'Picturing The Banjo' Through American History A show in Washington, D.C., features paintings, lithographs and other representations of the banjo. One of America's most endearing musical instruments also played a turbulent role in racial history.
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'Picturing The Banjo' Through American History

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'Picturing The Banjo' Through American History

'Picturing The Banjo' Through American History

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The Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. is celebrating the banjo.

The exhibit, called Picturing the Banjo, presents a visual history of the instrument from American slavery to contemporary time. We asked NPR's Paul Brown to explore the show with us. Paul is a banjo aficionado, and he brought a CD player along so we could hear the music behind these picture.

We climb a winding marble staircase. At the top of the stairs there's a majestic life-sized portrait of a young black man in a gilded frame. It's a painting by William Sydney Mount called The Banjo Player. Paul Brown is taken by the look on the young banjo player's face.

Mr. PAUL BROWN (Banjo Aficionado): He's looking off into the distance, and he seems to be in this transcendent place that a musician can get to when things are going really well. There's something very physically and emotionally satisfying about playing a banjo, and he is there. He is in that moment.

ELLIOTT: His face is almost glowing.

Mr. BROWN: Absolutely. His hand is interesting in the painting because it's curved over, and it shows us that he's playing in an old African-derived style. He's strumming down with his fingernails and his fingers curved over the strings. Now, we brought some music that might sound something like what this young man was playing.


Mr. BROWN: And I have to exercise some caution here because 1856, there were no recording devices, and most likely this music could not have been written down because this is music that was passed down by ear and passed down by experience from one player to the next. We can listen to Mike Seeger, who's a well-known banjo player and collector, with a tune called Soon in the Morning, Babe. It's performed on an old-style gourd banjo, and Mike tells me that he learned this tune from an elderly black gentleman, an 88-year-old man named Lucius Smith back in Mississippi in the 1970s.

This means that if Lucius Smith learned the tune from an old player himself, that that player probably learned the piece back in the Civil War times.

ELLIOTT: Okay, let me put on a headset and I'll give a listen. What track number is this?

Mr. BROWN: This is Track No. 1, first one.

(Soundbite of banjo music)

ELLIOTT: Very rhythmic.

Mr. BROWN: Very rhythmic. Do you hear the drum-like sound?

ELLIOTT: You do.

Mr. BROWN: It's a drum with strings. That's really what a banjo is, with a skinhead stretched across either a gourd or a hoop. It's rhythmic as well as melodic.

ELLIOTT: Well, let's go on in and see what's inside.

Mr. BROWN: Sure.

ELLIOTT: And here, one of the first things you come to are these two very colorful pictures. It looks like slaves on a plantation.

Mr. BROWN: It depicts a wedding-type ceremony with someone about to jump over a broomstick. Some percussion going on and someone playing a banjo-like instrument once again.

ELLIOTT: This is somewhat of a joyful portrayal.

Mr. BROWN: Very much so.

ELLIOTT: People look happy. They're having fun. It's a celebration.

Mr. BROWN: Yet they are people who are enslaved, and they brought their instrument to this country.

ELLIOTT: What got you fascinated in the banjo in the first place?

Mr. BROWN: My mom grew up in the South, and she started me singing old songs that she had learned from elderly people in Bedford County, Virginia in the summers when she was a kid. By the time I was five years old, I just had to have a banjo.

ELLIOTT: Oh, you were young.

Mr. BROWN: Oh, yeah. I didn't get one until I was ten years old, but I finally did at that point, and I did it through the classic method of history, which is that I ordered it through the Sears Roebuck catalog, which thousands of people have done, and like so many people, I just figured out my own way of playing. Once I figured out how to tune it, then I was off and running.

ELLIOTT: When did you learn about the history of this instrument? When did you find out that this is something that had come from Africa with slaves?

