March 7th, 2008
Label: Smithsonian Folkways
Catalog No.: 40079
Editor’s note: Smithsonian Folkways has received many requests from radio stations for re-servicing Black Banjo Songsters so they can pair it up with Otis Taylor’s CD on their respective radio shows. We thought we’d do the same, just in case you missed this CD when it was originally released back in 1998.
Otis Taylor’s recent release, Recapturing the Banjo, is not only an album, but a statement of musical lineage. And if the banjo is to be “recaptured,” it must be asked who is doing the recapturing: blues players or black players? The banjo has a clear history traceable to Africa via slaves in the American South back through the Middle Passage. Long before anyone heard the lighting-fast, three-finger picking of Earl Scruggs, black musicians had already developed styles of banjo playing quite different from Scruggs speedy arpeggios. There are more recordings of these early banjo styles than most casual listeners might suspect.
One of the seminal collections is the venerable Smithsonian Folkways 1998 release Black Banjo Songsters, which collects thirty-two recordings of banjo songs from North Carolina and Virginia. Most of these songs were recorded in the 1970s or later, and mostly by musicians in the waning years of life. This led to the common conclusion that banjo music in black communities was a dying art form. Whether or not the tradition was dying is irrelevant at this point, because it’s clearly not dead. If we were to allow the commercial recording industry to proclaim what is alive and what is dead, we’d be privy only to a thin slice of the various music that continues to thrive outside the umbrella of commercial acceptance. In many ways this is the principle that has led Smithsonian Folkways to its unparalled success.
The songs on Black Banjo Songsters are anything but commercial and would most likely be of little interest to those who are unaccustomed to the rough hewn sound of field recordings, where pitch correction and over-dubbing are foreign concepts. Black Banjo Songsters is something of an educational project, shedding light on the various aspects of black banjo stylings including percussive claw hammer style as well as the two-fingers, up-picking “complementing” style. The extensive liner notes by banjo scholar Cece Conway and Scott Odell detail the specifics of these different styles.
The collection gives credibility to the diversity of approaches by black players. Just as white players such as Roscoe Holcomb, Earl Scruggs and Bela Fleck found individual sounds with the instrument, familiar songs such as “Coo Coo,” “John Henry,” and “Old Corn Liquor” get individual treatment by lesser known players such as Dink Roberts, Odell Thompson, and John Snipes.
But the education aside, the music is rich and welcoming, showcasing first class talent, many of whom were never offered recording gigs because they didn’t play the one of two genres that fit neatly on “race records.” Most importantly, it reminds us of what is lost when the missing piece of the puzzle goes unnoticed for too long.
Reviewed by Thomas Grant Richardson