Friday, April 24, 2009

Happy on the Shelf #6 – "Picturing the Banjo"

It’s been quite some time since I’ve posted a book review/appreciation—not that I haven’t been reading, but simply that my reading wasn’t connecting with ideas I could write about. However I recently enjoyed very much Picturing the Banjo, a wonderful book that was published in conjunction with an art exhibition of the same name. The exhibition & the book are explorations of the banjo’s cultural meanings.

As a musician, I think of an in
strument’s “meaning” primarily in terms of the sound it creates—although in my current musical incarnation I’m keeping things simple, just playing a resonator guitar & singing, in the past (& probably future, too), I’ve considered why we might want the sound of, say, an oboe instead of a clarinet or a banjo rather than a guitar in a given arrangement. While an instrument’s overall “aura” may have played a role in some arrangements we made with the Alice in Wonder Band or Five & Dime Jazz, the sound was always the primary consideration.

But while an instrument’s sound is unquestionably its primary “meaning,” it’s also true that all instruments encode additional cultural meanings—all objects do, really, whether the object is a banjo or a telephone or a little red wagon. We’re all aware of this at some level, & if we think about any well-known musical instrument, we can probably begin to enumerate its cultural meanings—just to discuss some that are close to my heart, the guitar, for instance, has (most unfortunately, in my opinion) become endowed with a phallicized machismo in the wake of its deification in the rock world & in its current status as a video game “weapon” (e.g., Guitar Hero). It’s interesting to consider that 100 years or so ago, the guitar was considered a “feminine” instrument—a parlor instrument suitable for ladies in much the same way that certain instruments (the flute, for instance) have been “feminized” in our own time. The uke, on the other hand, has often served to some extent as an ironic prop (even for good players) simply because of its size & its reputation as a “toy” instrument. In a decided twist on that theme, it also seems that the uke these days is sometimes used subversively in the “Rock the Uke” & neo-cabaret movements—I’d conjecture that this also places the uke as an object in relation to the guitar, but in a way that “deflates” the latter instrument’s current cultural meaning.

Picturing the Banjo contains six essays that discuss various cultural meanings of the banjo. Obviously, the banjo has had a most problematic symbolic life in the U.S. in terms of encoding racial issues, & this has been true since the earliest European settlements here—from Thomas Jefferson writing that “the banjar” is “the instrument proper to them” (i.e. African American slaves) thru the 19th century blackface minstrel shows & the impulse in both 20th century country & western & folk music (in the sense of the “folk movement” music) to square up the banjo’s edges & render its voice more palatable to a culture raised in the hegemony of 4/4 time with emphasis on rather straightforward underlying rhythms (for the musically inclined: 4/4 per se isn’t doomed to carry a straightforward rhythm—just listen to some of the great fingerstyle guitar players, or Jelly Roll Morton or Scott Joplin or any number of jazz greats—but culturally 4/4 tends to be dominated by either the preponderance of the “backbeat,” which at this point is pretty squared off, or the very straightforward 4/4 of much pop music).

OK, I’ll step down off the musical soapbox & return to the matter at hand. Picturing the Banjo is filled with images, & these range from paintings by renowned artists such as Mary Cassatt to popular objects such as 19th century mechanized banks & “presentation banjos,” another 19th century phenomenon involving banjos used solely or primarily as home décor. In general, the work focuses on two loci of the banjo’s cultural meaning as encoded in these images & objects—the banjo's rac
ial & gender meanings.

To state the obvious, th
e banjo has had a long history in the U.S. as a signifier of racial meaning. The 19th century cult of the minstrel show (which extended into the 20th century in blackface production numbers in films, from Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer to Bing Crosby in Holiday Inn) was very much centered on the banjo as it created a mythic &, in fact, insensitive & racist portrait of plantation life for African American slaves. Images of this sort can be found in sources ranging from Currier & Ives prints (which are discussed in Picturing the Banjo) to early 20th century sheet music.

There is also an in
teresting discussion of Thomas Hart Benton’s mural The Sources of Country Music, which is displayed in Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame. In this case, the banjo is given a central but “diminished” place in the portrayal of sources—the banjo player is located at the middle of the mural but is much smaller in scale than the singing cowboy to the right or the dulcimer player & singer to the left. Apparently the banjo had played a “larger” role in Benton’s preliminary sketches. It put me in mind of a young banjo student I had who was quite incredulous when I explained to him that the banjo was African in origin; he’d thought it was “invented in Tennessee.”

But the banjo’s cultural meaning as presented in Picturing the Banjo isn’t only
as a tool of oppression or co-option. In fact, the three most discussed images in Picturing the Banjo all present the banjo as a more positive cultural force. These images are Henry Ossawa Tanner’s The Banjo Lesson, Frances Benjamin Johnson’s photograph of Miss Apperson (used as the icon for our good friends Blueflint!) & Eastman Johnson’s Negro Life at the South.

The latter painting (from 1859) is cast as standing in opposition to the “happy pla
ntation” imagery, & as representing an acknowledgment of African Americans as human beings with a real (as opposed to culturally mythic) life. The central banjo player isn’t portrayed in a caricatured manner, & there are a number of other “humanizing” touches, such as the lovers to the left of the painting. Interestingly, the one white person in the painting, the woman entering the gate to the right, is observing this scene from a remove. It's also pointed out, however, that Johnson's painting rather quickly became known as Old Kentucky Home, & was also re-interpreted by pro-slavery forces as buttressing their position, & was re-visited in contemporary prints that tended to revise the scene into racist caricatures. Given the historical context, even a nuanced scene such as Johnson's couldn't escape this cultural vexation.

Tanner’s The Banjo Lesson is discussed as an example of an African American artist restoring dignity to an object that had been caricatured. The older African American man is portrayed with a quiet dignity, lovingly teaching a child to play the banjo. One essayist, Leo G. Mazow, does have an interesting twist on this image, postulating that the painting’s dignity comes at a “sonic” price—that the quietude portrayed here suggests that there wasn’t a way of also restoring the banjo’s liveliness in the cultural context of the work’s creation (The Banjo Lesson dates from 1893).

As I mentioned, the banjo’s meanings regarding gender issues also receives attention. Johnson’s photo of Miss Apperson receives considerable discussion, as it subverts a stock image of the virginal maiden & the goddess of flowers by placing a young woman in a casual pose playing a banjo in the same context. Mary Cassatt’s painting The Banjo Lesson is discussed as a portrayal of emancipation, of women allowing themselves to take up an instrument that wasn’t seen culturally as “feminine.” In this context, however, there’s also intriguing discussion about how the banjo became transformed into a “parlor” instrument late in the 19th century; the discussion of the change in playing style from the percussive African down stroke (now known as clawhammer or frailing) to the guitar-style upward “pluck” may be of particular interest to banjoists.

Those who are interested in the banjo or 19th & 20th century U.S. art, or who are interested in the examination of cultural history thru objects will be fascinated by this work—I recommend it highly.

Pics from top:
Picturing the Banjo, "Happy on the Shelf"
Mary Cassat, The Banjo Lesson
Eastman Johnson, Negro Life at the South
Thomas Hart Benton, The Sources of Country Music
Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Banjo Lesson
Frances Benjamin Johnson, Miss Apperson


  1. That is a book review that is more than a book review; it is an education in itself. At the very least it is an excellent introduction to a fascinating subject. I can appreciate it on a whole range of levels. It is certainly a book I would like to read and a subject I would like to research - I'm not saying that I will, but you have given me the desire. No small achievement, that.

  2. Thanks Dave:

    Very much appreciate that. It is a book that's well worth a look into, for certain, & am gratified that you found this interesting.


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