The Evolution of Spirituals (1 of 2)

Spirituals are African American religious songs that evolved in the context of slavery primarily in the Southern United States. They were a mechanism for survival – a potent example of how humans can endure the worst of conditions. Spirituals combine elements of European American religious music with African musical characteristics. Their influence can be felt in virtually all subsequent forms of American music, including jazz, gospel, blues, rhythm and blues, country, rock and roll, and hip-hop.

Music in Africa

Most people who came to America in slavery were taken from the west coast of Africa. While they hailed from a wide variety of kingdoms, states, city-states, clans, tribes, and kinship groups, music was integral to everyday life throughout the region. “We are almost a nation of dancers, musicians, and poets,” writes Olaudah Equiano, one of the first Africans to write a book in the English language.

Through the slave trade, elements of music and dance traditions from Africa were integrated into American culture. This includes African musical and performance characteristics that were elemental to spirituals. Both musics were very emotional. The singing was often highly intense and included falsettos, shouts, and groans. There was call and response singing, with a song leader singing a phrase and the rest of the group singing a reply. Refrains were repeated and sung as choruses. Percussive sounds were added with hand claps and foots stomps. Words were improvised. Dancers shuffled in ring formations.

European American Religious Music

Early Protestants in the New World sang a type of religious song called a psalm. Psalms had lyrics that were taken directly from biblical scripture. They were sung at a slow tempo without instrumental accompaniment. In New England during the colonial era, some African Americans attended Sabbath services in segregated seats and joined in the singing of psalms. Psalm singing was led by a precentor who “lined out” the psalm and “set the tune” so that those who couldn’t read or didn’t have the psalm book could join in the singing. The most popular early psalter was the “Bay Psalm Book,” first published in 1640. It was the first book printed in the English colonies.

The Bay Psalm Book
The Bay Psalm Book title page

“Psalm 100,” also known as “Old Hundred” was one of the best known and most commonly sung psalms.

In the 1730s and 1740s, a series of emotional religious revivals called the Great Awakening swept across the American colonies. Along with the Great Awakening came a new, livelier form of religious song called a hymn. While the words to psalms came directly from the Bible, hymns were religious poems based on scripture. English minister Dr. Isaac Watts published the book “Hymns and Spiritual Songs” in 1707. The book was very popular in the colonies, especially with African Americans. The new hymns gradually replaced the old psalms among the Protestant denominations.

African Americans and Christianity

People in the American colonies disagreed over whether to encourage, discourage, enforce, or prohibit the conversion of African Americans to Christianity. In the North, Christian denominations generally supported and facilitated conversion. The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG), the Church of England’s missionary organization, formed in 1701 to convert African Americans to Christianity. They founded schools, including one at New York’s Trinity Church, to provide religious instruction, which included psalm singing. Schools that taught Christianity and psalm singing also formed that were independent of established churches.

In the South, religious conversion was much less common than in the North. Large plantations were relatively isolated, and it was up to individual plantation owners whether or not to convert their slaves. Some believed that religious instruction made enslaved people “proud, and not as good servants.” Others used passages from the Bible to justify the existence slavery. They attempted to leverage these passages to make slaves more docile and subservient. After some people in slavery used their status as Christians to argue for their freedom, Virginia and other states passed laws specifying that baptism does not bring freedom to blacks.

The SPG was active in the South, and the Church of England had a strong influence on Southerners. Some slaves attended church with their masters. They sat in segregated galleries, on the floor, or listened from outside through an open window. The Reverend Samuel Davies, a Presbyterian minister from Virginia noted in 1751 that he was able to attract African Americans to his ministry through congregational singing. “The Negroes, above all the Human Species that I ever knew, have an Ear for Musick, and a kind of extatic Delight in Psalmody; and there are no books they learn so soon or take so much Pleasure in.” The songs and hymns of Dr. Watts were favorites.

Black Churches

When worshiping in white churches, African Americans were generally segregated and subject to discrimination. By the late 18th century, African Americans began forming their own congregations that were part of the established churches. Whites were divided over their support of separate black congregations. The First African Baptist Church at Savannah, Georgia, formed in 1788. It was the earliest permanent African American congregation in the United States. Blacks in the South formed other congregations, generally Baptist. By the 1790s, there were separate black congregations in the North, most of which were Methodist.

Particularly in the South, most black congregations had white ministers and were governed by white councils. Following the Denmark Vesey uprising in 1822 and the Nat Turner insurrection in 1831, most black congregations were dissolved. As both revolts were led by preachers, whites placed blame on religious organizations. After the Civil War, blacks again formed independent congregations in the South.

Richard Allen’s Hymnals

In 1784, Old St. George’s Methodist Church in Philadelphia issued former slave Richard Allen a preaching license. He was one of the first two black men to receive such a license from the Methodist Church. To overcome the discrimination blacks faced in white churches, Allen organized the first congregation of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) in 1794.

Richard Allen
Richard Allen

In 1801 Allen published a hymnal for the AME Church. “A Collection of Spiritual Songs and Hymns Selected from Various Authors by Richard Allen, African Minister” included 54 hymn texts without tunes. Many of these were drawn from the hymnals of Dr. Watts and other favorite Methodist and Baptist hymnals. Others had been in oral circulation, and some may have been original Richard Allen compositions. The book is invaluable as a reference of songs that had were favorites of African Americans before and after it was published.

“A Collection of Spiritual Songs” was the first song collection published expressly for a black congregation. The hymnal is also significant because it included refrains that both supported and contrasted with the message in the stanza. Refrains can be found in only one previous hymnal. Sung as a call and response, they were an element of African music that became common in later spirituals. Some refrains appeared in more than one song. Wandering refrains such as this appear to be unique to African American singing at the time. They were also frequently found in later African American spirituals.

The spiritual “My Lord, What a Morning” is an adaptation of a hymn from Allen’s “A Collection of Spiritual Songs.”

Despite the relative freedom enjoyed by the independent black congregations, they were still controlled by white elders and subject to discrimination. In 1816, following a battle in court, several black Methodist congregations separated from the church and established the African Methodist Episcopal Church as the first black denomination. As the Church’s first bishop, Allen published a new hymnal in 1818. It was larger than his previous hymnal and still contained favorites by Dr. Watts and others.

Many of these hymns would soon become favorites at the camp meetings of the Second Great Awakening. These camp meetings would provide fertile ground for the further development of spirituals.

Part 2 of this 2-part series explores how spirituals continued to develop in the 19th century and beyond.

Spotify Playlist

Shenandoah: An American Folk Song

There are few melodies as recognizable as that of the American folk song “Shenandoah.” As with most folk songs, there are many different variations and versions, and it is impossible to determine the song’s exact origin. It has commonly been sung as a sea shanty (also spelled chantey or chanty), though it most likely originated with early French Canadian fur traders. Versions of the song have linked it to riverboat men, cavalry men, mountain men, and soldiers on both sides of the Civil War. Some use names, including Sally Brown, Polly Brown, Darby Doyle, Paddy Doyle, or Dan O’Shea, in place of the word Shenandoah.

In summing up the beauty and appeal of the song, it is hard to top the writing of John and Alan Lomax in their book Best Loved American Folk Songs:

The melody has the roll and surge and freedom of a tall ship sweeping along before a trade wind. The sonorous succession of long vowels and soft and liquid consonants blend perfectly with the romantic air. The lines are a call from the homeland to the sailor wandering far out across the seas, a call not from a sweetheart, a house, or even a town, but from the land itself, its rivers and its familiar and loved hills.

Sea Shanties

Sea shanties, or nautical shanties, are the work songs of sailors. Often sung in call and response fashion, shanties coordinate the actions of sailors in specific tasks. The singing of shanties evolved from more primitive chants and calls to coordinate work on board sailing vessels. They evolved with British and northern European sailors during the 16th century. Shanties sung by American sailors include older European and American songs, adaptations of these songs, and original creations. The 1820s through the 1860s were the peak years for American shantying. These were years that smaller packet ships carried passengers, goods, and mail on rivers and along the coasts of America. Fast transatlantic clipper ships brought immigrants and transferred goods both ways across the Atlantic Ocean.

Shanties are generally one of two types: hauling or heaving. Hauling songs coordinate intermittent actions, such as pulling on a halyard (rope) to hoist a topsail. Heaving songs accompany continuous actions, such as pushing the wooden bars of a capstan to raise the anchor of a ship. The anchor’s rope winds around the capstan, which is a sort of giant winch. Rhythmic coordination of action is less important in heaving songs than in hauling songs.

“Shenandoah” was one of the most popular capstan shanties. Heaving songs such as this set an appropriate, manageable pace and inspired the sailors to accomplish the task at hand, which could be quite long in duration.

Sailors working at a capstan
Sailors working at a capstan

French Canadian Origins

The song first appeared in writing as “Shenadore” in The New Dominion Monthly in April, 1876. The author, Captain Robert Chamblet Adams, indicated that he had first heard the song around 1850.  W.B. Whall reprinted it in his 1910 book Ships, Sea Songs and Shanties Collected by W.B. Whall, Master Mariner. The lyrics tell the story of a canoeing voyageur, or fur trader, who was in love with the daughter of a Native American chief.

This earliest known version of the song likely originated with French Canadian voyageurs who traded with Native Americans around the Great Lakes starting in the 16th century. The voyageurs gave weapons, tools, and money in exchange for animal furs, especially beaver pelts. They often sang while they paddled their canoes along the Mississippi River and its tributaries, including the Missouri, in the quest for furs.

"Fur Traders Descending the Missouri" - painting by George Caleb Bingham
“Fur Traders Descending the Missouri” – painting by George Caleb Bingham

Most musicologists agree that the chief mentioned in “Shenandoah” is the Oneida Iroquois chief John Skenandoa. Skenandoa supported the English against the French in the Seven Years (or French and Indian) War. Support for the English may be the reason that the chief forbade the love between his daughter and the French trader, if the story in this early version of “Shenandoah” is true.

