When blacks were shipped to America as slaves they were stripped of their language and culture. They were mixed in different language groups and crammed into slave ships with little more than some minimal clothing. They had to learn pidgin English just to have a common language, and their music became a hybrid as well, combining bits of the European with elements of various West African cultures.
In their new surroundings there were two possibilities available to the musically-inclined: they could make use of instruments provided by their white masters, or they could construct their own instruments. Of European origin were the band instruments: trumpets, tubas, trombones, clarinets, cymbals, snares and big bass drums; also the strings like violins and cellos, and the piano. Their own instruments were reed flutes, kazoos, gourd banjos and an amazing range of percussive rattles, sticks, drums and tambourines. In antebellum New Orleans, the slave population gathered in Congo Square, on their Sunday afternoons off, and had a good old-fashioned West African hoedown.
“Going up St. Peters Street & approaching the common I heard a most extraordinary noise, which I supposed to proceed from some horse mill, the horses trampling on a wooden floor. I found . . that it proceeded from a crowd of 5- or 600 persons assembled in an open space or public square. I went to the spot & crowded near enough to see the performance. All those who were engaged in the business seemed to be ‘blacks.’ I did not observe a dozen yellow faces. They were formed into circular groupes . . . the largest not 10 feet in diameter. In the first were two women dancing. They held each a coarse handkerchief extended by the corners in their hands, & set to each other in a miserably dull & slow figure, hardly moving their feet or bodies. The music consisted of two drums and a stringed instrument. An old man sat astride of a cylindrical drum about a foot in diameter, & beat it with incredible quickness with the edge of his hand and fingers. The other drum was an open staved thing held between the knees and beaten in the same manner. The most curious instrument, however, was a stringed instrument which no doubt was imported from Africa. On the top of the fingerboard was the rude figure of a man in a sitting posture, & two pegs behind him to which the strings were fastened. The body was a calabash.” (Latrobe 49)
|Latrobe's drawing of the stringed instrument.|
The above description of an afternoon in Congo Square comes from Benjamin Latrobe of Philadelphia who kept a journal of his travels in the 1820's. He has "no doubt" that the stringed instrument was "imported from Africa," which is to say that it was of African origin. Whether it physically made its way across the ocean is another matter. Latrobe also made note of three other musical instruments, and happily for us, made sketches of all six.
“One, which from the color of the wood seemed new, consisted of a block cut into something of the form of a cricket bat with a long and deep mortice down the center. This thing made a considerable noise, being beaten lustily on the side by a short stick. In the same orchestra was a square drum, looking like a stool, which made an abominably loud noise; also a calabash with a round hole in it, the hole studded with brass nails, which was beaten by a woman with two short sticks.” (50)
The banjo was a popular instrument in 19th Century minstrel shows and is often remembered in conjunction with plantation Negroes and Stephen Foster songs. Most literature on the banjo tends to describe a stringed instrument with a gourd resonator, like the one described by Latrobe.
Other Banjo Stories
Between 1746 snd 1757 a slave dealer named Nicholas Owen reported an instrument played by the blacks "up Sharbro" in Sierra Leone, and instrument made of wood that sounded to him " like a bad fidle." It was called a Banjelo. (Epstein 213)
An even earlier reference is from Jamaica in 1740 by one Charles Leslie. He mentions a slave instrument called a "bangil" which was "not unlike our Lute in any Thing but the Musick." (Abrahams 282) In other words, the instrument itself was like a lute, but what the musicians were doing with it was something else. In 1793 Bryan Edwards reported from the West Indies, "they have the Banjo or Merriwong . . . [which] is an imperfect kind of violin cello (292), and in 1806 George Pinckard, also from the West Indies, mentioned the "banjar" as being "a coarse and rough kind of guitar." (294) In an article published in 1810, Fr. Richard de Tussac gives a detailed description of the making of a "banza" by French colonial blacks.
“They cut lengthwise through the middle of a calabash. This fruit is sometimes eight inches or more in diameter. They stretch upon it the skin of a goat which they adjust round the edges with little nails; then a piece of lath or flat wood makes the handle of the guitar; then they stretch three cords of pitre (a kind of hemp taken from the agave plant), and the instrument is finished. (Epstein 217)
Clearly, then, while the name "banjo" is of African derivation, Africans seem to have had a wide variety of instuments similar to European guitars, lutes and violins which used gourds or calabashes instead of wooden resonators, and went under a variety of names including banza, banjar, bangil or bonja.
Me envy not dhe white man dhen,
Me poor but me is gay;
Me glad at heart, me happy when
Me on my bonja play. (Abrahams 18)
Though the banjo was clearly an African invention, and through Minstrelsy and the image of the contented plantation Negro used to be associated with African-Americans, the banjo as we now know it is a white man's instrument. The last of the serious black banjo players were in the early Dixieland jazz bands; it was the only stringed instruments that could compete with the sound of the horns in the days before amplification. The only solo blues banjoist of repute was Papa Charlie Jackson in the mid-1920's. The fiddle, and most particularly the guitar, are much closer to the African musical style. As a percussive member of jazz bands,the banjo was four-stringed; now as a bluegrass and olde tyme country music instrument, it has acquired a fifth string.
|Danny Barker circa 1990, New Orleans.|
The accordion, which was developed in Central Europe early in the nineteenth century, was introduced to south Louisiana Cajuns by German immigrants in the 1880's (Ancelet 22) and was simultaneosly brought to north Louisiana and Texas by German settlers. Although the accordion continues to be enormously popular amongst the Cajuns and Mexican Americans, it is now an uncommon instrument in the north of Louisiana. It has become virtually extinct since the early 1950's, when some white country dance bands used piano accordions.
