Hillbilly Music, West Africa, and Clawhammer Banjo

Back about twenty years ago, that’s all I wanted to talk about. This is adapated from an article I published in The Atlantic in 1998:

. . . Country music is no mere reduction of British ballad and dance but a new music, invented here. The blues wasn’t heard in the West African states from which the enslaved were forcibly taken to the Caribbean and Atlantic colonies; it was a new music, invented here. By the 1920s — possibly even by the 1820s — American black and white folk musicians would have sounded unrecognizable to their African and European ancestors of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It’s not only that you can’t extricate blackness from whiteness in early recorded country music and blues: you can’t extricate folk art from hucksterism, North from South, or city from country.

. . . Histories of country, pop, and jazz have long underrated, to the point of total musical and historical distortion, the weird fact that the banjer — a West African stringed drum — became an emblem of poor white Appalachia. Sam Charters, searching Africa in the 1970s for “the roots of the blues,” had to confront the dearth of any obvious blues ancestry, but for generations unknown banjer had been played there. It had a gourd pot with a skin head, some long strings running up a wooden neck, with one short string for a high drone. That instrument came to this country with enslaved Africans, and at some point in the nineteenth-century white men and women of the Southern mountains started playing it. What Sam Charters really heard in Africa was the source not of blues but of Appalachian dance and song.

What made poor white Appalachians take up the banjo is a fascinating question. Whether they got banjo music from rural black players, from Yankee blackface showmen doing racist impressions of rural black players, from parlor-playing daughters of the Victorian urban bourgeoisie (banjo had a craze among that type too), or from all of the above, they did a lot more with it than play old British-Isles tunes. With a technique called “clawhammer,” derived from downstroking the African gourd banjers, these rural European-Americans invented a new American dance music, contributing to the commercial genre first called hillbilly, and then country; even while rural and urban African-Americans were putting down banjos and inventing new American musics too, dance and otherwise, picking up guitars and brass and reeds and pianos, elaborating the banjo’s rhythmic and sonic properties on every kind of European instrument. . . .

. . . Many white banjo players, clawhammerers and fingerpickers alike, credited black banjoists with having taught them to play. So to describe [Dock] Boggs’s playing as an improvement in melodic clarity over that of the white musicians Boggs had seen, and then to associate that imagined improvement with black playing, reflects a misunderstanding of the instrument crucial to the development of country, blues, jazz, and rock alike. Clawhammer banjo players don’t “clawhammer the strings up and down,” and they don’t produce “an undifferentiated flurry of sound,” as [Greil] Marcus claims; the briefest listen to the banjoists Tommy Jarrell and Fred Cockerham, or Danny Barnes, of the band Bad Livers, will refute him. In clawhammer the stroke is forever downward, producing a sound that while rhythmically complex, texturally dense, and irresistibly percussive — the big beat is on the “one,” making for a kind of stiff, 2/4 funk — is at the same time highly melodic, with all the twists and turns and grace notes of the fiddle part, if lacking in sustain. . . .

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