Missouri, she’s a mighty river.
Away you rolling river.
The redskins’ camp, lies on its borders.
Ah-ha, I’m bound away, ‘Cross the wide Missouri.

The white man loved the Indian maiden,
Away you rolling river.
With notions his canoe was laden.
Ah-ha, I’m bound away, ‘Cross the wide Missouri.

“O, Shenandoah, I love your daughter,
Away you rolling river.
I’ll take her ‘cross yon rolling water.”
Ah-ha, I’m bound away, ‘Cross the wide Missouri.

The chief disdained the trader’s dollars:
Away you rolling river.
“My daughter never you shall follow.”
Ah-ha, I’m bound away, ‘Cross the wide Missouri.

At last there came a Yankee skipper.
Away you rolling river.
He winked his eye, and he tipped his flipper.
Ah-ha, I’m bound away, ‘Cross the wide Missouri.

He sold the chief that fire-water,
Away you rolling river.
And ‘cross the river he stole his daughter.
Ah-ha, I’m bound away, ‘Cross the wide Missouri.

“O, Shenandoah, I long to hear you,
Away you rolling river.
Across that wide and rolling river.”
Ah-ha, I’m bound away, ‘Cross the wide Missouri.

(from Ships, Sea Songs and Shanties Collected by W.B. Whall, Master Mariner)

Other Versions

Flatboatmen carrying goods on the American rivers in the early 19th century may also have sung versions of “Shenandoah.” Sailors on packet ships along the Mississippi River sang it while they hauled in the anchor. Eventually, sailors on American clipper ships carried the song around the world.

In the book American Ballads and Folk Songs (Macmillan, 1934), John and Alan Lomax include a version called “The Wild Mizzourye.” They identify this as a version sung by U.S. Cavalry men in the American West.

For seven long years I courted Nancy
Hi! Ho! The rolling river!
For seven long years I courted Nancy
Ha! Ha! I’m bound away for the wild Mizzourye!

She would not have me for a lover
Hi! Ho! The rolling river!
She would not have me for a lover
Ha! Ha! I’m bound away for the wild Mizzourye!

And so she took my fifteen dollars
Hi! Ho! The rolling river!
And so she took my fifteen dollars
Ha! Ha! I’m bound away for the wild Mizzourye!

And then she went to Kansas City
Hi! Ho! The rolling river!
And then she went to Kansas City
Ha! Ha! I’m bound away for the wild Mizzourye!

And there she had a little sh-sh-baby
Hi! Ho! The rolling river!
And there she had a little sh-sh-baby
Ha! Ha! I’m bound away for the wild Mizzourye!

She must have had another lover
Hi! Ho! The rolling river!
She must have had another lover
Ha! Ha! I’m bound away for the wild Mizzourye!

He must have been a _th Cavalry Soldier
Hi! Ho! The rolling river!
He must have been a _th Cavalry Soldier
Ha! Ha! I’m bound away for the wild Mizzourye!

I’m drinkin’ rum and chawin’ tobacco
Hi! Ho! The rolling river!
I’m drinkin’ rum and chawin’ tobacco
Ha! Ha! I’m bound away for the wild Mizzourye!

I learned this song from Tommy Tompkins
Hi! Ho! The rolling river!
I learned this song from Tommy Tompkins
Ha! Ha! I’m bound away for the wild Mizzourye!

(from American Ballads and Folk Songs by John and Alan Lomax)

Carl Sandburg provides a version with some similar stanzas in his book The American Songbag (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1927). He indicates that “The Wide Mizzoura” was sung by regular army men by 1897. Instead of the word “Shenandoah,” Sandburg’s version uses “Shannadore.”

In his book Splendour of the Seas (E. Stanford, 1953) Captain Frank H. Shaw includes the following version, which celebrates the Shenandoah River and Valley of Virginia and West Virginia.

O Shenandoah, I long ter hear yer
O Shenandoah, I long ter hear yer

O Shenandoah, I look a-notion
To sail across the stormy ocean

O Shenandoah, I’m bound ter leave yer
But, Shenandoah, I’ll not deceive yer

O Shenandoah, I love yer daughters
I love the music of yer waters

‘Tis seven long years since last I seed yer
But, Shenandoah, I’ll never grieve yer

O Shenandoah’s my native valley
Beside her waters I love to dally

O Shenandoah, she’s a lovely river
An’ I shall never forget you ever

(from Splendour of the Seas by Captain Frank H. Shaw)

America’s familiarity with “Shenandoah” soared in the 1960s when it was featured in at least two popular films. How the West was Won (1962) linked the song with the American West, and Shenandoah (1965) connected it to the Civil War.

My version of “Shenandoah” with the Rambling String Band includes the lyrics from John and Alan Lomax’s Folk Song U.S.A. (Duell, Sloan & Pearce, Inc., 1947).

O Shenandoah, I long to hear you
Away, you rolling river
O Shenandoah, I long to hear you
Away, I’m bound away
‘Cross the wide Missouri

Missouri, she’s a mighty river
Away, you rolling river
The Indians camp along her borders
Away, I’m bound away
‘Cross the wide Missouri

The white man loved an Indian maiden
Away, you rolling river
With notions his canoe was laden
Away, I’m bound away
‘Cross the wide Missouri

O Shenandoah, I love your daughter
Away, you rolling river
For her I’ve crossed the rolling water
Away, I’m bound away
‘Cross the wide Missouri

Seven long years I courted Sally
Away, you rolling river
Seven more I longed to have her
Away, I’m bound away
‘Cross the wide Missouri

Farewell, my dear, I’m bound to leave you
Away, you rolling river
O Shenandoah, I’ll not deceive you
Away, I’m bound away
‘Cross the wide Missouri

“Shenandoah” is one of the most recorded and performed American folk songs. The Spotify playlist below includes versions by Harry Belafonte, Trampled by Turtles, Emmylou Harris, Johnny Mathis, Jerry Garcia and David Grisman, Bruce Springsteen, Pete Seeger, Richard Thompson, and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

Spotify Playlist

A Brief History of Southern Square Dance

For most of my days, I have avoided stepping onto a dance floor as if my life depended on it. In 2015 when I first attended Old-Time Week at the Augusta Heritage Center of Davis & Elkins College in West Virginia, I found that there was a square dance every night. I thought that, as a musician who occasionally plays for dances,  I should probably give this a try. The first night I went and watched for a while, but did not brave the dance floor. The second night I went back and summoned the courage to dance. Since that night I have seldom passed up an opportunity to square dance.

Many people have seen the short online video The Secret Racist History of Square Dancing, linked at the bottom of this blog post. The premise of the video is that square dancing became popular nationwide in the 20th century due to the influence of racists and anti-Semites who wanted to promote wholesome Anglo-Saxon values. While the video does acknowledge the true multiracial development of square dance, the alarmist title is misleading. The southern square dance is built on a foundation of Scots-Irish reels, and it includes elements of English, French, African American, and Native American dance. Perhaps the most critical innovation, the dance caller, was the result of African American ingenuity.

For a deep dive into this topic, I recommend the book Hoedowns, Reels, and Frolics: Roots and Branches of Southern Appalachian Dance (University of Illinois Press, 2015) by Phil Jamison. Jamison is an excellent dancer, musician, scholar, writer, and dance caller. Many of the square dances in which I have participated were led by Phil’s expert calling.

Hoedowns, Reels, and Frolics (Phil Jamison)

The Southern Square Dance

There are several different types of dance in the Southern Appalachian dance tradition. Step dances, like flatfooting, clogging, and buckdancing, are for individuals. Round dances, like two-steps and waltzes, are for couples. Set dances, like square dances, are for groups of couples. A community dance, or frolic, in Appalachia might include all of these dance forms.

Two types of square dance are part of the set dance tradition. One is a square set which consists of four couples. The other is a circular set that can include any number of couples. Square dances have a visiting-couple structure, which means that each couple takes turns leading the dance figure. The lead couple dances, or visits, with each of the other couples as they work their way counterclockwise around the set.

Southern Square Dance, Pulaski, TN (2014)
Gerald Young, caller

Cultural Diversity in Appalachia

Southern Appalachian square dance is an American hybrid that incorporates elements of dance traditions from a variety of cultures. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, folklorists and writers began propagating the myth that the people of the southern portion of the Appalachian Mountain Range (Appalachia) were  of purebred Anglo-Saxon heritage. This was far from true. The region was home to Algonquian and Cherokee Indians when Europeans began settling there during the 18th century. Scots-Irish, German, English, Welsh, and French settlers came to live in Appalachia. Most of the early settlers followed the Great Wagon Road from Pennsylvania southwest through Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Others traveled west from Tidewater Virginia and Charleston, South Carolina.

Both free and enslaved African Americans also lived in Appalachia. In the first half of the 19th century, approximately 10 percent of white households owned slaves, typically fewer than five. People in slavery worked in farming, mining, lumbering, riverboats, and hotels. Poor white tenant farmers and sharecroppers often labored alongside enslaved people at work parties, such as corn huskings. They also shared music and dance. Daniel Hundley wrote in 1860 about “industrious poor whites” and slaves in northern Alabama: “And when the long winter evenings have come, you will see blacks and whites sing, and shout, and husk in company, to the music of Ole Virginny reels played on a greasy fiddle by some aged Uncle Edward, whose frosty pow proclaims that he is no longer fit for any more active duty, and whose long skinny fingers are only useful now to put life and mettle into the fingers of the young huskers, by the help of de fiddle and de bow.”

The Roots of Square Dance

Southern Appalachian square dance is built on a foundation of circular Scots-Irish reels. The majority of the settlers in the southern mountains were Scots-Irish, and the early frolics that took place there consisted primarily of Scottish and Irish reels and jigs. A reel was not one particular dance. It applied to any number of set dances that had a characteristic weaving movement. Among the early Scottish reels were medieval ring dances, or rounds, which could include many couples. There was also a dance for three dancers called the “Reel for Three” and a variety of four-handed reels for four dancers.

