Oh dear, I hate to admit it but I'm running a parallel path at the moment:

--Classic banjo picking

--Robert Johnson-style blues banjo

Both fascinate me, and both seems to work well on my old Stewart.

Please feel to either commiserate with me, or rail against this ridiculous rail I'm balancing on. Oh, I'm also learning old time music on a banjo mandolin. 

This feels vaguely like a confession. Perhaps Ian will write me and ask me to confine all future remarks of mine to Banjo Hangout. :-)

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Just on black string bands,  in black old time string bands you don't find any of the kind of soloing that is the prime aspect of bluegrass.  In most of the string bands the banjo is pretty much a supporting instrument for the general rhythm rather than knitting things together the way a bluegrass banjo does and never takes much of a lead. LOL it can be disconcerting when you are playing black string band music and you are the banjoist, I was recently going through live music of concerts I have done with the Ebony Hillbillies to send to a guy I play with down here, and of course in hours of shows there are no banjo leads. 

Exceptions to that prove the rule.  People often talk about Frazier and Patterson's recording with Frazier's prominent banjom, but that was not a Black string band, Frazier and Patterson really didn't know each other until Work brought them together for exhibitions for the 50th anniversary of Fisk.  Frazier was a street busker, carried a banjo around with him walking the streets of Nashville and would play if he found a crowd. Likewise Joe Thompson often complained about how loud and how much space his cousin Odell used when revivalists teamed them up, largely as Odell had played guitar and not banjo mostly in the prewar family band and had been an electric R &B and rock guitarist until Kip found them.

The big difference also seems to be that pretty much bluegrass fiddling draws very heavily on violin technique that you don't find in old time black or white string bands, although in a few black string band recordings you will find violin technique guys and recording companies tried to get violin guys like Lonnie Johnson to make string band music.

Indeed, a big difference between most Black string band recordings I am used to and bluegrass is the groove orientation that is at the center of most black dance music of any type seems  missing in most of the best bluegrass other than attempts to cover black originated tunes.

I don't spend much time on bluegrass or Dixieland, but I think you could probably find more correspondences between the small combo Dixieland that was a craze  in the late 30s, the war, and postwar and bluegrass.
 
Jody Stecher said:

I would say that you are mostly correct. When I first started listening to bluegrass music as a boy in the 1950s it was a young man's music played by young innovative musicians who were proud of their innovation and who played up their originality, especially to distinguish themselves from other bands and other innovators. This was to make a living. They all wanted their music to be distinct and distinctive and recognizable as only available from them. Not the imagined Demotika, People's Music attitude some may ascribe to them. The ties to older music were played up much later because it brought in a new, higher paying audience.  But these first generation bluegrass professionals, most of em, anyway, grew up hearing genuine traditional music. And that informed their approach, especially in the song lyrics, but also in the choice of instruments. There is no doubt in my mind that all the first bluegrass bands were at first framing their music to have appeal for rural people with a similar background to themselves, and also to those who had moved to the cities for somewhat higher paying work. It wasn't until the 1960s that the "folk" element was played up. But on the other hand their programs in the rural south always included fiddle and banjo duets, old time fiddling and other things that were very close to rural trad music. The Stanley Brothers even had Fiiddlin (Conan) Powers in their early band as a special treat (and maybe as a magnet) for their rural audience. So maybe it's going too far to call them "dishonest". I'd say they were being selective and would frame their description of their music according to whom they were talking to. They had to make a living.

 I think your characterization of bluegrass is also selective (and also not dishonest) and since I'm not a historian I have nothing to lose by going out on a limb and saying as I've said for the last 30 years or more,  that bluegrass music  is  – or I should say *was*….. because most 21st century "bluegrass" , especially the singing, is unrecognizable to me as bluegrass –  basically a stylized version of a type of black string band music, 

I'll say it again in a shorter sentence: Bluegrass is stylized Black string band music.

It's been re-packaged, and slightly disguised. I've heard descriptions from older white rural musicians with good ears and good memories  (in their 80s now)  of how the fiddle, mandolin, banjo, and guitar were used in some string ensembles by Black musicians in the rural south, from West Virginia, right down to the Carolinas and Georgia and it's very similar to the bluegrass format.  The banjo didn't play the melody along with the fiddle, the banjo played an arpeggiated counterpoint. The guitar played punchy explosive bass runs (and anyone who thinks the basic flat picking vocabulary of lead guitar in bluegrass in G position was invented by White Southerners needs to hear "How You Want It Done" either by Bill Broonzy or Louis Lasky. 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mhnht5j_PbY

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lvfRpvwUl70 

And where did that bluesy lead fiddle style come from, if not from direct imitation of Black fiddlers?  

