Photo by John Ramspott
Yes, at some point I referred to the Bluegrass banjo as the “hillbilly continuo.” I could think of no better way of explaining the spray of notes that rolls off the musician’s hands, propelling the music rapidly, but steadily, forward. Indeed, the comparison to the role of the basso continuo in Baroque music would seem to hold. My own prejudices about mountain culture perhaps deserved more scrutiny.
Give Me The Banjo, the documentary that just aired nationally on PBS and can be viewed online, provides more perspective. The banjo is at the middle of a nation’s long struggle to understand both its genius and its divisions. The product of The Banjo Project, a nine-year oral history, the documentary could not come at a more appropriate time, just as the instrument is enjoying a renaissance. Pricier and heavier than the ukulele, the other instrument of the moment, the banjo rings authenticity for a new cosmopolitan generation. It is genuine. It is restless. And as narrator Steve Martin has “banjoked” in the past, it is the sound of happiness.
The documentary begins, luckily for me, with the banjo’s role as a symbol of African-American culture. Giving only a casual explanation of the instrument’s genesis and its refinement by slaves, Sweeney‘s black-faced minstrel sets off a wider discussion about how the banjo was a caricature of African-Americans. No other part of the film better attempts to connect the instrument to social changes and a broader public consumed with understanding its identity. Indeed, the efforts of enthusiasts and scholars to balance the story of racism with the genius of American music makes the beginning sections somewhat explosive.
Sections on Gus Cannon, Charlie Poole, and Pete Seeger connect the banjo to the mobility of Americans in the early 20th century. Gus Cannon’s story is interwoven with interviews with the Carolina Chocolate Drops’ Dom Flemons, who helps to make cannon’s jug band blues sound vibrant. This is the film at its most irresistible, feeling both erudite and homespun at the same time. By the time “Walk Right In” becomes a revival hit in the 1960s, it’s hard to see Cannon as anything other than a genius who wrested the black image from the minstrels.