One type of four-handed reel was the Square Four. The Square Four and other four-handed reels were well known in Scotland and Ireland in the early 19th century and became common in Appalachia. Some of the visiting-couple dance figures in the southern square dance most likely originated in the Square Four. Reels for three, four, or five couples were also danced in Scots-Irish communities in 19th century America.

Square Four reel - "Merrymaking at a Wayside Inn"
Square Four reel – “Merrymaking at a Wayside Inn”

The southern square dance also includes elements of the English country dance. This type of dance became popular in England in the late 16th century. By the end of the 17th century it had spread to France, where the name changed to “contredanse.”  This name implied its longways formation, which consisted of lines of opposing couples. The French contredanse name was changed to “contra dance” in America. Similar dances by this name can still be found today, especially in New England.

English Country Dance

The English country dance was popular in colonial America.  John Playford’s book The Dancing Master, first published in 1651, included tunes and instructions for 104 dances. In addition to the longways set, formations included “for four,” “square dances for eight,” and “rounds.” Though the English country dance was not widespread in the southern mountains, some of the visiting-couple figures in square dance (Figure Eight, Chase the Rabbit, and Shoot the Owl) likely originated in the English country dance.

A French dance called the cotillion became popular in America in the late 18th century. It was a square dance for four couples. Cotillions largely replaced the English country dance in American ballrooms, perhaps honoring the assistance provided by France in defeating the British during the American Revolution. By the 1820s, a new kind of French square dance, called a quadrille, had become the most popular dance of fashionable society in America. Its popularity spread by flatboat and steamboat, and the earlier Scots-Irish reels came to incorporate its four-couple form.

The Quadrille Figure: Lady and Gent” Advance and Retire

Dancing was an important part of the culture and religion of Native American societies. These dances were often in a circular ring formation. Sometimes they created a serpentine movement with a dancer leading the line in a spiral coiling into the center, then reversing itself to uncoil. These figures are also part of southern square dance, though it is impossible to determine whether they were inspired by Native American dance or earlier European dances that incorporated similar figures.

"Dance Generale" of the Natchez Indians
“Dance Generale” of the Natchez Indians

Ring dances were also common in African and African American cultures. In these dances, individuals take turns dancing in the center of the ring. This concept became part of southern square dance in the Bird in the Cage figure, which involves a lone dancer in the center of a circle. Perhaps the most significant contribution that African Americans made to the southern square dance is that of the dance caller.

African American Ring Dance
African American Ring Dance

The Square Dance Caller

The European dance forms that preceded the square dance, including Scots-Irish reels, English country dance, and French cotillions and quadrilles, were not prompted by a dance caller. People learned the dances at dancing schools and from itinerant dancing masters. Having the time and money to learn these dances distinguished the middle and upper classes from the lower classes, both in Europe and America. Dancing schools and traveling dancing masters taught the “latest and most fashionable” European dances by the early 18th century in cities and towns throughout colonial America.

African American fiddlers often provided music for dancing schools, masters, and society dances. As they played their instruments, some also learned the dances and figures. Many of these musicians were enslaved and played music at dances for others in slavery. At some point, fiddlers began to call out the figures to English and French dances while the music was being played at plantation frolics. This was the start of the dance calling tradition that is so characteristic of square dancing.

All of the historical accounts of early dance callers, from the mid-18th through early 19th centuries, describe black or mixed-race callers. The fact that these accounts were widespread from New Orleans to New England suggest that the tradition may have begun in the West Indies. Many of the people sold into slavery in North America had been taken from West Africa to work in the Caribbean Islands for “seasoning” prior to entering the mainland.

European Americans were calling dances by the mid-1830s. Published dance manuals began including tips and instructions for calling by the 1850s. This new custom was not received well by all, however. Dancing teacher Charles Durang called it “a vile custom, marring the melody of the airs.” Nonetheless, dance calls made the European dances accessible to all, regardless of class or race.

Dance calling was well established in Appalachia by the end of the 19th century. Different styles emerged, with some taking on more rhythmic and rhyming characteristics. Through dance callers, the figures of the Scots-Irish, English, French, Native American, and African American dances converged into the southern square dance.

Square Dance Recordings

Barn dance radio programs gained popularity through the 1920s. These were variety shows that featured the old-time dance music of rural America. When record companies began releasing old-time records in 1923, some of the recordings included dance calls. The calls were generally not timed and sequenced to actually be used to guide a square dance. They were primarily there to provide down-home color to the recordings. Records companies marketed these recordings as “Barn Dances with Calls.”

These recordings are a great resource to hear and study regional dance calling styles. The first recordings to include square dance calls were made by banjo player Samantha Bumgarner from Jackson County in Western North Carolina.

There are two African American callers on record from the 1920s: Sam Jones and Jim Baxter. Baxter was an African American-Cherokee guitar player from north Georgia.

Jamison’s book Hoedowns, Reels, and Frolics provides a complete listing and analysis of the 78-rpm recordings of southern dance callers made from 1924-1933. Some of these recordings are provided in the Spotify playlist at the end of this blog post.

Square Dance Traditions

Dancing was an important social activity throughout the rural South in the 19th century. Dances often took place in homes, with all of the furniture moved out of the largest room. As Harden Taliaferro recalled of dances in Surry County, North Carolina in the 1820s: “As soon as night came, or the work was done, the fiddle sounded, and they danced and courted all night.” In the early 20th century, dances moved out of private homes into community spaces such as VFW halls, schoolhouses, and firehouses.

The 1930s saw the rise of the Western square dance. As country musicians moved away from the negative connotations of the mountain hillbilly image, the Western singing cowboy was born and popularized through movies and recordings. Though its roots were in the southern mountains, square dancing became associated with the West.

Western Square Dance

In the 20th century, people started to promote folk dances, including the square dance, in schools and dance clubs.  Their motives ranged from helping to preserve America’s cultural heritage to blatantly racist attempts to promote what they perceived as white culture. While based in fact, it is important to not allow the racist aspects highlighted in the video below to overshadow the value of the square dance as a truly American hybrid.

While the popularity of square dancing has ebbed and flowed through the years, it is an American tradition that is still enjoyed in many communities in the United States.

Spotify Playlist

Banjo Roots and Branches (4 of 4): Inquiries into White and Black Banjo in 19th and 20th Century America

This post 4 of 4 in the series Banjo Roots and Branches.

The world of the banjo expanded greatly in the second half of the 19th century. Touring blackface minstrel performers began popularizing the instrument with white Americans starting in the 1830s. Some white Southerners learned to play the banjo from African Americans prior to that, but the extent to which it happened is unknown. Banjo manufacturers supplied instruments to professionals and amateurs alike. Instructional manuals gradually shifted from teaching the down-stroke techniques that persisted from the banjo’s African ancestors to an up-picked guitar style of playing. Guitar style would develop in different ways among white and black banjo players, eventually laying the foundation for bluegrass banjo playing in the 1940s. By the turn of the 20th century, the banjo had emerged as a common parlor instrument in middle class American homes and was played in a variety of musical styles.

This is the fourth of four posts that mine the latest scholarship on banjo history from the book Banjo Roots and Branches (University of Illinois Press, 2018). The first post explored the African roots of the banjo. The second post discussed developments that took place in the Caribbean in the context of the transatlantic slave trade. The third post examined and contextualized the earliest references to the banjo on the North American continent. This post delves into the growth in popularity of the banjo and the exchange of banjo playing between African Americans and European Americans.

Banjo Roots and Branches

Black Banjo, Fiddle, and Dance in Kentucky

In his chapter “Black Banjo, Fiddle, and Dance in Kentucky and the Amalgamation of African American and Anglo-American Folk Music,” banjoist and researcher George R. Gibson shows how Kentucky fiddle and banjo music and dance are the result of both African American and European American people. In the process, he challenges some previous held conceptions about the banjo. He theorizes that, rather than developing in the Caribbean, the banjo may have been created in Africa by Luso-Africans. Luso-Africans are creoles of mixed Portuguese and African ancestry.  Gibson references a 1620 quote by Richard Jobson stating that instruments found along the Gambia River have “pinnes they winde and bring to agree in tunable notes.” This quote may describe tuning pegs, a defining feature that distinguishes it from its African predecessors. Other writers in the book determined that these European design elements were added in the Caribbean. Gibson notes that the Portuguese had been in Africa more than one hundred years by 1620, and that Luso-Africans may have combined these European and African elements into the banjo during that time.

Gibson also challenges the commonly-held idea that minstrel performers were the first white people to play the banjo. Joel Walker Sweeney and Archibald Ferguson are the first known minstrel banjoists in the 1830s, but Gibson argues that whites were learning the banjo prior to that in the South. The only documented white banjoist prior to 1828 was James Hollyday in the 1740s or 50s. Hollyday played the banjo in Maryland among people in slavery who were owned by his mother. Gibson notes that whites and blacks were living in close proximity in Kentucky and other parts of the South. They interacted socially and played music together for dances. There were black fiddlers in Kentucky by 1780 and a documented banjo player by 1781. Establishing that white fiddlers were adopting music from African Americans, Gibson determines that whites must also have been learning banjo at this time. This is certainly reasonable, but concrete historical evidence has yet to be found to support it.

The Growing Popularity of the Banjo

Blackface minstrel performances that featured the banjo began making the instrument popular with middle class whites by the 1840s. Manufacturers, including William Boucher and the Dobson Brothers, William A. Cole, H.C. Fairbanks, and James Ashborn, produced banjos and sold them to minstrel performers and non-performers alike. The bodies of these instruments were no longer made from gourds. Instead, they were constructed with wooden hoops, as they are today, which are easier to mass produce consistently than gourd bodies.

Wood-Rimmed Minstrel Banjo built by William Boucher, Jr.
Wood-Rimmed Minstrel Banjo built by William Boucher, Jr.