I think the mandolin offbeat "chop" comes from Bill Monroe hearing Slavic tamburitza bands when he worked the oil refineries in southern Indiana. 

On the other hand, genuine "ancient tones" *were *present in early bluegrass music. But they are not what they are generally taken to be. But that is a topic for another time and place. 

Nice to see it lively around here these days.



Tony Thomas MFA Black Banjoist said:


Bluegrass in its explanations of itself particularly by Monroe and Scruggs, founding voices, tries to give itself the view as the continuation of the "ancient tones" as Monroe puts it, a continuation of older music, a kind of traditional music, when it is actually a radical departure from the older music, a progressive synthesis deeply interested by pop Jazz, and other innovative musical features.  Bluegrass "founders" are quick to talk about traditional sourcesm, but they are fairly dishonest or hiding their lineages from the developments in commercial professional hillbilly music becoming country music across the 1930s and 1940s.  Monroe will (sorry I think of big Mon as still  alive I meant would)  never talk about the Prairie Ramblers for example, and in private Scruggs would talk about how he was deeply influenced by South and North Carolina banjo pickers who applied classic banjo to old time and ragtime and could still play their pieces note for note in the 80s and 90s, but wants you to believe his style crystalized out of folk tradition.   But all of that is pretty much in the essay.

I like and play a lot of bluegrass especially on guitar, nothing wrong with it, but it is a progressive movement even though it tries to claim it is traditional,


Jody Stecher said:

There are two things here I don't understand and one thing I partially disagree with. What pretense re bluegrass are you referring to?  And what are the popular mystified ideas of revivalists? 

I don't entirely agree about classic banjo being revivalism, at least not in the UK. It's true it nearly died out but of those still playing nearly all can trace a lineage of learning and teaching to late 19th and early 20th century American banjoists who visited the UK and took students.  This includes the Bohee Brothers who were not only Black, but —and this fascinates me — Canadians.

Tony Thomas MFA Black Banjoist said:

Well,  as a music historian particularly about the history of the banjo and African American history of the banjo in particular, it would be impossible for me to do a competent job without considering the issue of revivalism, and observing the attitudes that seem to issue from it, because most concern with the banjo and its history and what some call "folk" music stem from revivalist sources.  Even though Bluegrass is not actually a revivalist music, very huge portions of it especially its founding figures like Monroe and Scruggs and Stanley,  try to drape it with that pretense even though it is essentially a modernist progressive music.  The rest of the banjo world really flows out of the folk and old time and to a lesser extent blues revival.  Even the contemporary  "Classic Banjo" movement is really an example of revivalism.

So it would be pretty irresponsible for someone who claims to be concerned with the history of the banjo and the discourses about it, not to be conscious of what is revivalism, how it may reflect distorted visions and how revivalst practice is different from other practice, especially if you are concerned with the social, economic, historical, and ideological aspects of music history and its discussion.

I would say in my case as someone who came out of the folk and then old time and blues revivalists of the 60s, confronting the difference between the mystified ideas popular in those revivalists and objective understanding of the music history of the banjo was a task I needed to make in my own thinking to do useful work.  Unfortunately, so much of the discussion that we have to make doing objective research about the banjo often confronts such distortions.
 
Patrick Garner said:

Have to admit I'm not terribly concerned with what "revivalists" and others have done, and who they've elevated or spotlighted. It's now a huge world and virtually anyone who ever recorded is available (unlike 20-30 yrs ago). Popularity runs in cycles and it's rarely worth railing at the contemporary paradigms. They'll pass and something new will become important. Musicians will continue to select what they find relevant. And we are no longer dependant on historians to wander through back lands to research who recorded what. Perhaps it's important to burn time correcting errors of emphasis, and pulling up forgotten players. And Tony, that sort of effort is good. But as noted earlier, it's railing against the current tide, which I assure you will retreat to be replaced by some new emphasis. 

And right back-atcha, Tony. Excellent analysis! I also agree with you. 

Tony Thomas MFA Black Banjoist said:

Nice post  Jody. 

