W.W. Norton has just published Baltimore author Kristina Gaddy’s new book “Well of Souls: Uncovering the Banjo’s Hidden History.” This deeply researched work assembles fascinating findings and an array of primary sources to place this uniquely African-American instrument in the context of early Black history in the Americas. Centuries-old journals and illustrations provide glimpses of life under plantation slavery, where disparate peoples of African descent preserved elements of their ancestral cultures while evolving new rituals, dances, and musical forms. The interview was conducted by history nerd and amateur banjo player Tom Chalkley, and edited and condensed to account for the ramblings of interviewer and interviewee.
Baltimore Fishbowl: Most of our readers are conscious of banjos in the modern form that it took on 150 years ago when it was manufactured here in Baltimore, a steel hoop or wooden hoop and a skin or a piece of plastic stretched over that, a flat neck, and frets for a European scale. Mostly this book talks about the banjo before that form took shape. Can you describe the traditional banjo?
Kristina Gaddy: Banjos before that period had gourd or calabash bodies that made the sound chamber; they still have the skin head, they still have flat fingerboards, they still have long and short strings like 5-string banjos do today. But most typically they have three long strings and one short string; 5-string banjos have four long and one short string. They look a little different, but functionally they are the same.
BFB: I’ve noticed some of them have designs on the fingerboard.
KG: Just like banjos today can be highly decorative, both images and surviving banjos have decorations on the fingerboard and soundholes that are carved in the body of the instrument in the shape of crosses. These decorations had a ritual purpose; they were religious symbols.
BFB: I want to come back to that. But first, as you describe it in the book, the banjo is an African American instrument, broadly defining American as the Caribbean, South America, Central America, North America. Yet there are antecedents–related instruments in Africa. Can you talk a bit about those instruments and where they came from?
KG: So you hear a lot “The banjo is from Africa,” which isn’t true because the first time you see something that looks like a banjo it is in the Americas. There is nothing that is built in the same way as a banjo that anyone has found in Africa. But, what you do have in West Africa are gourd-bodied lutes, which have their own names depending on the culture or the ethic group that they come from. Another thing that is really common are those long and short strings. For example, the akonting played by the Jola or played by the Ngoni, they’ll have long strings and a short drone string. People think of the akonting as “the ancestor” of the banjo because it looks a lot like a banjo and the playing technique is very similar to the playing technique called clawhammer or downstroking. The West African instruments don’t have a flat fingerboard–
BFB: It’s like a pole…
KG: Yes, it’s like a pole that they are putting their fingers on. But because the neck is so thin, you can’t have a ton of strings. With a guitar, with a flat fingerboard, can have six strings. But in East Africa, where people were also taken from and enslaved in the Americas, you do have five and seven-string plucked instruments that have flat fingerboards, but usually they have wooden bodies. So you have all of these elements that make up a banjo, from where people were taken in Africa, in West Africa across the continent to East Africa, and those elements come together–in the same way you have creolized languages or creolized foodways, you have a creolized instrument, and a creolized style of music that brings in lots of these traditions to create something new.
BFB: You went in search of banjos and pulled up all these things that were attached to the banjo. The way that your book is structured, it’s story after story, vignettes from different times and places, and they rhyme. There are similar activities happening, separated by centuries and hundreds of miles, and yet there is this recurrence of this kind of dance and instrument. Can you talk about the culture that surrounds the banjo?
KG: I’m smiling a lot because that is exactly what I wanted people to pick up on without being too explicit about it. When you see the banjo in these historic accounts, it’s not the banjo by itself, it is in this bigger context, and that context remains remarkably similar, whether we are in the Caribbean or whether we are in Albany, New York. One of the things early on is that you get accounts of the banjo with a dance that’s called calinda, or similar dances that are called other things. The banjo is played with percussion instruments, accompanying a dance, and this dance isn’t just a dance for dance sake, but a ritual dance that was part of religious practice that had many functions from connecting with ancestors and gods, or bringing prosperity or wishing for good things, or within the religion, the social function of bringing people together.
BFB: And the catharsis. I was reminded of Black church services I’ve been to in Baltimore, where people will spontaneously begin to dance.
KG: One of the things that I drug up was how much our physical bodies respond to music, dance, and rhythm, and especially the repetition in those, and how they can put us into these trance states, which is good for religion, because if you are in a trance state you can connect more easily with God or spirits, but you also connect with other people. Your heart rate can get in sync, your brain waves can get in sync. And what was really important in that within these enslaved communities is that this is community building when you’d been ripped from your homeland, from your family, from everything that you know, and has humans, we need connections with people and this was an almost immediate way of saying, “You are not alone, here are these people that are with you.” And in some cases this music and these dances were deemed very dances because of the connections that they built, it was an opportunity for communication, for rebellion, for enslaved people to see that they were just individuals, but a group. And if we are a group together, we can overthrow this power. And we see in various well-known slave rebellions that music and ritual played a part in getting those going.
BFB: And these gatherings freak out the authorities.
KG: All the time. The authorities are constantly banning the dances that are associated with the banjo, banning drums…
BFB: And destroying the banjo. You tell stories about missionaries destroying instruments.