Starting with Briggs’ Banjo Instructor, published in 1855, books provided instruction on how to play the instrument. A series of these banjo tutors followed, including Phil Rice’s Method for the Banjo (1858), Buckley’s New Banjo Method (1860), Frank Converse’s Banjo Without a Master (1865),  Frank B. Converse’s New and Complete Method for the Banjo (1865), Buckley’s Banjo Guide (1868), and others.

Briggs' Banjo Instructor of 1855
Briggs’ Banjo Instructor of 1855

“Briggs’ Corn Shucking Jig” from Briggs’ Banjo Instructor (1855)

The banjo tutors are available for free download on Tim Twiss’s website and elsewhere online. They are a great resource for understanding banjo-playing techniques and repertoire during this time period. In Banjo Roots and Branches, Jim Dalton examines the tutors to analyze the relationship between the intonational practices and repertoire of the banjo. Dalton finds that the repertoire became increasingly complex in the 1850s and 1860s. The evolving musical features of the repertoire corresponded to the transition of the banjo from an unfretted to a fretted instrument starting around the 1860s.

Frets are metal strips inserted into the fingerboard of stringed instruments that divide the neck into fixed segments of intervals. Fretted instruments (banjos, guitars, mandolins) are generally easier to play in tune than unfretted instruments (violins, violas, cellos), though the nature of the fixed intervals requires some compromise in intonation. Most banjos today are fretted, but fretless banjos are still popular with some players.

Unfretted Banjo Neck
Unfretted Banjo Neck
Fretted Banjo Neck
Fretted Banjo Neck

The Big World of the Banjo

Between the Civil War and the turn of the 20th century, the banjo continued to grow in popularity. Banjo promoters, including manufacturers like S.S. Stewart, successfully sought to make the banjo at home in the Victorian-era parlors of middle-class Americans. Manufacturers made instruments that were smaller in size and had intricate pearl inlays in the neck and headstock. Promoters deliberately disassociated the banjo from its African roots.

S.S. Stewart Orchestra No. 2 (c.1893-94)
S.S. Stewart Orchestra No. 2 (c.1893-94)

 

As evidenced by the banjo tutors and late 19th century recordings, the dominant playing style changed during this period. It transitioned from the early down-stroke style (a.k.a. stroke, clawhammer, or frailing), as it was played by earlier African American musicians and blackface minstrel performers, to an up-pick style, now referred to as guitar banjo style or classic banjo style. As the name implies, guitar banjo borrows the up-picking technique from the guitar.

The repertoire of the banjo also expanded to include sentimental songs of the time, European waltzes, mazurkas, polkas, and the new American style of ragtime, which has its origins in African-American communities. Banjo, Mandolin, and Guitar Clubs were common in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These groups, featuring stringed instruments of various sizes and shapes, became especially popular on college campuses.

Banjo, Mandolin, and Guitar Club at Washington & Jefferson College (1890s)
Banjo, Mandolin, and Guitar Club at Washington & Jefferson College (1890s)

Sylvester Louis “Vess” Ossman was a leading banjo player and one of the most recorded artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Starting in 1893 he recorded hundreds of ragtime songs, marches, cakewalks, popular songs, and intermezzos for various early disc and cylinder recording companies.

Gus Cannon – “The Colored Champion Banjo Pugilist of the World”

The parlor banjo movement is often thought of as exclusively white, but in Banjo Roots and Branches, researcher and banjoist Tony Thomas shows how African Americans were part of it. Thomas examines banjo player Gustavus “Gus” Cannon’s life and work to show how popular musical trends and banjo playing techniques were evident in his recordings.

Previous commentators have assessed that Cannon’s playing style emerged from black folk banjo traditions, or that his style was “unorthodox.” Thomas shows how the recordings he made between 1927 and 1930 actually demonstrate that he was an up-to-date professional musician well-versed in the music of “the big world of the banjo” of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Cannon was born on a plantation in Marshall County, Mississippi in 1883. As a young adolescent, he learned both down-stroke and up-pick banjo techniques from African American banjo players in the Mississippi Delta. He began playing banjo and fiddle for black country dances at age 14.

Most of Cannon’s early musical experiences were in the Mississippi Delta, where ragtime music was pervasive. African Americans there called most secular music, including early blues, “ragtimes.” Cannon learned to play traditional black fiddle tunes as well as newer ragtime, show, and dance music. He enjoyed W.C. Handy’s twenty and ten piece brass dance bands that played throughout the area.

Around 1908 Memphis, Tennessee became his new musical home. He toured with medicine shows, played for dances, and put together a jug band. For the new dances that were developing in the black South, Cannon played up-to-date “swinging, raggy music,” as Thomas calls it. Thomas cites Cannon’s recording of “Jazz Gypsy Blues” as an example.

Cannon was part of the early 20th century show business world of traveling musicals, medicine, tent, and minstrel shows that spread new dances and songs into remote areas. The music he recorded and his playing style reflect that. Cannon was a master of several different banjo playing techniques, including guitar style, clawhammer, strumming, and 2-finger up-picking.

Cannon plays guitar banjo, a style closely associated with ragtime, on many of the thirty-four recordings he made between 1927 and 1930. Thomas concludes that Cannon’s playing “marks the exchange between African American banjo playing and the late 19th and early 20th century’s big international world of popular music and parlor banjo.”

Cannon recorded “Walk Right In” with Cannon’s Jug Stompers in 1929. The song was a hit for the Rooftop Singers in 1963.

Defining a Regional Banjo Style: “Old Country Style” Banjo or Piedmont Two-Finger Picking

In the final chapter of Banjo Roots and Branches, editor Robert B. Winans examines a style of banjo playing that is prominent in the Piedmont area of North Carolina and southern Virginia. Referred to by many of its practitioners as “old country style,” it came into prominence in the late 1920s and 30s. Several of its practitioners indicate that they were influenced by the two-finger playing of African American guitarists. The style shows one of the ways that up-picked guitar banjo evolved with white musicians.

Old country style is an up-picking style that uses the thumb and index finger. It is generally played in a band context, not by solo banjoists. It incorporates syncopated, arpeggiated chords, and bass runs to provide rhythm and harmonic structure to a song. Two and three-finger up-picking styles had largely replaced down-stroke playing in the Piedmont in the early 20th century.

Winans looks in detail at some of the prominent players of this style, including Glenn Davis (1909-86), Daner Johnson (1879-1955), and Kelly Sears (1907-84). Daner led the way at the turn of the 20th century for other Piedmont banjo players in this technique, though he used three fingers instead of two. He did not make any recordings, but Sears claims that his own recording of “Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane” was played in Daner’s style.

From the album North Carolina Banjo Collection, produced by Bob Carlin

Conclusion

Our knowledge of the banjo is still being shaped by the work of scholars, including those that contributed to Banjo Roots and Branches. While not a comprehensive history of the banjo, the book sheds new light on the instrument’s roots in Africa, its development in the Caribbean, and its spread and traditions in North America. An endlessly fascinating instrument, this is certainly not the last of my posts about the banjo.

Spotify Playlist

Banjo Roots and Branches (3 of 4): Into North America – Early Banjo Sightings

This post 3 of 4 in the series Banjo Roots and Branches.

The banjo in 18th century North America was an instrument of African American culture, but the fiddle was far more commonly-played by black musicians. There are a total of eighty-five documented banjo sightings between 1736 and 1840. All but four of these were in reference to African American musicians. Unlike the fiddle, the banjo was primarily a southern instrument. More than half of the banjo sightings were in the Chesapeake Bay states of Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware. The rest were widely scattered with small clumps around New York City and New Orleans.

This is the third of four posts that mine the latest scholarship on banjo history from the book Banjo Roots and Branches (University of Illinois Press, 2018). The first post explored the African roots of the banjo. The second post discussed developments that took place in the Caribbean in the context of the transatlantic slave trade. This post examines and contextualizes the earliest references to the banjo on the North American continent.

Banjo Roots and Branches

The Earliest Banjo Reference in North America

The earliest known reference to a banjo in North America comes from a letter published on March 7, 1736 in John Peter Zenger’s The New York Weekly Journal: Containing the freshest Advices, Foreign, and Domestick. The letter is attributed to someone identified only as “The SPY.” The SPY’s letter describes a fair that took place in “the Field, little Way out a Town.” Historians have determined that this location was likely “the Common” of early New York City. The Common was an open civic space used as a common grazing land and for public gatherings. Previous historians believed that The SPY’s account of an African American fair that took place in lower Manhattan described a Pinkster frolic. In Banjo Roots and Branches, banjo historian Greg Adams finds evidence to suggest that the celebration described is actually a Paas (Easter) Monday fair, and he determines that April 10, 1730 is the likely date of the event.

The SPY mentions the “banger” being played three times throughout the letter. There is no description of the banger, so it may be assumed that the instrument was sufficiently well-known as to not warrant further explanation. The SPY account also references dancing while drums and percussion instruments are played.

The Plain partly covered with Booths, and well crouded with Whites, the Negroes divided into Companies, I suppose according to their different Nations, some dancing to the hollow Sound of a Drum, made of the Trunk of a hollow Tree, othersome to the grating rattling Noise of Pebles or Shells in a small Basket, others plied the Banger, and some knew how to joyn the Voice (to) it.

African-style drums and rattles similar those described were widely reported throughout the Caribbean. The 1737 census shows that “Negroes” made up approximately 20% of the population of New York City. They were almost all enslaved. Most had been acclimated to slavery, the English language, and Afro-Creole culture (“seasoned”) in the Caribbean where the early gourd banjo took shape. Runaway slave advertisements corroborate the fact that the early gourd banjo could be found in the New York metropolitan area during the 18th century.

The Depiction of the African American Early Gourd Banjo in The Old Plantation, South Carolina, 1780s

The painting The Old Plantation (see photo at the top of this post) provides the earliest depiction of a banjo in North America. It was painted by slave-holding planter John Rose in South Carolina’s Low Country during the 1780s.  The painting is a richly-detailed portrayal of African American music and dance in the 18th century. In Banjo Roots and Branches, Shlomo Pestcoe examines various features of the banjo pictured, determining which of these features are shared with other early gourd banjos, West African predecessors, and later European-American built minstrel banjos. He also shows the West African precedents and influence of the depicted dance.

