Welcome to Banjo Friday! We’ve got a good old-time tune for you & a little bit of old-time music history too.
So here’s a serious question to start off: given that the banjo is African in origin & first came to North America with African slaves, why is it that so few African-Americans are represented on old-time, banjo or string band records? The answer to that one is complex, certainly—these days, the Carolina Chocolate Drops have almost single-handedly been bringing the African-American roots of string band music back into the limelight, but with a few exceptions, this type of music has been largely the provenance of European American musicians, at least as far as one might determine from evidence left by the recording industry.
In the 1920s—a real “boom” decade for the music recording industry in many ways—labels often categorized what might be called “folk music” as two types: “race” & “hillbilly.” The meanings of those categories is straightforward, & it appears that the marketing of the records was straightforward, too: “race” records were marketed to the black community (which, in the 1920s was still largely located in the South) & “hillbilly” records to the white community, & again, with special focus on the South.
We now know, of course, that the African-American string band tradition continued to flourish in parts of the South, at least in pockets, but rather than focusing on this type of music for the “race records” series, labels sought out blues musicians. Meanwhile, the same labels sought out white musicians who played the old hoedowns, ballads & fiddle tunes for their “hillbilly” series. There were exceptions to this—John & Alan Lomax field recorded a number of African American musicians playing string band music; but these were exceptions that proved the overall commercial rule.
Nonetheless, while they weren’t captured on the early recordings, & thus were neglected in the frenzy of “rediscoveries” that followed the 78 collecting fad & its cultural high-water mark, the Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music, there were plenty of great old-time banjoists & fiddlers in the African American community. Joe Thompson, who was crucial in bringing Rhiannon Giddens, Dom Flemons & Justin Robinson (et al.) together as the Carolina Chocolate Drops, is just the best-known figure.
Today’s tune comes from a Smithsonian Folkways album that celebrates this tradition: Black Banjo Songsters of North Carolina and Virginia. “Old Rattler” features the clawhammer banjo playing of John Snipes, who is playing a fretless banjo tuned to gDGAD—an interesting tuning that I know a little from playing around with the tune “Willie Moore,” which in old-time banjo circles is often played in this tuning. The tuning is interesting because it gives us two sets of notes a fifth apart: G & D, & D & A; this lends itself very readily to modal playing. The tuning is also called “Moonshiner,” as the old-time song of that name also is played in the gDGAD tuning.
If you know the song "Old Rattler" by Grand Ol'Opry star Grandpa Jones (himself a clawhammer banjoist of considerable skill) I should say: the two songs have little in common except the title—hope you enjoy it!