The Empowerment Journey of The Banjo Blues

The following question is a tricky one: are there innocent or guilty instruments? Before answering, let us remember that each instrument comes to us full of evocations, of recent or ancient history. Anyone can feel the chills with the noble telluric sound of the Basque txalaparta if they know the ceremonies with which the environment etarra honors his gudaris.

Besides, musical instruments do not lack sex appeal and orientation. The Pet Shop Boys despised electric guitars for decades, which they identified with heterosexual rock and their macho culture. And there are few women who play the different modalities of the saxophone.

The Banjo and Afro American Musicians

In the United States, black musicians reject the banjo, despite the fact that it descends from West African instruments, the xalam or the ngoni. Even the name comes from there: it is from a Senegal wood, used for the mast.

Those primitive banjos (or their mere idea) traveled on slave ships. Since the 17th century, there are written references to slaves playing the banjo in the Antilles. Rooted especially in the southern United States, where it began to be manufactured industrially around 1880.

It grew and multiplied: there are banjos of four, five and six strings; there are hybrids with mandolin, guitar or ukulele. However, it fell out of the grace of black instrumentalists. Although it was in the first groups of Dixie – the overwhelming Hot Five of Louis Armstrong – and in the jug bands, it didn’t travel to the northern cities and was forgotten when jazz evolved.

To put it bluntly, it was identified with the ancestral “enemy”: the southern white. The banjo was introduced into the social fabric of the Appalachians, where the hillbilly music was born; it became an emblematic instrument of bluegrass, with prodigious soloists of vertiginous speed.

The White Man Behind it

Oh, Susanna, the most universal piece of Stephen Foster, the great American composer of the nineteenth century. At first glance, it is the chronicle of a love obsession:

“I come from Alabama / with my banjo on my knees / I go to Louisiana / to see my true love”.  

As such, it was recorded by James Taylor or Carly Simon. But both were left to the side the second verse, where the protagonist blurts out about the dangers he has overcome:

“And I killed five hundred n****”

Foster worked for minstrel shows, popular before and after the Civil War. Shows that mocked the black population: white actors smudged faces and hands with burnt cork to parody songs, dances, the behavior of slaves and freedmen. And there was never a lack of banjos. Oh, Susanna was meant for those coarse-salt, black faced, comedians.

These aberrations explain the mystery of the disappearance of the banjo of African American music in the last 70 or 80 years, precisely when it has conquered the world, infecting us with its expressiveness and sensuality.

There are few prominent figures who have used it, one being Taj Mahal. And it is not exactly a “native representative”, both because of its Caribbean roots and because of its unusual retrospective fondness: black music until recently, rejected nostalgia since its “old days” were “bad old days”.