The Old Plantation banjo includes features that define it as an early gourd banjo and differentiate it from known instruments in West Africa including a flat, fretless fingerboard and wooden tuning pegs. It is a  4-string full spike lute, meaning the neck passes over or through the entire body of the instrument. Features that it shares with West African spike lutes include decorative sound holes in the body and a short thumb string which provides a musical drone – a defining feature of banjos to this day.

The following table summarizes the physical features of various early gourd banjos. It indicates whether or not each feature was present on:

  • Subsequent early wood-rimmed minstrel banjos of the 1840s
  • West African ancestors to the banjo
  • European plucked and bowed lutes, including guitars and violins, which probably inspired some design features

There are images of most of these instruments at the bottom of this blog post and more information in post 1 and post 2 of this series.

The dance depicted in The Old Plantation is reminiscent of communal social dances throughout West Africa. The ring formation is a feature of social dances found throughout the African diaspora. The male dancer holds a stick or wooden staff, which is a common prop in some West African dance traditions. Pestcoe suggests that the stick might indicate a connection to stickfighting. Stickfighting was a martial art in the Caribbean in the 18th century, and it was also documented in The SPY’s 1736 letter to The New York Weekly Journal.

Historian/writer Kristina Gaddy and researcher/banjo builder Pete Ross (a contributor to the book Banjo Roots and Branches) have done more recent research into the meaning of the dance depicted in The Old Plantation. The scene in The Old Plantation is almost identical to the Slavendons papier-mache dioramas created by Gerrit Schouten between 1810 and 1839 depicting scenes in Suriname. The people in the dioramas are participating in a role-playing religious ceremony that includes a dance known as the banya prei. The key elements of the King, the Queen, the hut, the vessel, dancing, singing, and the banjo are found in The Old Plantation, the Slavendons, and historical documents describing other ceremonies witnessed in the Americas and the Caribbean. In some historical records, “playing banya” or “playing banjo” may have referred to the dance ritual, not the musical instrument.

The video below shows me playing “Pompey Ran Away” on a banjo built by Pete Ross. The banjo is patterned after detail from The Old Plantation. “Pompey Ran Away” appears in the book A Selection of Scotch, English, Irish and Foreign Airs, published by James Aird in 1782. The book indicates that the tune is a “Negroe Jig,” [sic] but Aird’s source for the tune not known.

Evidence from Runaway Slave Advertisements

Runaway slave advertisements included details about the missing individuals that might have helped people identify them. Often this included mention of musical instruments that they played. Robert B. Winans, editor of the Banjo Roots and Branches book, read more than 12,000 runaway slave advertisements from 20,000 issues of 300 newspapers from the 18th century. He found references to a total of 761 black musicians. In Banjo Roots and Branches Winans organizes the data into tables and analyzes it.

Perhaps most strikingly is the overwhelming majority of musicians who played the violin or fiddle. A total of 627 of the 761 musicians (88.4%) played the instrument. Approximately 66% of the advertisements referred to the instrument as a fiddle and 33% as a violin. The remaining instruments mentioned, in descending order of popularity, are fife (50), drum (21), flute (18), banjo (18), French horn (8), pipes (3), and guitar (1).

All of the instrumentalists described in the advertisements were adult males. Some women and men were identified as singers, but Winans’ study focused only on musicians who played instruments. Curiously, the data shows that the ratio of musicians to the total number of adult male runaways was highest in the North (1:10 in New England) and decreased steadily moving towards the South (1:63 in the Deep South). The majority of the musicians were house servants or craftsmen, with occupations that included carpenter, cobbler, wheelwright, distiller, weaver, boatman, and butcher. Some were identified as farmers.

A few of the fiddlers made money playing music. Dan from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, is described as “fond of playing the fiddle, and has a good deal of money with him which he acquired that way.” Evidence indicates that these musicians made money playing for tips on the streets, at dances, and in brothels. Others made money by teaching people how to play the instrument or providing music for dancing masters who gave dance instructions.

Approximately 83% of the banjo players were from the South, with 66% from Maryland or Virginia. The three players from the North were from New York City, New York; Hanover, Pennsylvania; and Elizabeth, New Jersey. Among the eighteen references to black musicians who played the banjo, there were eight different spellings of the instrument: bonja, banjo, banger, bangeo, banjoe, bongo, banjeau, and banjeo.

Winans concludes that the banjo was probably not widely played in 18th century North America. There were approximately thirty-six fiddlers for every banjo player advertised. Data collected in the 1840s through 1860s show that by this time the banjo was much more common among black musicians, with half as many banjo players as fiddlers.

Part 4 of this 4 part series considers various aspects of white and black banjo playing in 19th and 20th century America.

Boucher Banjo
Early Wood-Rimmed Minstrel Banjo built by William Boucher, Jr. in Baltimore Maryland in 1845
Close-Up of Banjo in The Old Plantation
“The Old Plantation” Banjo
Afro-Surinamese Panja
Afro-Surinamese Panja
Haitian Banza
Haitian Banza
Afro-Surinamese Creole Bania
Afro-Jamaican Strum-Strump
Afro-Jamaican Strum-Strump

Banjo Roots and Branches (2 of 4): Into the New World – Caribbean Developments

This is post 2 of 4 in the series Banjo Roots and Branches.

The wood-rimmed five-string banjo emerged in the United States in the context of blackface minstrel performance around 1840. Its immediate forebear is the early gourd banjo, which was developed by enslaved West Africans in the Caribbean during the 17th century. The design of the early gourd banjo is fundamentally West African, but the instrument is not an exact replica of any known African instrument.

This is the second of four posts that mine the latest scholarship on banjo history from the book Banjo Roots and Branches (University of Illinois Press, 2018). The first post explored the African roots of the banjo. This post will look at the developments that took place in the Caribbean in the context of the transatlantic slave trade. The focus is on two early gourd banjos, one from Jamaica and one from Haiti, that share remarkable similarities with a banjo featured in a South Carolina painting from the late 18th century.

Banjo Roots and Branches

Most of the information in this post is adapted from Chapter 7, “‘Strum Strumps’ and ‘Sheepskin Guitars’: The Early Gourd Banjo and Clues to its West African Roots in the Seventeenth-Century Circum Caribbean” by ethno-organologist and musician Shlomo Pestcoe, and Chapter 9, “The Haitian Banza and the American Banjo Lineage” by researcher and banjo builder Pete Ross.

African Instruments in the Caribbean

The earliest historic record of a West African plucked lute in the Caribbean comes from  Cartagena de Indias, present-day Columbia’s port city of Cartagena on the Caribbean Sea. In the 17th century, Cartagena de Indias was the hub of the Spanish transatlantic slave trade. In his 1627 book, Spanish Jesuit priest Alonso de Sandoval wrote that the enslaved people from Angola “have naturally happy hearts and play little guitars called banzas, played by placing the head of the guitar on the breast in a very delicate and graceful way.” Banza was a West-Central African general term for string instruments. Pestcoe determines that the playing technique described makes it more likely that the banzas referred to by Sandoval were not lutes (string instruments with necks that are distinct from their bodies – like banjos) but some other type of African chordophone, such as a pluriarc.

Pluriarc
Pluriarc

Sandoval also wrote about “the Guineans” and their love of music and dance. The Portuguese and Spanish referred to West Africa’s Upper Guinea Coast, from Senegal down to Sierra Leanne, as  Guinea. “The energy that they put into shouting and dancing is amazing. Some play guitars similar to our Spanish-style guitars, although they are made of rough sheepskin.” Pestcoe concludes that these sheepskin guitars may possibly have been early gourd banjos, but there is not enough available information to draw that conclusion.

The Creole Bania in Suriname

The oldest known early gourd banjo still in existence is the Creole bania. British-Dutch captain John Gabriel Stedman brought the instrument from the South American country of Suriname (part of the Caribbean) to Holland in 1777. After examining the instrument, Ross determined that it was an early gourd banjo, but “we cannot reliably say how similar it is to the ancestors of the modern banjo as they existed in the eighteenth-century North American colonies.

Creole Bania
Creole Bania

The Strum-Strump in Jamaica

The earliest written record of an early gourd banjo comes from the writing of Sir Hans Sloane. Sloane was a British physician and naturalist who spent fifteen months in Jamaica in the late 1680s. Sloane published a book in 1707 called A Voyage to the Islands of Madera Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers and Jamaica. The book primarily cataloged plants, trees, and wildlife, but it also included this observation from Sloane’s stay in Jamaica:

The Negroes are much given to Venery, and although hard wrought, will at nights, or on Feast days Dance and Sing; Their songs are all bawdy, and leading that way. They have several sorts of Instruments in imitation of Lutes, made of small Gourds fitted with Necks, strung with Horse hairs, or the peeled stalks of climbing Plants or Withs. These Instruments are sometimes made of hollow’d Timber covered with Parchment or other Skin wetter, having a Bow for its Neck, the Strings ty’d longer or shorter, as they would alter their sounds. The Figures of some of these Instruments are hereafter graved.

Hans Sloane Plate III
Plate III from Hans Sloane’s A Voyage to the Islands of Madera Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers and Jamaica

The caption to Sloane’s illustration, translated from Latin, refers to the two instruments in front as “Strum Strumps.” The coiled plant fiber pictured below the instruments is used to make their strings. The instrument in the back is a form of harp unique to West Africa.

The website Musical Passage offers an audio interpretation of musical notation that is found in Voyage to the Islands. Admitting that not enough information is available to recreate the music precisely, project collaborators Laurent Dubois, David Garner, and Mary Caton Lingold present recordings that “create an opportunity to reflect on how this early music may have sounded.”