KG: Yes! The missionaries and religious authorities would take away the banjo because they were part of these other religions that weren’t Christianity.
BFB: And some of these writers and observers were surprised, but some of them say this music was barbaric noise.
KG: I would say almost all of the accounts of white people observing Black music and dance in the period that I write about, about 1680s to 1860s, are very derogatory. You have a guy from Maryland saying “the banjo, if you could even call it a musical instrument,” or “if you could even call this music.”
BFB: I had always understood that the earliest reference to the banjo was Thomas Jefferson writing in “Notes on Virginia,” but you’ve found stuff much older than that. I was wondering if you could talk about the nitty-gritty of unearthing this material, because it’s not just lying out on the beach.
KG: Some of it has definitely been done by other banjo researcher colleagues. I became fascinated by a piece of artwork from Suriname, which is also where the oldest banjo in the world is from. Nobody who had done research on the banjo previous to this had looked in the Dutch records. I began looking into the music and dance that were associated with the banjo in Suriname and that’s when I started turning up new information. I really set out to choose important accounts of the banjo, which could not only tell us about the instrument, but about the people who played the instrument, about the culture from which it came. And that led to really deep dives into accounts of the banjo, and looking into who made that account.
So, for example, the account from colonial Maryland that appears in the book is one that my partner Pete Ross found at the Maryland Historical Society in the 1990s in the Hollyday Family Papers. The librarians there knew James Hollyday had written something about music, and Pete found that Hollyday had taken a banjo from an enslaved person near his Eastern Shore estate and sent it to his niece in London. She is totally fascinated by it, and he’s like, “I wouldn’t have sent it if she hadn’t asked for it” and is really derogatory. But Hollyday’s story gave me the opportunity to look into records of the banjo in Maryland, which is one of the earliest places it appears in North America, simply because the colony was early to develop with slave labor working on tobacco plantations. And so, you also get what are called “run-away slave ads” that mention banjo players. These are extremely disturbing yet interesting records of what enslaved people were wearing, what languages they spoke, what instrument they were playing, where they were from, and stipulations about where they had run away to.
BFB: You have all these diverse narratives, from horrible slave owners to mixed-race artists, who were really straddling cultures. Was there any one of these sources that you found yourself fond of?
KG: The person that I am the most fond of got mostly cut from the book, and that’s Lucy McKim at the very end. She goes with her father to South Carolina during the Civil War. She’s been raised in this abolitionist household, her father is the head of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, and she wishes she were a man so she could join the Union Army and also wants to be a professional musician. She goes down as a nineteen-year-old to South Carolina, which was at that time held Union territory, and the emotionality she has in her letters that she has about what she sees there was amazing to me. She grew up in this abolitionist family, her house was a stop on the Underground Railroad, and she goes to South Carolina and sees slavery and says, “How lukewarm we have been”– her dad went and helped John Brown’s wife retrieve his body.
The reason it got cut out was, well, because it was too long. But it’s also because the banjo is largely gone from South Carolina. She is in the same place where this iconic image of the banjo in North America comes from in the Sea Islands, and there are no banjos. I explain that one of the reasons is because of the emergence of Christianity, and because the banjo was part of non-Christian religion, it has disappeared.
BFB: My impression had been that the banjo had disappeared from Black culture because of Blackface Minstrelsy, which was both ridiculing Black people and appropriating their music. But your last chapter talks about survivals, not only the rediscovery of Black banjo but where it had never disappeared.
KG: I don’t think it is wrong to call Blackface Minstrelsy a pop music craze, because that is really what it was. It took over, people were obsessed with it.
BFB: A long-lasting music craze!
KG: Very long-lasting craze. And there were Black Blackface Minstrels, African Americans who put on Blackface to be able to perform, because that’s what audiences wanted to see, and that’s how they could make money as musicians. Even outside of the scope of that commercial music form, which is related to the emergence of Vaudeville and Ragtime, underneath all of that, with the emergence of the commercially-made banjo, you have both white folks and Black folks using the banjo in vernacular music. There are Black fiddlers playing for dances, and Black string bands with guitar, fiddle, and banjo, or even jug band music. One of the things that happens–which is outside the scope of the book–is that at the beginning of the commercial recording era, you have recording companies saying that if you are white, it is country music, it is hillbilly music, and if you are Black, it is blues. You have Black folks who are playing country music, but they are not getting recorded, and if they are not getting recorded, they fall into obscurity. That’s on the commercial side. The folklorists who come and are looking for traditional music are interested in vestiges of white European culture in rural areas. They want to hear Elizabethan ballads or Irish folk tunes, and completely skip over Black banjo players or fiddlers. It’s really not until the mid-20th century when you get folklorists who start recording Black musicians, and those musicians are really old, and you realize that this tradition never died.
Kristina Gaddy will be in conversation with Jake Blount at the Enoch Pratt Free Library, Tuesday, October 4, 7 p.m. Details here. A performance by folk music band Silo, Seth Swingle and Fiona Balestrieri, will precede the program at 6:30 p.m.