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  • Jamie Parkinson

Roots of a banjo

As a musician, folk music had been on the periphery of Jamie’s life and musical interests, but a conversation with a friend spurred an investigation, revealing a complex history of migration, slavery, appropriation and relationships with the land, and a contemporary world of specialist banjo makers and farmers. This essay is a personal journey and reckoning on perceived notions, and finding a love for a musical genre Jamie had been almost dismissive of.    


instruments on a stage
The stage set, for a sold out gig for Old Spot, with a gourd banjo

When you think of folk music, what comes to mind? Until recently I might have thought primarily of bearded, middle-aged white men; of out-of-tune fiddle playing; of real ale and rural pubs. If I’d cast my mind across the Atlantic, I’d have thought of bluegrass and cowboy hats; of the metallic twang of a banjo; of insular and conservative values. I would not have thought of spirituality, slavery, stolen labour and culture. I would not have thought of gourds.


I first encountered a gourd banjo when I saw one being played by Joe Danks, a multi-instrumentalist musician based in Derbyshire, as part of the old-time Appalachian folk duo, Old Spot. Joe was born into a family of folk musicians and, since we met as teenagers in Nottingham (and I played double bass - badly - in one of his bands), has soaked up different folk arts from the Irish bodhrán to Morris dancing. On this first encounter with Old Spot, I admit that I was surprised at just how much I enjoyed old-time and the gourd banjo. 


This is a small and soft-toned instrument, lacking the sharper edges of the modern banjo’s drawl but still evoking that same Americana. It consists of a gourd that’s had its side cut off and the hole covered with tightly stretched goatskin tacked on. Long strings are attached to the gourd at one end, run over a flat fingerboard, and are terminated by tuning pegs at the top of the neck. One string is shorter, halting part-way along the neck. Unlike contemporary instruments, there are no inlaid frets to fix the note positions. 


Joe mentioned having to wait for the gourd to be grown after he commissioned his instrument, and some time after I idly searched for information about this process. One of the biggest names online was the cowboy-hat-wearing hillbilly of my imagination, replete with a wildly and comprehensively racist social media presence. At the same time, I saw references to the instrument’s African origins and its significance to Black enslaved people in the US. I asked Joe if he knew any more about this history. He replied with a long voice message, including reading and listening recommendations; I joked that I knew he’d know too much about it. “I think it's decent practice to know about it if you're going to play a gourd banjo for money," he replied.


~~~


It takes somewhere between three and six months to grow most types of bottle gourd, and about the same to dry them to a point where they can be used as vessels, musical instruments or tools. While the plant is native to Africa, phylogenetic analysis (here and here) points to an extraordinary global spread and domestication in both Asia and the Americas as early as 11,000 years ago, making it one of the first plants to be intentionally cultivated [editor note: read our syllabus for some more details on migration]


Given the length and breadth of our relationship with gourds, it is perhaps unsurprising that we quickly encounter a taxonomic headache when talking about them. When I asked Kristina Gaddy - author of Well of Souls: Uncovering the Banjo’s Hidden History - about the agricultural history of gourds, she pointed me towards her blog post, When is a calabash not a calabash? and anthropologist Sally Price’s paper of the same name. The word calabash is not only often used by English speakers past and present to refer to vine-grown bottle gourds, but also to the globular fruit of the wholly unrelated calabash tree, crescentia cujete.


This shoddy naming convention might appear to be an unimportant technicality, but it is a window into the Western understanding - or lack thereof - of gourds and their significance to the communities that grow them. As Price puts it, the naming “violates distinctions that are important to the people who cultivate, process, and embellish these fruits”. Conflating these names has functioned as a tool to homogenise the cultures of enslaved people in the Americas, making it easier to forget the history, the work, and the spiritual meaning of these plants.


The Saramaka are descendents of an African people who escaped from slavery in Suriname, in South America, in the 17th-18th century. It is their meticulous distinction between the two types of “calabash” that Price writes about, explaining their varied roles in both material and spiritual practice. Learning this and then returning to Gaddy’s blog post, I realised I’d missed something on the first reading: the knowledge that the earliest known banjo, the creole bania, is not actually made from a gourd - it’s made from the fruit of the calabash tree, most likely by an enslaved African in Suriname.


It feels somehow grimly predictable that this specific instrument is held in the collection of the Wereldmuseum in Leiden, the first ethnographic museum in Europe. Its founder - also responsible for the introduction of the invasive Japanese knotweed to Europe - extolled the benefits of such museums for “...European states possessing colonies because these institutions could become a means for understanding the subject peoples”. Where better a location to forget the people, the culture and the agriculture that made this instrument?


Aside from the creole bania, and luckily for me, there are plenty of early examples of gourd banjos from ‘actual’ gourds, as well as other instruments. In fact, if you leave a bottle gourd alone, it becomes a musical instrument as the seeds detach from the desiccating flesh, they rattle around inside when the gourd is shaken. This forms the basis of the Yoruba percussion instrument, the shekere. With strings stretched across a cut gourd, they become lutes and harps that are in turn woven into many West African spiritual practices from Yoruba to Mande ceremonies.


Ethnomusicologist Lucy Durán describes one such instrument, a harp called the donsó ngoni where 6 strings are stretched across a gourd resonator with a neck, evoking “the ‘mystique’ of hunting (donsoya) and its values – bravery, skill, cunning and access to that esoteric power that master hunters possess”. There is a direct thread between the music, the instrument, and the land. While lutes and harps like this are not quite banjos, they are part of the banjo’s ancestry. The thread remains intact.