The Banza in Haiti

In 1841 French abolitionist, writer, traveler and collector Victor Schoelcher brought an instrument he collected in Haiti to France.  The instrument went relatively unnoticed in museum collections for 160 years.  In 2003 Saskia Willaert, a curator at the Musical Instruments Museum in Brussels, found the banza in the collection of Paris’s Musee de la Musique. She was searching for material for a showcase of African precursors to the banjo as part of a larger banjo exhibition at her museum. When the inclusion of this previously-unknown instrument was announced, Ross and fellow-researcher Ulf Jagfors made a trip to Brussels to examine this “Holy Grail of early banjo research.”

According to Ross:

As I examined the banjo, it became evident that this particular gourd banjo tradition was the one that gave birth to the well-known banjo of the present day United States.

Haitian Banza
Haitian Banza

Connections to the Contemporary Banjo

The earliest known image of a banjo in North America is John Rose’s painting The Old Plantation. Most likely painted in South Carolina in the 1780s, it depicts enslaved African Americans having a dance on a plantation.

The Old Plantation
The Old Plantation
Close-up of banjo in The Old Plantation
Close-up of banjo in “The Old Plantation”

The Jamaican strum strump, the Haitian banza, and the instrument depicted in The Old Plantation all share three critical design features that differentiate them from the known plucked spike lutes in West Africa:

  1. A flat, fretless fingerboard – West African instruments have rounded stick necks.
  2. Wooden friction tuning pegs – Strings are tied to the neck of West African instruments with leather or cloth strips that are slid up or down the neck to tune the instrument by tightening or loosening the strings.
  3. The way the neck enters and attaches the gourd body – There are several structural similarities in the three New World instruments that are not shared by West African instruments.

The fact that the features are found in these three instruments across time and distance suggest that this particular banjo-building tradition was firmly ingrained in the New World.

Furthermore, many details in these early gourd banjos are present in the instruments built by European American banjo makers in the mid-19th century. In the 1840s, William Boucher, Jr. became the first builder to mass-produce banjos. His instruments were commonly used in minstrel shows and contributed to the growing popularity of the banjo with European Americans.

Boucher Banjo
Banjo built by William Boucher, Jr. in Baltimore Maryland in 1845

The banjos built by Boucher and other mid-19th century European American banjo builders had the now-common wood-rimmed body instead of a gourd body. Despite this difference, it is clear that the builders were influenced by early gourd banjo designs. They incorporated the heel-less neck design of the early gourd banjos rather than having a pronounced heel at the bottom end of the neck, as was common on European guitars and violins.

The neck on the Haitian banza narrows as it passes through the body of the instrument. This feature distinguishes it from African banjo-like instruments while connecting it to the work of European American banjo builders who incorporated this concept in the design of rim stick. The necks on 1840s Boucher banjos resemble the neck of the Haitian banza. The resemblance would be even greater if what appears to be a planned cut had been carried out, making one edge of the banza’s neck straight.

Ross concludes:

All three banjos differ enough from African instruments while sharing some details specific to later banjos played and made by European Americans to place them at a point in the banjo’s history where it was no longer simply a relocated African instrument, but on its way to attaining the structure of the well-known antebellum nineteenth century banjo.

Part 3 of this 4 part series explores the banjo in 18th and 19th century North America.

Banjo Roots and Branches (1 of 4): Exploring the African Roots

This is post 1 of 4 in the series Banjo Roots and Branches.

When I started learning how to play the banjo in 2006, I was unaware of the rich and complex history of the instrument. I had no idea how perfectly the banjo would complement my fascination with music and the story of the United States. I am still going deeper down the rabbit hole that led me to purchase replicas of banjos from the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries. This is the first of four posts that mine the latest scholarship on banjo history from the book Banjo Roots and Branches (University of Illinois Press, 2018). It explores the African roots of the banjo.

Banjo Roots and Branches

In my personal experience, when talking to people outside of the folk and old-time music worlds, the mention of the banjo almost inevitably elicits the response of someone referencing or even singing the opening phrase of “Dueling Banjos” (der-ner-ner-ner-ner-ner-ner-ner-ner) as heard in the movie Deliverance. To these and many other people today, the banjo represents American whiteness. In the mid-1800s, in the hands of blackface minstrel performers, the banjo represented American blackness. Sixty years earlier, it represented Africanness.  What happened?

The instrument proper to them is the Banjar, which they brought hither from Africa.
Thomas Jefferson, 1781

The Old Plantation
The Old Plantation painting by John Rose, circa 1790.

In 1843, the Virginia Minstrels introduced what became the standard instrumentation for blackface minstrel groups – banjo, fiddle, bones, and tambourine. Minstrel companies claimed their performances were authentic representations of Southern African American culture, which they were not.

The Virginia Minstrels
Cover from the 1843 book The Celebrated Negro Melodies, as Sung by the Virginia Minstrels

Banjo Player – The ultimate offensive towards redneck/ignorant racists. Contrary to past belief, of Cracker and Honkie being the most ‘offensive’ words towards white people, the term Banjo Player: implies being a redneck with all of its common stereotypes.
Urban Dictionary, 2018

Deliverance
Lonnie from the movie Deliverance

The early gourd banjo is a creolized hybrid instrument that first emerged in the Caribbean during the 17th century. It is an African American instrument of West African heritage that emerged in the context of slavery, synthesizing African and European influences.

Banjo Roots and Branches

Over the past few decades there has been a surge of interest in the African roots of the banjo. This can be traced back to the pioneering work of Dena J. Epstein, who published an article in 1975 in the journal Ethnomusicology called “The Folk Banjo: A Documentary History.” In 1977 she published the book Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War. Shlomo Pestcoe was one of a handful of scholars who took up her challenge to continue this groundbreaking research. That growing consortium of scholars has now produced the book Banjo Roots and Branches, published by the University of Illinois Press in their series Music in American Life. It was edited by Robert B. Winans and includes contributions by Winans, Pestcoe, Greg C. Adams, Nick Bamber, Jim Dalton, George R. Gibson, Chuck Levy, Pete Ross, Tony Thomas, and Saskia Willaert.

The book is a collection of essays that explores the banjo’s roots in West Africa, its development in the Caribbean, and its circulation and traditions in the United States. The authors use a method they call “ethno-organology” to study music making within cultural contexts as well as the historical development, classification, and technology of the instruments themselves.

West African Ancestors of the Banjo

The story of the banjo begins in Africa. There is likely no single ancestor to the banjo. The instrument shares design elements and playing techniques with a family of approximately eighty known West African plucked spike lutes. Lutes are string instruments with necks that are distinct from their bodies. “Spike” implies that the neck passes over or through the body of the instrument, either all the way to the end of the body (full spike) or part of the way (semi spike). “Plucked” means that it produces sound when the strings are struck or plucked, as opposed to being played with a bow.

Perhaps the most closely-investigated ancestor of the banjo is the akonting (or ekonting) found today in the Senegambia region of West Africa. Senegambia includes Senegal, the Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, and portions of Mauritania, Mali, and Guinea. The akonting is usually played in relaxed social settings, sometimes accompanied by singing, percussion, and/or dancing.

Banjo Roots and Branches features interviews with Jola akonting master musicians Ekona Diatta and Sana Ndiaye conducted by Chuck Levy.

Ekona Diatta, Remi Diatta, Chuck Levy
Ekona Diatta (left), Remi Diatta (center), and Chuck Levy (right)

Playing Styles

The akonting and other West African plucked spike lutes are played with a technique that is very similar to the earliest known banjo playing techniques in North America. Players use a down-stroke technique in which a lead finger and thumb work in tandem to sound the strings. The lead finger, usually the index or middle finger, strikes a string or strings with a downward motion, and the thumb might pluck a string as the hand returns to starting position.

This is the playing style taught in the first published banjo instructional manuals, starting with Briggs’ Banjo Instructor in 1855. It is also the primary style associated with many old-time banjo players from the late 19th century through today, although there are also common up-picking styles. The down-stroke technique is generally referred to as clawhammer or frailing among old-time banjo players. It was called stroke style in the 19th century banjo tutors.

Greg C. Adams and Chuck Levy collaborated on an essay in Banjo Roots and Branches that compares the playing techniques of the banjo and akonting with great precision. They emphasize, however, that they are not suggesting that the akonting is “the” ancestor to the banjo. The authors encourage  additional study of all plucked lutes that utilize a down-stroke technique. In another chapter, Adams and Pestcoe list all the known West African plucked spike lutes, indicating full or semi-spike, traditional social performance context, ethnic group, country, number of strings, type of bridge, and body construction.

Ancient Roots

The roots of the plucked spike lutes of West Africa can be traced back 4,000 years to the first known lutes – the spike lutes of ancient Mesopotamia known as the pantur. It appears that the pantur spread from Mesopotamia northwest to Anatolia (present-day Turkey) and west and south to Syria and Canaan (present-day Israel and Palestine). Historic records indicate that the plucked spike lute was brought to Pharonic Egypt between 1640 and 1540 BCE when nomadic Semitic tribes from Canaan and Syria dominated the country. They arrived in West Africa as a result of trade with Muslim Berbers who crossed the Sahara from North Africa during the 9th century CE.

Physical Characteristics

The West African and ancient Mesopotamian plucked spike lutes share three basic design features.

  1. The body is made from either a gourd, calabash, or carved wood covered like a drum with an animal hide.
  2. The neck is a plain round stick without frets.
  3. The strings are attached to the neck with leather or cloth strips tied as rings around the neck. These rings are slid up or down the neck to tune the instrument by tightening or loosening the strings.

Early gourd banjos emerged in the Caribbean during the 17th century with West African plucked spike lute elements. They also incorporated European-inspired design innovations.

Part 2 of this 4 part series looks at these developments in the Caribbean as the banjo evolved the New World.

The featured image at the top of this post is a photograph of Jola scholar and musician Laemouahuma Daniel Jatta with an akonting. Jatta is from Mandinary, Gambia. The photograph was taken by book contributor Chuck Levy.