There is a windjammer in the Caddo-Pine Island Museum in Oil City, on Caddo Lake, and there is one at the Pioneer Heritage Center at Louisiana State University in Shreveport. The latter can be traced directly to German origins. A lonely written reference to the accordion in regional black folk traditions occurs in a 1950 article by a local artist named Don Brown. Brown, who taught at Centenary College in Shreveport, and had a camp on Caddo Lake, told of a black "concertina" player named Albert Vaughn. Marshall, Texas, attorney Franklin Jones, Sr., also remembers Vaughn and a group of black musicians who jammed together at his place on Caddo Lake. Don Brown also wrote that guitars and banjos could be found in most (black) homes in the region.
The accordion can be a very loud instrument, and in the era before amplification, it was well-suited to playing for dances. There is no doubt that electrification has in some part accounted for the increased popularity of the guitar in dance bands, and the decreased popularity of the banjo, the fiddle and the accordion. In the late nineteenth century, the instruments of choice amongst black musicians in North Louisiana were guitar, piano, harmonica, fiddle, and mandolin, but the latter two instruments have, since the early part of this century, joined the banjo in the domain of white musicians. It still seems odd that the accordion can have disappeared so totally from the traditional music of the area, while it has maintained its popularity and currency in the Cajun culture of South Louisiana and the Norteno culture of South and Central Texas. But that is what has happened.
The Caddo Lake region was slightly isolated from the mainstream; Franklin Jones calls it the outlaw country. Leadbelly's mastery of the accordion, mandolin, guitar, and twelve-string guitar, along with his dexterity on the harmonica, piano, and string-bass, attest to his considerable, though unusual, musical talent. He was quite at home around Caddo Lake, however.
It is worth noting that the twelve-string guitar is an uncommon instrument, so that claiming to be "King" is bravado mixed with a large dash of humor. There is only one other old-time blues player, Blind Willie McTell of Augusta, Georgia, who ever achieved fame on the instrument, which has not taken well to electrification. There are too many harmonic and, thus, discordant possibilities. However, the twelve-string is useful to a street musician because it can be louder than a regular, six-string guitar and can withstand a few broken strings before becoming unplayable.
The twelve-string guitar became established in Spain some time before 1780. It has much in common with the mandolin: in archaic terms, the twelve-string is a "six-course" instrument, really a six-string with two strings for each "course" instead of one (Turnbull 63). The mandolin, similarly, is a four-course instrument. There must have been something about the string arrangement that appealed to Huddie. It seems possible that he actually took up the twelve-string between 1925 and 1930 and not during an earlier sojourn in Dallas. The Stella guitar company produced most of its twelve-string models between the 1920's and the 1940's (Evans 258) and Huddie had one of them - painted green - when the Lomaxes found him in the Angola Prison Farm in 1933. But this idea is contrary to Huddie's own statements.
Guitars and fiddles supplied the music for the house dances, or "sukey jumps," that developed in the black community after the Civil War.
Where German settlers trod, in Louisiana and Texas for instance, accordions and harmonicas were introduced. In the white communities the square dance tunes were "Turkey in the Straw," "Bear Creek," "Nigger in the Woodpile," and "Arkansas Traveler." These same tunes were played in a more percussive style by blacks, though they might have inserted "Rats in the Meal Barrel" for "Nigger in the Woodpile."
While whites were "knocking the back-step," "cutting the pigeon wing," and dancing jigs, reels, hornpipes and Highland flings, blacks were doing the "cakewalk," the "grapevine twist," the "Delphi twirl," the "Eagle rock" and the stomp. These and other distinctive African American dances did not reach the ballrooms of polite white society until well after the turn of the century. Blacks were able to observe the goings-on in white society because they were often employed as musicians or domestics, but whites were generally ignorant of what was going on at the sukey jumps. Thus jazz took whites by surprise, and the blues was a revelation even to W.C. Handy, a black man with a formal musical training.
“A lean, loose-jointed Negro had commenced plunking a guitar beside me while I slept. His clothes were rags; his feet peeped out of his shoes. His face had on it some of the sadness of the ages. As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of the guitar in a manner popularized by Hawaiian guitarists who used steel bars. The effect was unforgettable. His song, too, struck me instantly.
‘Goin' where the Southern cross' the Dog.’
“The singer repeated the line three times, accompanying himself on the guitar with the weirdest music I had ever heard. The tune stayed in my mind.” (Handy 78)
For Handy it was the birth of the blues. He'd spent his young life to that point playing sheet music for society dances, both black and white, and had little contact with the working class blacks. He was able to transfer the blues to sheet music, too, and come up with hit tunes like the "Memphis Blues" and "St. Louis Blues." But Huddie Ledbetter had heard that music all his life.
“We used to do the "St. Louis Blues," and that was before W.C. Handy, when I was just a boy. We used to do the St. Louis song, you know, way down in Louisiana, and that was when I was a boy. And it wasn't written, it was just a real song, just made up. But anyhow, when I come to New York, we find out that W.C. Handy was the man that writ the music, and the words - "made it up." But that was when I was a boy, we used to sing that song.” (Last Sessions)