I'll note that as the original poster, I meant for this to be an amusing thread--from beginning to end--and nothing more. It quickly diverged. For goodness sake, let's just enjoy music here, and not wander off.

Jody I agree completely that no "decoder ring" exists but much of the information does.What you said about the piano is pretty much my point about the blues,old time ,bluegrass,string band music we hear today. these forms are all the result of many innovators from many places.To say though that the influence of Scots Irish on blues does not exist? All rual forms of music especially in the south have this influence. Just as much they have a African influence. Honey Boy Edwards speaks in an interview of Robert Johnson as did Johnny Shines that Robert and others made it a point to and could play "any" form of music. Listen to Charley Pattons works or Blind Willie Mctell and you will hear the white songs that they also learned and played. Dink Roberts also clearly said in a recorded interview that he played as did many of these blues artist for white dances as many nights he played for black dances and that he played and learned from white and black.That NONE of these peoples influences where Scots Irish is impossible.They needed to learn the forms of all the music around them as this is how they made their livings. Again though as stated before those usually where not the songs that got recorded.Also it is known blues history that Robert Johnson idolized Son House. He followed him and Charley Patton around as a child.One example is Roberts "Walking Blues"(a song already recorded by House) is most of the borrowed words of House "walking blues" and some music from House song "My Black Momma" The playing and singing styles  though where very different. my point was again just to show how we learn from and borrow from others.Just as it would be a pretty safe bet that House got the influence from another. I tell young players all the time how lucky they are to have the internet. Alot of players of all these forms of music did in fact make filmed interviews i could never have seen as a youngster.My knowledge took years of my life searching what a person can now learn online in a very short time .Also Jody it would be impossible for you and I and others here to have this "friendly" debate

Yes Patrick more to the original point.  can?could  anyone post some Robert Johnson being played on the banjo? it dosen't appear that the book comes with a cd?

A couple weeks ago on the "hangout", somebody posted about Rev. Gary Davis playing 6 string banjo. Myself having never experinced a black bluesman playing banjo...I checked it out and..SON...it's well worth a listen...I liked it a lot! Figured I'd post about it since we're on the blues banjo topic...sorta! :) Give it a listen.  

The banjo starts at around 17:20, he plays Devil's Dream. Enjoy!

Dow

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8BxxtMZELAM

 

 

 

First of all stacks of volumes have been written not about the derivation of the blues and other African American music from West African music, by music scholars in Europe, the United States, and West Africa itself.  hardly anyone serious has written anything else on these issues since openly racist interpretations were chased away 50 years ago.  So if you want to throw all this work in the dustbin you can.  Some music scholars actually consider African American music as a whole as a branch of West African music.

  When actually interviewed about Black and white musicial interchange,  Dink's statement was pretty unrepresentative of the interviews available with Black banjoists of his generation although it was pretty much taken out of the real context of Dink's life or further things he said in the interview. 

The overwhelming majority of his contemporaries among Black banjoists when asked about this could point to no playing together with whites before folk revivalists began to approach them in the 1970s.  Even Dink when actually asked about what white musicians he played with could only identify Tommy Thompson as a revivalist banjoist and UNC English professor he met in the  late 1970s.  This is a pretty standard response in the dozens of such interviews with Black old time players of banjo and fiddle I have heard.

Joe Thompson was pretty explicit when he talked to me about how differently one had to play for white dancers and dances than for black dancers, just as any intelligent person today would know to bring different music for a Black dance than for a white dance today.

When you actually talk to these musicians , you find that the practical business of playing music, particularly for dances meant that they had to play music differently for white people and black people in the real segregated world that they existed in, and that the musics are quite different even if there was some interchange.  By and large in real social life in the United States musical activity is fairly segregrated, if no longer by lawm, by cultural difference.

No one says there were not influences from other things, but to try to deny the difference between white music and black music in North America is like talking about the Earth being flat.  You seem quite unfamiliar with modern research work on American music in general and African American music in particular, rather than roaming the internet, it might be nice to inform yourself of the hard work those of us who do real research have come up with.