The Wisconsin Emigrant: An American Folk Song

The desire for land has been part of the American psyche since the time of the early European explorers, conquistadors, and settlers. Throughout the 19th century, the quest for land pulled Americans ever farther towards the West. It also drove government policies and military actions that removed Native Americans from their lands.

While there was opportunity for American pioneers in the West, there was also a great deal of uncertainty. The decision whether or not to leave the relatively settled lands of the East was not an easy one to make. The lyrics to The Wisconsin Emigrant are representative of the discussions that went on in thousands of households as husband and wife debated whether or not to take their chances in the West.

Historical Background

Thomas Jefferson promoted the idea that the United States should be a nation of small, independent farmers. This would require a great deal of land to accommodate the growing population. Jefferson drafted the Land Ordinance of 1784, incorporating territories west of the Appalachian Mountains. In 1803, as President, he purchased approximately 828,000,000 square miles of territory from France, doubling the size of the United States.

Following the War of 1812, immigrants flooded into the United States to farm, work in factories, and build roads and canals. Because the soil in New England was poor and not ideal for farming, the region thrived on industries such as manufacturing, shipping, and foreign trade. Eastern seaboard land in the United States became scarce and expensive as industrialization advanced. For struggling New England farmers and factory workers, the lure of western lands for farming and independent living was strong. Many pioneers loaded their wagons and headed west.

The Northwest Territory, which existed legally from 1787-1803, consisted of all the land in the United States west of Pennsylvania and northwest of the Ohio River. This included the present-day states of Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and the northeastern part of Minnesota.

The British Empire and France struggled for control of this region during the 18th century. During the Seven Years’ War (1754-1763) the Native Americans living in the area generally fought alongside the French, with whom they had longstanding trade relations. Britain was victorious and took control of the land at the end of the war. The Great Lakes region became part of the United States in 1783 with the signing of the Treaty of Paris that ended the American Revolution, but that did not end the disputes.

For decades the British maintained a presence in the area and supported the Native Americans in their resistance against American expansion. Miami Chief Little Turtle led a confederation of tribes, including the Shawnee, Potawatomi, Odawa, and Chippewa, against the United States Army in the Northwest Indian War (1785-1795). The confederacy lost and were forced to cede extensive territory, including much of present-day Ohio. In 1810 Shawnee leader Tecumseh led an Indian confederacy against the U.S. Army. Tecumseh’s War bled into the War of 1812, with Britain and the confederacy ultimately being defeated.

Tecumseh
Tecumseh

The end of the War of 1812 marked the end of British support for Indian resistance. The war also “renewed and reinstated the national feelings and character which the Revolution has given,” according to Albert Gallatin, the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury. “They are more Americans; and they feel and act more as a nation.” Americans turned to the federal government to cancel Native American titles to land in the Northwest and Indiana Territories. Official commissioners negotiated with remaining tribes for their lands and moved them farther west.

In 1827 the Winnebago tribe, reacting to a wave of lead miners trespassing on their lands in what is now the state of Wisconsin, attacked some American civilians. The so-called Winnebago Uprising consisted of only one or two incidents, but it alarmed American officials. After a show of U.S. military force, the Winnebagos ceded the lead mining region to the United States.

The Indian Removal Act, signed by President Andrew Jackson in 1830, authorized the president to grant unsettled lands west of the Mississippi River in exchange for Indian lands within existing state borders. Some tribes went peacefully. Others did not. Between 1830 and 1832 Sauk Chief Black Hawk led groups of Sauks, Meskawakis, and Kickapoos east across the Mississippi into the Illinois lands that were once theirs. Black Hawk believed that the treaties ceding Sauk lands had been signed without full tribal authorization. The U.S. Army drove the tribes back across the Mississippi River. Following the Black Hawk War, as this brief conflict is called, President Jackson ordered the relocation of all other tribes still living in the Northwest Territory to the Indian Territory across the Mississippi.

“The Wisconsin Emigrant” Song History

In 1931, 1941, and 1942 ballad collector Helen Hartness Flanders made recordings of “The Wisconsin Emigrant” from three different singers in New England. Between 1930 and 1958 Flanders, a native of Vermont, collected traditional songs and ballads throughout New England. Her collection of nearly 4,500 field recordings, transcriptions, and analyses are housed at the Flanders Ballad Collection at Middlebury College in Vermont.

Helen Hartness Flanders
Helen Hartness Flanders (left) with Eveline K. Fairbanks, one of the singers whose traditional songs she recorded

“The Wisconsin Emigrant” Lyrics

Since times are so hard, I’ve thought, my true heart
Of leaving my oxen, my plough, and my cart
And away to Wisconsin, a journey we’d go
To double our fortune as other folks do
While here I must labor each day in the field
And the winter consumes all the summer doth yield

Oh husband, I’ve noticed with sorrowful heart
You’ve neglected your oxen, your plough, and your cart
Your sheep are disordered; at random they run
And your new Sunday suit is now every day on
Oh, stay on the farm and you’ll suffer no loss
For the stone that keeps rolling will gather no moss

Oh wife, let’s go; oh, don’t let us wait
Oh, I long to be there; oh, I long to be great
While you some rich lady – and who knows but I
Some governor may be before that I die?
While here I must labor each day in the field
And the winter consumes all the summer doth yield

Oh husband, remember that land is to clear
Which will cost you the labor of many a year
Where horses, sheep, cattle, and hogs are to buy
And you’ll scarcely get settled before you must die
Oh, stay on the farm and you’ll suffer no loss
For the stone that keeps rolling will gather no moss

Oh wife, let’s go; oh, don’t let us stay
I will buy me a farm that is cleared by the way
Where horses, sheep, cattle, and hogs are not dear
And we’ll feast on fat buffalo half of the year
While here I must labor each day in the field
And the winter consumes all the summer doth yield

Oh husband, remember that land of delight
Is surrounded by Indians who murder by night
Your house they will plunder and burn to the ground
While your wife and your children lie murdered around
Oh, stay on the farm, and you’ll suffer no loss
For the stone that keeps rolling will gather no moss

Now wife, you’ve convinced me; I’ll argue no more
I never had thought of your dying before
I love my dear children, although they are small
But you, my dear wife, are more precious than all
We’ll stay on the farm, and suffer no loss
For the stone that keeps rolling will gather no moss

“The Wisconsin Emigrant” Recordings

From the Helen Hartness Flanders Ballad Collection

My version of “The Wisconsin Emigrant” is based on the printed lyrics, chords, and melody in The Ballad of America: The History of the United States in Song and Story by John Anthony Scott. I had not heard any recording of the song at the time I learned it from the book. “The Wisconsin Emigrant” is the second track on my first album of traditional folk songs Over a Wide and Fruitful Land (Ballad of America Volume 1)released in 2004. The album tells the story of the westward expansion of the United States through the 19th century.

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Railroad Bill: An American Folk Song

“Railroad Bill” is a blues ballad that dates to the 19th century and has been performed and recorded by many folk artists throughout the 20th century. People have conjectured that the subject of the song is an African American outlaw named Morris Slater who robbed freight trains in the 1890s. Slater’s nickname was Railroad Bill. Only a few of the song’s dozens of stanzas seem to refer specifically to Slater’s activities. The majority of the stanzas are quite general. Was “Railroad Bill” written about Slater? Or did Slater get his nickname from what was a preexisting song, with the verses specific to him being added later?

Blues Ballads

Blues ballads are loosely-organized narrative folk songs. They are often about actual murders, disasters, or criminals, but they don’t follow an exact sequence of events as do other types of ballads. Blues ballads tend to focus on the responses and thoughts of the participants and those affected rather than a chronological story line. The style likely evolved with African American singers in the last decades of the 19th century as an adaptation of Anglo-American ballad traditions. Other blues ballads include “John Henry,” “John Hardy,” “Frankie and Johnny,” “Casey Jones,” and “Stackolee.”

Historical Background

Stories about Morris Slater began to surface in newspapers in 1895. Slater robbed freight trains, primarily in Alabama and western Florida along the Louisville & Nashville Railroad line. His method was to throw merchandise off moving railroad cars and pick it up later. Slater allegedly killed at least two sheriffs as they, and a succession of detectives and railroad officers, tried to apprehend him. He was shot to death in Tidmore and Ward’s General Store in Atmore, Alabama, by Constable McGowan and storekeeper Bob Johns on March 7, 1897.

While most people condemned Slater’s crimes, a minority of African Americans in Alabama admired him and turned him into a folk hero. Like the legend of Jesse James, they said he gave the food he stole to poor blacks. Also like the legend of Jesse James, no one has found evidence of this. Some people even attributed supernatural powers to Slater, claiming that he could change form into an animal to escape capture or that he could only be killed by a “solid silver missile.”

That Slater could be viewed as a hero and a martyr is not surprising, considering the racial and economic divide in the post-Reconstruction Deep South.

“Railroad Bill” Song History

The song “Railroad Bill” seems to be related to other 19th century songs of African American origin about characters named Bill, including “Roscoe Bill,” “Shootin’ Bill,” and “Buffalo Bill.” Some lyrics are shared among these songs. This type of common “floating” stanza is a characteristic of blues ballads and other types of folk songs.

The first lyrics to “Railroad Bill” were collected by folklorists in Mississippi and Alabama during the first two decades of the 20th century. Newman I. White reported three fragments of lyrics he collected from a construction gang in Mississippi in 1906.

Railroad Bill did not know
That Jim McMillan had a forty-fo’

Sheriff Edward S. McMillan of Escambia County, Alabama was killed by Slater while trying to apprehend him. Though the first name in the lyric is different, this stanza may refer to Sheriff McMillan. In “Songs and Rhymes of the South,” published in 1912 in the Journal of American Folklore, E.C. Perrow includes a text in which Railroad Bill “killed McMillan like a lightnin’ flash.”

Howard Odum published three longer texts in his 1911 Journal of American Folklore article “Folk-Song and Folk-Poetry as Found in the Secular Songs of the Southern Negroes.” One has no identifiable references to Slater, and one seems to be mostly about him.

