SPOTLIGHT: Across Generations, The Healing Power of the Banjo
Photo by Zosha Warpeha
EDITOR’S NOTE: Tui — the old-time duo of Jake Blount and Libby Weitnauer — is No Depression’s Spotlight band for July 2019. Read more about them in our feature story here, and watch a video of them performing “Went Up on the Mountaintop” here.
I will never forget the first time I played the banjo for my grandmother. The family had gathered at my parents’ house for Thanksgiving, and I was sitting on a chair playing “Cluck Old Hen.” It was a beautiful day, and Gran Gran was walking across the room to sit in the sun. As she made her way to the couch beneath the window, she started to sway and shuffle to the music. I felt the importance of the moment, but I didn’t realize until much later that it was the first time I’d ever seen Gran Gran dance.
Doris Blount, like many Black women, was forced to choose between her own well-being and that of her community. She knew that a quality education was the best way to open new doors for her children and community. She personally saw to it that they got one. The children she taught, in both segregated and integrated schools, were some of the very first to receive a college education and make a life for themselves away from the farms and meat-packing plants of Smithfield, Virginia. Her sons were among them. If her reward for those decades of effort was her fierce pride in her children, grandchildren and former students, the price was her mobility. Decades of teaching in high heels, as was expected of women at the time, took their toll. I can’t remember Gran Gran ever moving without pain. But in those brief moments, the anodyne rhythm of the banjo overcame the pain in her body. To this day, Gran Gran’s favorite descriptor for old-time music is “soothing.”
The banjo tradition of the United States began among the Black people enslaved in the Chesapeake Bay region: Gran Gran’s ancestors, and mine. Banjo music was their joy and salvation, created to help people dance away suffering brought on by hard labor and harder treatment. Sometime between then and Gran Gran’s birth, the Black community gave it up. In playing for Gran Gran, I returned that music to one of its rightful inheritors. It “soothed” her pain, performing the same function as it did three centuries ago without being asked or expected to. The more I reflect on that moment and its implications for my art form, the more I feel boundless respect for my ancestors and the people who shared this music with them.
Appalachian white people, indigenous people, and Black people (Appalachian and otherwise) have complex relationships, but I believe that we share far more than we’re willing to admit — particularly where traditional music is concerned. Due to the pressures and constraints of our histories, the details of our collaborations have largely been lost. There have always been those who don’t want us to realize what we’re capable of when we work together. History is, nevertheless, quite clear on this point: Over the past few centuries, working-class Black, white and indigenous Southerners jointly developed the fiddle, banjo, and vocal traditions of their respective communities into the stringband, or old-time, music that we know today. Out of that music came bluegrass, as well as large parts of country, blues, and modern folk.
Where can a genre with such a storied past take us in the future? Part of the task for today is redressing the wrongs of history, which began in earnest with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, who worked (and continue to work in their solo careers) to give credit to old-time music’s Black founders. Another part of the task is creating a representative discography that reflects not only the contributions individual cultures have made to the music, but also the collective tradition that arose as a result.
When Libby Weitnauer and I decided to join forces formally as Tui and record our album, Pretty Little Mister, we agreed that our repertoire would consist of things we liked. That was the sole criterion. We dug through archives and our own collections of music for pieces that we found musically exciting. The result was a collection of well-worn classics of the genre, obscure tunes that haven’t been recorded since the original source musicians died, and even some obscure versions of well-worn classics. Five of the 13 pieces are from Black musicians, five from White musicians, two are of mixed origin, and one is from a Cherokee musician. One comes from my hometown of Washington, DC, and another from Libby’s hometown of Maryville, Tennessee. Others originated in Missouri and Texas. We arranged the tunes in whatever way sounded the best coming from us; some came out sounding relatively traditional, and others didn’t. We wound up drawing pieces from every type of old-time music we know how to play, and all of them sound like us. I am a multiracial, Black, queer man from the District of Columbia working with a white woman from Tennessee. My takeaway from the experience has been clear: When an ensemble includes musicians of diverse backgrounds and perspectives, its work will naturally reflect that diversity. It doesn’t need to be forced.
When our communities and genres diversify, we all reap the benefits. New approaches are necessary for growth, and even the staunch traditionalists among us must acknowledge that the tradition thrives when all of its aspects are celebrated. What’s more, the process is self-perpetuating. In our discussions about this piece, Libby told me that seeing women present in the old-time community validated and inspired her, and made her feel comfortable as she made her entry. I have heard the same sentiments echoed in my interviews with contemporary Black banjo players, nearly all of whom (myself included) only took up the banjo after hearing that other Black people played it. People feel most welcome in the music when they can see or hear themselves in it.
I’m far from the first to note the restorative power of this music, or the importance of restoring the tradition to its former bearers. I’ve had the opportunity to speak with Hannah Mayree, founder of the Black Banjo Reclamation Project, quite a bit about her unprecedented campaign to put banjos back into the hands of Black people. In our conversations, she’s often cast the banjo as an instrument of cultural and individual healing. Thinking of Gran Gran dancing through her pain, I have to agree. That healing should not be a rare thing. Everybody should know that they have a right to it. It’s my hope that Pretty Little Mister, in its unintended, yet insistent inclusivity, will open the door for others who are seeking a way in. Every one of us, after all, can use some healing.
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