Folk instrument’s historical connection to racism in the U.S.

Legendary musician Taj Mahal is featured in the documentary Give Me the Banjo

The banjo is a humble instrument, initially made of wood, skin and gut. Pirated thousands of miles from its African origins, the banjo has come to be the butt of countless jokes, and a symbol of our nation’s racial history.

A stunning new video documentary showcases the instrument’s musical and cultural ramifications.

PBS’ Arts from the Blue Ridge Mountains: Give Me the Banjo  debuts tonight on PBS stations around the country (in Seattle:  KCTS Channel 9) at 9pm. (It will no doubt be repeated many times and be available for rent and purchase; check your local PBS station for details.)

“Give me the banjo…When you want genuine music – music that will come right home to you like a bad quarter, suffuse your system like strychnine whisky, go right through you like Brandreth’s pills, ramify your whole constitution like the measles, and break out on your hide like the pin-feather pimples on a picked goose – when you want all this, just smash your piano, and invoke the glory-beaming banjo!”  ~Mark Twain

Give me the Banjo is a polished, nuanced social and cultural history. It features archival footage of historic players like Gus Cannon and Doc Boggs, performance clips of modern masters like Bela Fleck, Tony Trischka (who was the project’s music director and main collaborator of writer-producer Marc Fields) and Steve Martin (who also narrates) – and a cogent analysis of the connection between the banjo’s history and racism in our nation.

“You can’t talk about the history of the banjo if you can’t talk about racism, slavery, misogyny appropriation and exploitation,” ethnomusicologist Greg Adams says early in the show. And considerable energy is spent documenting how the banjo’s ancestors came to this country from Africa, hostage to the slave trade, and how its role in the American entertainment experience represented dominant culture attitudes towards people of color through time.

In the 1700s, the banjo was the province of slaves and free immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean, a handmade folk instrument that connected its players to their home culture.

In the 1830s, Joel Walker Sweeney became the first white man to play the banjo, which he later turned into the featured instrument of the first minstrel shows. As Give Me the Banjo documents, the stunning rise of the black-faced minstrel show as a dominant form of entertainment “trivialized the African-American community,” according to musicologist Christopher Smith, and became an early embodiment of the appropriation that later played out in the early history of rock and roll: “white boys playing the blues.”

From Sweeney to Pete Seeger, the humble five-string manifested a fascinating journey, coming to symbolize in turn industrialized aristocrats, country bumpkins, working class revolutionaries and others. All of these plot twists and turns are lovingly presented in Give Me the Banjo, sumptuously illustrated and musically represented by the finest players. The documentary started under the working title The Banjo Project and used the grassroots fundraising tool Kickstarter to raise funds needed to complete the production. With its depth of research and deft editing, it comes off as a polished project, one that will come to be seen as a classic in the cannon of banjo literature and, perhaps, in the cannon of literature about racism as well.

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