask themselves: What does it mean to be free? And how hard will we fight for that freedom? And even, Is it worth it? Cannon’s message-for all of its layered context, satire, and cross-referencing-is simple. Can you blame a colored man for taking a risky step toward change? I don’t.

Definitely worth clicking through and reading the whole article.

Which brings me to the uncomfortable lyrics in present pop music banjo covers…

Carolina Chocolate Drops performing “Hit ‘Em Up Style”

1 comment

    • BobbyK on December 16, 2014 at 11:10 am

    but I am having a boat load of fun learning how to play.

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