Mr. BROWN: I guess I first came to understand that when I was a teenager. Pretty wonderful story, really. It's full of conflicts too because of the way the banjo has been used and portrayed in American history. It was an African instrument. It was then an African American instrument. It was appropriated, in a sense, by white people. It was used in the minstrel days to denigrate blacks. The image that you're looking at encompasses just about every hateful stereotype of a black person in one image that you can imagine.

ELLIOTT: The pictures are just a few steps from the happy plantation scene. It's a lithograph from 1930 with a cartoonish portrayal of black men.

Mr. BROWN: There is a cotton-picker who's sitting down, not working, hanging out, looking kind of lazy and having fun. There's a black man with two watermelons, and there's a lazy-looking banjo picker just hanging around once again, jaw-boning with the other two and the little kid as well. This image is not at all unique, and they were fairly popular. They're very, very denigrating. And the music of the era, which was the minstrel music, could often be that very same way, and it was created by white people who were traveling in the South, heard the music of African Americans, thought it was marvelous, and started to play the instrument, but to develop it their own way, often for commerce and for show, and in a way that put down...

ELLIOTT: That traditional culture.

Mr. BROWN: Right. So you have a case of the people with all the power, basically, making life ever more miserable for the folks who have none of the power. But we've got a few cuts of that. We could listen to one.


Mr. BROWN: And this is titled O, I'se So Wicked. It's performed by Bob Flesher, and it's about a mischievous black girl who would rather cause trouble around the household than behave.

(Soundbite of banjo music)

ELLIOTT: Yeah, I hear it.

Mr. BROWN: You hear what I'm saying.

ELLIOTT: Yeah, it reminds me of like the character Topsy in Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Mr. BROWN: That's exactly it, and that's her name, is Topsy, in the song. One of my friends, who's a music historian and performer, Bob Carlin, says these guys, the minstrel artists, were the Bruce Springsteen's of their day. So when you stop to think of it, you have a form of music that is very hurtful to one minority culture becoming one of the most popular art and entertainment forms on the American scene for decades.

ELLIOTT: As minstrel shows is performed around the country at the turn of the century, the banjo was also being played by privileged white woman in the North for parlor recitals.

Mr. BROWN: So here is the banjo in an urban setting in the North. The furniture and the house are clearly New England, with a young woman playing what appears to be a fairly refined European style, because her hand is clearly in a finger-picking move, plucking the strings delicately.

ELLIOTT: She's got on this high-collared dress that reaches the floor, a cat sitting next to her, listening.

Mr. BROWN: And what this painting reflects is an incredible boom in the popularity of the banjo in the cities of the North. Partly because of the minstrel shows, the banjo became very, very well known around the country and people flocked to it. And by the 1880s the banjo was in the midst of a boom in manufacturing and performance in the cities. There were instructional books, there were schools, there were banjo orchestras. It had every characteristic that you can imagine of a fad, and it was a huge one. And I brought along a tune for us to listen to there as well. This is performed by William J. Ball, and it is called At Sunset, and it was written by Amiel Grimshaw, who was one of the very best in the classical style of banjo composures.

(Soundbite of banjo music)

Mr. BROWN: It doesn't sound like down and dirty blues, does it?

ELLIOTT: No, not at all. But this would be what a woman like this would be playing?

Mr. BROWN: Very likely.

ELLIOTT: Now, at the same time that this was going on in white culture in urban areas, what was happening in black culture with the banjo?

Mr. BROWN: Well, the banjo was slowly fading out because of the plethora of denigrating imagery.

ELLIOTT: So it would have been something negative, playing a banjo for an African American at that point?

Mr. BROWN: Oh, very much. The banjo at that point really started to become a reminder of everything that was difficult and impossible to endure about being a black person in the American South, in particular, but also in the North.

(Soundbite of banjo music)

ELLIOTT: Thank you so much, Paul Brown.

Mr. BROWN: Oh, you're most welcome. The pleasure's been mine.

(Soundbite of banjo music)

ELLIOTT: To see pictures and hear how the banjo made its way to bluegrass, go to our web site at npr.org. That's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. From NPR News, I'm Debbie Elliott.

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