Historian Laurent Dubois has given us a scholarly tome on the banjo, filled with information and sometimes intriguing speculation regarding the instrument’s origins, development, and cultural and political significance. On the very first page—before we even get to the acknowledgments, notes, and index—the author tells us that the book is about the sound of the banjo. But he does not mean this literally; he means its “sound” in a very special figurative sense. For he says that the sound of the banjo “is the sound of Africa, the sound of slavery, the sound of blackness, the sound of progress, the sound of protest, the sound of America.” And there is more: “But most of all, the banjo has been the sound of solidarity, the gathering in the midst of exile, of being together and in so doing being able to recount the past and imagine a future.”
The Banjo: America’s African Instrument
Belknap Press, 2016, 384 pp., $29.95
So, you see, Dubois is candid enough to reveal from the start that the reader will be given an account of the history of the banjo shaped by a certain familiar perspective—that of the early 21st century, politically correct, left-wing social historian. Although I myself have little sympathy for such a perspective, I was grateful to be warned about it up front. As a result, I did not, in reading through the text, have the all-too-familiar (and annoying) feeling of being subtly propagandized or manipulated. And I did learn a good deal, including some things worth knowing about Africa, slavery, blackness, progress, protest, America, and even solidarity. Although Dubois can be faulted on various counts, a few of which I’ll mention below, he is a good historian, and his book is worthy whether one is interested in the banjo as such, or in Africa, slavery, blackness, and the rest of his list.
Of course, any serious study of the history of the banjo will include a discussion in Africa, since Africa is one of the places where, many centuries ago, people began stretching an animal skin over a gourd or other hollow or hollowed out object in order to make a drum across which strings could be stretched to create a distinctive-sounding musical instrument. And any such study will tell the story of slaves (or, as Dubois prefers, “those enslaved”) bringing their instruments to the Caribbean and to North America to entertain themselves and others. And it is fair enough to note that the music of the slaves was not merely entertainment, but was expressive of the conditions and circumstances they experienced, certainly including the oppression they suffered, and the lives they led. Their songs, like the songs of any folk, told their story. Dubois’s main goal seems to be to tell the story of their story, using the banjo as a point of entry and a kind of symbol. And he does that well.
He also does a good job of telling the story of minstrelsy—both black and blackface. One of his intriguing speculations—though he presents it as a fact—is that the banjo was the key to blackface minstrelsy because its culturally deep and secure identification with blacks and black culture meant that “carrying the instrument onto the stage would provide a kind of badge of authenticity, a visible and material link to the black musical tradition.” “The banjo was, from the beginning,” Dubois writes, “at the heart of the minstrel show.” It was thus that “[i]ts sound, and the symbolism surrounding it, made possible the strange transmogrification that sustained blackface minstrelsy.”
Dubois makes a strong case that blackface minstrelsy was the bridge between the banjo as an instrument invented by and mainly played by blacks and the banjo as an instrument mainly played by whites: in Dixieland jazz (a short-necked, fretted banjo with four strings and a resonator on the back to project the sound forward and increase the volume, played with a plectrum and used both for rhythmic chording and chord solos); in some forms of jazz-inflected popular music (a long-necked, fretted banjo with four strings and a resonator, also played with a plectrum, and used both for chording and single-string solos); in the mountain music of central and southern Appalachia (a five-string, often unfretted but sometimes fretted banjo usually with an open-back to create a “plunky” sound, played in the “clawhammer” style and used both for chording and to play melodies); and the “bluegrass music” invented when the Kentucky mandolin player and mountain singer Bill Monroe invited the young banjo innovator Earl Scruggs to join his “Bluegrass Boys” (a five-string, fretted banjo with a resonator, played in the three-finger “Scruggs style” producing a fast-paced, hard driving sound).
From the point at which the banjo became an instrument used in performing acts and bands (and began to be commercially produced) until Scruggs revolutionized banjo music, the instrument was condemned to function as something of a novelty (even in the hands of virtuoso players) and was more often than not associated with comedy. This was true in Vaudeville and especially in country music. Country banjo players (mostly playing in the clawhammer style) often dressed clownishly, told corny jokes, and integrated their playing into silly skits. Among the Grand Ole Opry’s most popular stars was a banjo player known as Uncle Dave Macon—a classic banjo clown of the early commercial country music tradition and a master both of the instrument and of comedy. After the youthful Earl Scruggs’s first few appearances at the Opry with Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys, where he wowed the audience with his amazing three-finger picking, Uncle Dave greeted him backstage with a half-compliment: “Ernest” [Uncle Dave never did get Earl’s first name right], he said, “you play the banjer good…but you ain’t a bit funny.”
This particular anecdote is not in Dubois’s book. I heard Scruggs himself tell it one day already long ago. But one does glean from Dubois’s telling of the story of the banjo something of Scruggs’s pivotal—indeed revolutionary—significance in the history of the instrument. And it goes beyond rescuing the banjo from its status as a novelty and comedy prop. The brilliant work of players today such as Bela Fleck and Noam Pikelny is built on the musical stylistic platform Scruggs put into place.