~~~


Returning to North America and to the folk roots of the gourd banjo as we know it now, the earliest examples are uniformly made and played by enslaved people of African descent. Up until the mid-19th century, the banjo is very clearly described as an instrument played by Black people - until it starts to be played by people like Joel Walker Sweeney, one of the earliest blackface minstrel performers. As if the wildly racist mockery of a minstrel show wasn’t enough for Sweeney, the usual story continues with him ripping the gourd out of the banjo and starting to make the instruments out of wooden sound boxes. 


There is extremely limited evidence for Sweeney’s originality, good reason to believe that Black players were already using wooden instruments, and plenty more evidence of other white minstrel performers doing similar things - but the mythology around him as the white hero of the banjo persists (Gaddy’s book provides an excellent description of the origins of these myths).    


Regardless, these easier-to-make, louder instruments quickly spread across the white US, aided by Sweeney’s minstrel shows. The origins of the instrument were easily and quickly forgotten, not just in terms of whose music it was used to play, but also in terms of the lost connection to labour and land afforded by the gourd. North American folk music like old-time and, later, bluegrass and country tumbled out of Appalachia informed by minstrelsy in part, but also settlers’ British and Irish folk and the music that continued to be played by African Americans.


In this history, I think I’ve found the roots of my initial associations of the banjo, and I’ve learned about the colonial violence tangled into its history. I can see those connections to enslaved peoples, their land and their cultures, but it leaves me wondering - what now? What does the gourd banjo mean today for makers and musicians?





You can’t read much about gourd banjos without coming across Pete Ross, a banjo maker, researcher and musician. He told me about his gourd-banjo-making apprenticeship with the late Scott Didlake, who “called the process of trying to resurrect and recreate the gourd banjo as an ‘apprenticeship with ghosts’.” 


“There's the simple practical matter that at that time the actual instruments were almost entirely absent from historical collections”, says Pete. “Through the historical material we did have, we were trying to study the methods and mechanics created by people long passed and nearly anonymous. Scott and I had both concluded independently that the banjo was central to American culture. The spirits of the instrument's original African American creators really lived in our daily cultural creation, consumption and identities. It was our mission to bring that presence to the consciousness of everyone who saw and learned about a gourd banjo.”


I also asked Pete about his relationship with the farmers from whom he sources his gourds. “Nearly all the gourds I acquire for my banjos come from farmers I interact with directly”, he told me. “One of these farmers is engaging with me in a process of selective breeding to get the ideal gourd for the sort of banjo I get the most demand for. Kristina [Gaddy] and I make the gourd-getting trips together, north of Baltimore, up into Amish country in Pennsylvania.”. There, amazingly, it turns out he has his own connection to the land, where some of his ancestors once farmed and took part in a similar religious practice.


Finally, there are Black folk artists working to champion the history of the music and the instrument: people like Jake Blount, who plays one of Pete’s banjos and whose first album was entitled “Reparations”, and Rhiannon Giddens, a classically trained, Grammy award and Pulitzer prize winning multi-instrumentalist. Blount calls his work “Black folk music from the future” - played on a banjo. None of these artists are reenactors or interested in replicating the past; they are wholly contemporary.


Thinking about this tension between past and present, I asked Joe Danks how he felt about the connection of the modern gourd banjo and modern old-time to their histories: “the instrument I play is kind of a facsimile really… I feel transported to somewhere else when I play it. The place rendered isn't necessarily historically accurate, but still stirs me, which is what music is about. This is nothing new, and whether it's the Watersons adding Byrd-like harmonies to popular mining songs or Nick Hart playing Morris tunes on a Viola Da Gamba that long predates them, folk musicians are often playing with time in this way - it's one of the great things about the tradition.”


Perhaps what I’ve realised is that folk is, more than anything else, a commons: a shared cultural wealth that defies any individual or even collective ownership. What makers and artists choose to do with that commons, whether they choose to engage with its violent history and questions of ownership, is up to them. “I don't think I am the person to decide what we do with 'Turkey in The Straw' [a particularly racist minstrel song]... but I do think it's my responsibility to listen to the opinions of those more knowledgeable than I am”, Joe told me when I asked him recently. “If I’m going to perform or record something, I certainly do my due diligence. It’s a bit of a joke that old time liner notes are like novels, but I think it's because that connection to the past amplifies the power of the music.”


 

Jamie Parkinson is a musician, software engineer, museum worker and trade unionist based in London. He is interested in work, and who gets to determine its value.






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