The following stanza collected by Odum is very similar to stanzas found in other 19th century Bill songs.

Railroad Bill, Railroad Bill
He never work, an’ he never will
It was that bad Railroad Bill

Only four or five of the dozens of “Railroad Bill” stanzas collected and recorded make definite reference to Slater’s activities. Especially considering the oddity of a man named Morris Slater being nicknamed Railroad Bill, it is entirely likely that Slater was given the nickname as a reference to a preexisting song or songs. The few verses that specifically reference Slater’s activities may have been added later. As with many traditional folk songs, the origins of “Railroad Bill” may never be revealed.

“Railroad Bill” Recordings

The first recording of “Railroad Bill” was made by Riley Puckett and Gid Tanner on September 11, 1924.

Two months later, Roba Stanley and Bill Patterson recorded it. Stanley took out the first copyright on the song, claiming credit for the words and music.

Three recordings of the song were made in 1929, including the first by an African American artist, Will Bennett.

Frank Hutchison’s 1929 recording appears to be the first one that was played in fingerpicking style on the guitar. It’s also the first with the distinctive Major III chord following the I chord behind the second line of the verse. Both of these attributes became standard in many subsequent versions of the song.

Recordings of “Railroad Bill” are available from many other artists, including Joan Baez, Jerry Garcia, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Hobart Smith, Lonnie Donegan, Crooked Still, Van Morrison, Etta Baker, and Billy Bragg.

“Railroad Bill” Lyrics

Dozens of different stanzas of “Railroad Bill” have appeared in print and on recordings. Below are the complete lyrics from the recordings of Will Bennett and Frank Hutchison.

From Will Bennett (1929):

Railroad Bill, ought to be killed
Never worked, and he never will
Now I’m gonna ride, my Railroad Bill

Railroad Bill done took my wife
Threatened to me that he would take my life
Now I’m gonna ride, my Railroad Bill

Going upon the mountain, take my stand
Forty-one derringer in my right and left hand
Now I’m gonna ride, my Railroad Bill

Going up on the mountain, going out west
Forty-one derringer sticking in my breast
Now I’m gonna ride, my Railroad Bill

Buy me a gun just as long as my arm
Kill everybody ever done me wrong
Now I’m gonna ride, my Railroad Bill

Buy me a gun with a shiny barrel
Kill somebody ’bout my good-looking gal
Now I’m gonna ride, my Railroad Bill

Got a thirty-eight special on a forty-four frame
How in the world can I miss him when I’ve got dead aim
Now I’m gonna ride, my Railroad Bill

When I went to the doctor, asked him what the matter could be
Said “If you don’t stop drinking, son, it’ll kill you dead”
Now I’m gonna ride, my Railroad Bill

Going to drink my liquor, drink it and win
Doctor said it’d kill me, but he never said when
Now I’m gonna ride, my Railroad Bill

If the river was brandy, and I was a duck
I’d sink to the bottom and I’d never come up
Now I’m gonna ride, my Railroad Bill

Honey, honey, do you think I’m mean
Times have caught me living on pork and beans
Now I’m gonna ride, my Railroad Bill

Son, you talk about your honey, you ought to see mine
She’s humpbacked, bowlegged, crippled and blind
Now I’m gonna ride, my Railroad Bill

Honey, honey, do you think I’m a fool
Think I’m gonna quit you while the weather is cool
Now I’m gonna ride, my Railroad Bill

From Frank Hutchison (1929):

Railroad Bill, got so bad
Stole all the chickens the poor farmers had
Well, it’s too bad, Railroad Bill

Railroad Bill, went out west
Shot all the buttons off a brakeman’s vest
Well, it’s too bad, Railroad Bill

Railroad Bill, got so fine
Shot ninety-nine holes in a shilver shine(?)
Well, it’s ride, Railroad Bill

Railroad Bill, standing at the tank
Waiting for the train they call Nancy Hanks
Well, it’s ride, Railroad Bill

Railroad Bill, standing at the curve
Gonna rob a mail train but he didn’t have the nerve
Well, it’s too bad, Railroad Bill

Railroad Bill, he lived on the hill
He never worked or he never will
Well, it’s ride, Railroad Bill

Railroad Bill went out west
Shot all the buttons off a brakeman’s vest
Well, it’s get back, Railroad Bill

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Further Reading

Cohen, Norm, and David Cohen. Long Steel Rail: The Railroad in American Folksong. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000.

“Railroad Bill.” Encyclopedia of Alabama.
http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/h-1258.

“Railroad Bill [Laws I13].” Traditional Ballad Index.
http://www.fresnostate.edu/folklore/ballads/LI13.html.

What is Old-Time Music?

When I first started performing traditional American folk music in the early 2000s, I shared a bill once with The Flying Turtles String Band. Tom and Ellen Hogan, founders of the band, told me that they host an old-time jam every Tuesday evening in the Boca Raton warehouse in which they build furniture for a living. I had no idea what an old-time jam was, but it sounded like it was probably for me. It was. As I walked into the unfinished warehouse, I was enveloped in the reverberating, yet unamplified, sounds coming from some twenty people playing tunes that were more than a hundred years old on fiddles, banjos, guitars, mandolins, and bass fiddles. This was my introduction to the living tradition of old-time music.

Old-time music is alive and well in communities around the United States and other parts of the world. But just what is old-time music? There is no single definition, so I have culled the following thoughts from various articles and my own observations and experiences.

Old-time music encompasses various styles that originated in rural America before recorded music and radio were widely available. This was music made in the home and in community spaces, generally for personal entertainment or dancing. It emerged from the synthesis of European and African musical sensibilities, particularly fiddle traditions from Scotland, Ireland, England, France, and Germany; ballad traditions from Scotland and England; and vocal, rhythm, and instrumental styles from West Africa. Much of this is embodied in the union of European fiddle and African banjo music.

The American southeast has been an especially productive incubator for old-time music styles. Today, the music remains unusually concentrated and persistent in the Southern Appalachian Mountains. Other parts of the United States also have their own regional old-time music styles.

Old-Time Music Recordings

Though I stated earlier that old-time music originated before recorded music and radio were widely available, recordings from the late 1920s through the mid 1930s are among the best sources to hear old-time music. These recordings were generally made by and for white rural Southerners. Record labels marketed these records as “old familiar tunes,” “old time tunes,” and eventually “hillbilly.” As one might infer from these descriptions, most of the songs were already old and familiar at the time they were first recorded in the ’20s and ’30s.

Advertisement for Old Time Tunes from Paramount Records
Advertisement for Old Time Tunes from Paramount Records

These original old-time music recordings included:

Fiddle tunes

Old British ballads

Newer American ballads

Tin Pan Alley/sentimental songs

Religious music

Bluegrass and Old-Time Music

Though they share similar instrumentation and even some repertoire, bluegrass is not considered old-time music. Old-time music laid the foundation for bluegrass. Early bluegrass musicians like Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs, and the Stanley Brothers played and listened to old-time music before bluegrass emerged in the 1940s. Bluegrass is a more modern form of Appalachian music that incorporates improvised solos, which are generally not part of old-time music traditions. Bluegrass also tends to be music for performance, whereas old-time music is connected to social events like dancing.

Old-Time Music Today

Old-time music is a living tradition. Some people who play it today prefer to stick close to the styles of the original source material, while others use the older styles as a springboard for creativity and innovation. These more contemporary adaptations are sometimes referred to as neo-traditional.

Weekly or monthly old-time music jams occur in many communities across the United States. These communities develop a shared repertoire of tunes that they play together in an informal setting. Contradances and square dances, accompanied by live old-time music, are also present in many parts of the United States. Many of the jams and dances focus almost exclusively on fiddle tunes.

Old-time music is also shared and passed on in more formal settings, such as fiddle contests and music camps. While fiddle contests are a place for players to compete, they are cherished by participants for the opportunity to jam and interact with like-minded musicians. The list at FiddleStar.com is not up to date, but it gives a good idea of the breadth of contests held throughout the country. The largest old-time music event in the United States is the Appalachian String Band Festival held every August in Clifftop, West Virginia. Approximately three-thousand musicians participate in this five-day mountaintop gathering, which features contests, concerts, workshops, square dances, and perhaps most importantly, informal jams at the campsites.

Musicians and non-musicians alike can learn how to play old-time music at a number of music camps, including Augusta Heritage Center of Davis & Elkins College’s Old-Time Week (West Virginia), Mars Hill University’s Blue Ridge Old-Time Music Week (North Carolina), Old-Time Week at Warren Wilson College’s Swannanoa Gathering (North Carolina), and Ashokan Music & Dance Camps (New York). These camps provide excellent opportunities to learn directly from experts in old-time music traditions and to interact with other enthusiasts. In one-week or weekend sessions, they offer classes ranging from beginning to advanced fiddle, banjo, guitar, singing, mandolin, dance, and more.

This 3-minute trailer for the documentary Why Old Time? provides a nice overview of why people are still drawn to play old-time music. For more on the subject, you can find the entire film on many online movie sites.

Old-Time Music Artists

Here’s a short list of artists for further exploration. Search for them on your favorite sites (YouTube, Spotify, Apple Music, Wikipedia, etc.)

Old Old-Time Artists
(recorded primarily in the 1920s – 1930s)

  • Clarence Ashley
  • Fiddlin’ John Carson
  • Grayson & Whitter
  • Uncle Dave Macon
  • Charlie Poole
  • Eck Robertson
  • The Skillet Lickers
  • Ernest Stoneman

Mid Old-Time Artists
(recorded primarily in the mid 20th century)

  • Highwoods String Band
  • The Hollow Rock String Band
  • Tommy Jarrell
  • New Lost City Ramblers
  • Doc Watson

New Old-Time Artists
(recorded in the 21st century)

  • Crooked Still
  • Dom Flemons
  • Foghorn Stringband
  • The Mammals
  • Uncle Earl
  • The Wailin’ Jennys

Spotify Playlist