Indeed, in a scholarly work of this length and level of detail, a good deal more attention should have been paid to Scruggs’s contributions and what made them so important. And at least a bit more attention should have been given to other 20th-century innovators on the instrument. Scandalously, the great four-string plectrum banjo artist Eddie Peabody (known by the sobriquet “King of the Banjo”) rates no mention at all. The same is true of the bluegrass virtuoso Don Reno, Scruggs’s exact contemporary, whose extraordinarily deft jazz-influenced three-finger playing on the five-string banjo made him Scruggs’ equal in the eyes of many.
By contrast, the folk entrepreneur and American Communist activist Pete Seeger receives an exaggerated amount of attention in Dubois’s telling of the banjo’s story. He gets an entire chapter (out of eight) and of the twenty plates contained in the book, two are photographs of Seeger. (There is no photograph of Scruggs or any other important innovator or virtuoso performer.)
True, Seeger was the lead figure in reviving interest in the banjo among young people during the “great folk scare” of the 1950s and early ’60s (the era of the Kingston Trio and the Weavers, of which Seeger himself was a member), and he wrote a popular little book about how to play the banjo. But he was scarcely a virtuoso, nor was he an innovator in the league of Peabody, Scruggs, Reno, Bill Keith, Eddie Adcock, Marshall Brickman, Eric Weissberg, Courtney Johnson, Tony Trischka, and Bela Fleck. Pages that could have been used far more valuably in introducing readers to important players in the history of the banjo and describing their contributions—contributions that have lasted—are devoted instead to Seeger. Drearily predictably, some of those pages tell the story, beloved of the Left, of Seeger’s being hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee, where he stood firm for freedom of speech and, in effect, taunted his inquisitors by repeatedly asking to perform some of his songs for them. (Seeger was, shall we say, throughout his life a bit less outspoken in defense of the civil liberties of musicians and others in the Soviet Union and Castro’s Cuba—but Dubois doesn’t pause in the narrative to mention that fact.)
There is also some mildly embarrassing over-claiming in Dubois’s book, but it’s mostly of the sort one would expect and can easily forgive. He exaggerates the importance of the subject matter about which he is writing. For example, in the context of reflecting on Harlem Renaissance writer Claude McKay’s 1929 novel, whose eponymous main character was called “Banjo,” Dubois declares that “the banjo is in fact a perfect object through which we can understand the meaning of what is ‘American’.” Now look, I myself am a banjo player. I love the banjo. No one would be quicker defend its honor or to honor its role in American music and social life. But it isn’t “a perfect instrument through which we can understand the meaning of what is ‘American’.” There is no such “perfect instrument.” The meaning of what is American is too complex for that. (Indeed, from the social historical perspective it would probably be better to speak of meanings, plural.) But perhaps the reader won’t be surprised by Dubois’s account of why he would make such a stretch of a claim about the banjo: “precisely because it has its roots in the institution that was, for hundreds of years, the central pillar of the American economy,” namely, slavery.
And sometimes Dubois’s comments are just plain odd. He says, for example, that:
More often than not, banjos hum and buzz. They get out of tune, it seems, just to cause a hassle. When they are in tune, it isn’t always obvious. And people can’t quite agree on what “in tune” means on the banjo in any case.
None of this is true. Whatever Dubois means by describing banjos as “humming” (it’s certainly not the word that comes to my mind when I think of the sound of a banjo), they only “buzz” when the angle of the neck, the height of the bridge, or some other factor, causes the strings to be too close to the fingerboard. Then you get a buzz because a string, when struck or plucked, fails to clear the frets completely as it vibrates. Exactly the same problem can arise with guitars, mandolins, and other fretted instruments. When it does, it is easily fixed; indeed, it is more easily fixed on the banjo than on most other instruments.
Yes, like other stringed instruments, banjos sometimes get out of tune—less today than in the old days of skin as opposed to plastic drumheads. As with guitars, violins, mandolins, cellos, and the like, a particular instrument may be more “temperamental” in this way than others. But getting a banjo into tune isn’t especially difficult, and keeping it in tune is, at most, only slightly more difficult than keeping a guitar or violin in tune. (When adjustments need to be made, it’s usually because of humidity and temperature.)
As to people allegedly disagreeing about what “in tune” means on the banjo, they don’t. I’ve played with hundreds of banjo players. We disagree on many things: ideal bridge height and head tension, “warmer” vs. “brighter” tone, Scruggs vs. Reno, whether Bill Keith’s “melodic” style of five-string banjo playing fundamentally altered the character of bluegrass music, how deep into the bowels of Hell people are condemned for attaching an electric pick-up to the banjo and plugging in. One thing we do not disagree on is whether a banjo is in tune. Any competent player—or listener—can tell whether a banjo is in tune or not simply by listening. We are no more likely than guitar players—or pianists, for that matter—to stand around arguing about whether a particular instrument is or is not out of tune.
None of this is to take away from Dubois’s scholarly achievements in The Banjo. Despite a few flaws, it is a volume worth owning and consulting, whether on the history of the instrument as such, or its place in African-American social history and the role of music in the lives and cultures of African slaves and their descendants (which is a dominant concern of the seven chapters before the one on Seeger).