You are talking about influences on musicians. Musicians are musicians and always will be. They play what appeals to them and are open to anything musical. I am talking about influences on types of music. Whole nuther thing.  We know what Scots-Irish music is like. We know what blues is like. Look at the alleged parent and look at the child. Then you know. Scots-Irish influence on blues *musicians*? Yes, you bet. But not on their blues music. The influence is on other aspects of their musicianship and repertoire. 


chad flory said:

Jody I agree completely that no "decoder ring" exists but much of the information does.What you said about the piano is pretty much my point about the blues,old time ,bluegrass,string band music we hear today. these forms are all the result of many innovators from many places.To say though that the influence of Scots Irish on blues does not exist? All rual forms of music especially in the south have this influence. Just as much they have a African influence. Honey Boy Edwards speaks in an interview of Robert Johnson as did Johnny Shines that Robert and others made it a point to and could play "any" form of music. Listen to Charley Pattons works or Blind Willie Mctell and you will hear the white songs that they also learned and played. Dink Roberts also clearly said in a recorded interview that he played as did many of these blues artist for white dances as many nights he played for black dances and that he played and learned from white and black.That NONE of these peoples influences where Scots Irish is impossible.They needed to learn the forms of all the music around them as this is how they made their livings. Again though as stated before those usually where not the songs that got recorded.Also it is known blues history that Robert Johnson idolized Son House. He followed him and Charley Patton around as a child.One example is Roberts "Walking Blues"(a song already recorded by House) is most of the borrowed words of House "walking blues" and some music from House song "My Black Momma" The playing and singing styles  though where very different. my point was again just to show how we learn from and borrow from others.Just as it would be a pretty safe bet that House got the influence from another. I tell young players all the time how lucky they are to have the internet. Alot of players of all these forms of music did in fact make filmed interviews i could never have seen as a youngster.My knowledge took years of my life searching what a person can now learn online in a very short time .Also Jody it would be impossible for you and I and others here to have this "friendly" debate

I simply don't understand how people don't look at the realities of segregation both in the Jim Crow period and the real practice life black and white people face even today.   It is true that an individual may have been forced by either enslavement or financial need, or even personal attraction to play different music.  That is a sidelight, but the reality is that the music was nested in places where segregation was the most severe, in personal and social contexts that were comnmnunity based, particularly in venues where selecting sexual partners or spouses was a major part of the occaisions.  Indeed, the fact that professional musicians could play other "forms" of music expressed that they recognized that they understood there were different kinds of music than their own.

The real issue is the distinct background and life conditions of African descendants in the United States produced a music, language, and culture distinct from white Americans, even if many African Americans also share the dominant culture.  That is just a reality of real social life,  but was exceptionally so in the Jim Crow South in the first three decades of the 20th century.   The absolute fear that some of these musicians had of any transgression of the Jim Crow rules in these situations was massive,.

Stu Jameson who recorded Lusk and Grimble in Tennessee right after the war told me about how fearful it was.  They recorded in the general store as the best place with electricity.   No Black person dared to go to the performance save the musicians.  After the recordings, the whole community was angry and shocked when Stu asked the Black musicians if he could drive them home several miles late in the night to where the black settlement was.  Stu said that he was rebuked by local whites for that and that his aunt who lived in the community was castigated and threatened for bringing this to happen for years.  Stu said that while he was just using borrowed equipment from the library of Congress, the only way he got through the whole thing without violence was to make it seem like he was a government official and they were dictated by congress.  Stu said he made it sound like a regiment of Marines would appear if they messed with him.

That is the real world, actually a particularly benign world compared with areas in Mississippi  some of the blues musicians functioned in. 

This set of life and death realities faced real people in this situation.  But if  a foremost scholar of these things whose work is published by Oxford University Press, Duke UP etc, intervenes,  I am sorry if what I say is not "friendly,' but this is not a friendly question, but one over which a river of blood continues to be spilled.

So much for a "friendly" debate.. Tony- "So if you want to throw all this work in the dustbin you can" "No one says there were not influences from other things, but to try to deny the difference between white music and black music in North America is like talking about The Earth being flat" I was in no way trying to DENY the differences or anything else. I was saying exactly what you just said that influences from other music exist(ed). What you read into it,you read into it. I live in NC and have spent a great amount of time talking to many people over my life involved in music both white and black.My knowledge does NOT come from roaming the internet only. Jody-"You are talking about influences on musicians. Musicians are musicians and always will be. They play what appeals to them and are open to anything musical. I am talking about influences on types of music. Whole nuther thing." yes you are exactly right. the rest of your statements are what you "read" into my posts.It is sad that we still can not have "friendly " debates because people don't take the time to READ things clearly and are so easily offended-

This is a friendly site and to prevent it becoming an unfriendly place I have terminated this thread.

Ian

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