My cousin Tony just passed on the link to this video, the trailer for a soon-to-be-released two-hour documentary called The Banjo Project: The Story of America’s Instrument.
If any musical instrument can be said to be quintessentially American, it is the banjo. Even in its construction, it tells a story of cultural exchange: the banjo is a drum with strings, a symbolic blending of African and European musical identities. Brought to the New World in the memories and traditions of enslaved Africans, repeatedly re-invented by African- and European-Americans, the banjo has shaped most American musical forms: the minstrel show (the dominant popular entertainment in the US in the 19th century), ragtime and early jazz, old-time folk and the folk revival, as well as blues, bluegrass, country, and new hybrids yet to be labeled.
I liked some of the quotes in the trailer, too. Here’s Pete Ross:
The banjo has always symbolized something other than just music in our culture. It’s completely saturated with cultural associations. It’s always an icon; it’s never just music. Every time you pick up a banjo, it’s gonna symbolize wild, rural, simple, and even clownish.
And Rhianna Giddens from the Carolina Chocolate Drops says something I’d always thought:
Old-time music is, for me, the original integration. ‘Cause you had whites and blacks who in the normal space of things didn’t really interact all that much, but when it came to the music, it was like, they were there! It didn’t matter if you were a black banjo player or a white banjo player, it mattered if you were a good banjo player.
And finally, there’s this great quote from Mark Twain’s Early Tales and Sketches, Vol 2 (1864-65):
The piano may do for lovesick girls who lace themselves to skeletons, and lunch on chalk, pickles, and slate pencils. But 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 whiskey… 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!
(Damn. I think there’s more poetry in that quote than in any of my banjo poems so far! Twain was a master of the well-turned phrase, no doubt about it.)