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On banjos, history and folk tradition

I've been reading a book about the history of the banjo, and it has caused me to notice that there is a fascinating show coming up in Ashland.

The book is called "America's Instrument: The Banjo in the Nineteenth Century," by Philip F. Gura and James F. Bollman. The show is titled "Bill Evans: The Banjo in America," and will happen on Feb. 7 at the Unitarian Fellowship, 87 Fourth St.

It turns out that the banjo derives from several types of West African instruments that crossed the Atlantic to North America with the slave trade. That is to say, enslaved West Africans who were dragged across the ocean in chains eventually managed to build in the New World the same sorts of instruments they had played back home.

Written accounts from the early 17th century describe banjo-like devices in West Africa and among slave societies in the Caribbean. Among the different spellings and pronunciations: banza, bangil, banshaw, strum-strum and (I imagine this last one pronounced in a condescending tone of voice) the merry-whang.

These early banjos were built from gourds cut in half with an animal skin stretched over them like a drum head. Attach a wooden neck to this gourd-drum, stretch some animal-gut strings across the contraption and voila: Behold the merry-whang.

Some 300 years after its introduction to North America, the banjo ran headlong into the industrial revolution and was transformed. What happened (briefly) was that theatrical types from the slave-holding South learned to build and play banjos, presumably by hanging out with their enslaved, banjo-playing neighbors.

Such was the lure and lore of antebellum plantation slave culture that these theatrical types costumed themselves as African-American slaves (including painting their faces black) and took the show on the road up north. Known as minstrelsy, this form of entertainment was all the rage from the 1850s on. Minstrel acts typically featured banjo, fiddle, bones (percussion) and dancers. Some of the more famous shows toured as far afield as Europe.

With the rise of minstrelsy, all kinds of folks became interested in the banjo. At first, prospective players had to build their own gourd banjos. Pretty soon, however, artisan instrument builders (guys who had a small shop where they built violins or guitars or drums or what-have-you) turned their attentions to the ever-more-popular banjo trade.

Really quickly — like within a matter of a decade — banjo building became so lucrative that mechanically minded, industrious Yankee go-getters started applying water- (and eventually steam-) powered factory production techniques to banjo building. This had the dual effect of making banjos far more accessible (cheaper) to far more people and caused a certain amount of standardization to happen. Banjos began to look basically the way they do today.

Once established as a respectable instrument, the banjo was soon taken up by people who prided themselves on being practitioners of high-brow culture. By the 1880s, proper Victorian ladies were learning to play classical music on expensive banjos that were laden with every conceivable variety of fancy decorative carving and inlay.

Reading this banjo book, I've been struck by the intersection of commerce and culture. It seems as though banjo factories created banjo players by making the instruments plentiful and affordable. In the period before recorded music, famous banjo players made their names by publishing instruction books and sheet music.

Thinking about this bygone era has caused me to reflect further on the fact that the electric guitar is really just 60 or so years old. The first generation of kids who grew up listening to and playing electric guitar music are still active members of the guitar-owning public. There's a famous supposed quote from a record company executive who declined to sign the Beatles, saying in 1962 (when the electric guitar had only been around for a decade), "guitar groups are on their way out."

A century earlier, a similar generation of banjo aficionados watched their instrument gain in popularity over the course of their lifetimes. The Bill Evans show coming to Ashland features songs played on a variety of antique and reproduction banjos to give an aural demonstration of their evolution from gourd-bodied folk instruments to the refined pinnacle of industrial age craftsmanship. Evans has performed this show all over the world and, by all accounts, is very good.

I can't wait. Evans is going to play what could be the soundtrack to this book I've had so much fun reading. History and music and antiquated folk traditions all rolled into one might not be for everyone, but I'll be there front and center.