As you may know, next Tuesday is the Juneteenth holiday, commemorating the end of slavery in the state of Texas in 1865. Specifically, it’s understood as the date that the Emancipation Proclamation was recognized as law in Texas, & as such was a watershed day for the Proclamation becoming the law of the land not just in woird, but in action. While the holiday originated in Texas, it is now recognized as either a holiday or an “observance” in 41 states in addition to the District of Columbia.
Despite that official recognition, Juneteenth isn’t widely known, but it certainly deserves our attention. As my own small way of doing this, I wanted to bring it up in the context of Banjo Friday—because the banjo, with its African origin, followed by initial descriptions in which various European writers find it hardly “musical” at all, to its appropriation for mistrel shows & later morphing into a bluegrass instrument—is in itself a potent object that can teach a lot about shifting race relations & racial identity in the US. A great place to start exploring this is Picturing the Banjo (which I wrote about some time ago.)
One arc traced in Picturing the Banjo is the history of the African American community turning away from the banjo & the string music associated with it, because these were seen as hearkening back to slavery. Other writers on the history of the blues have conjectured that the development of this music around the turn of the 20th century was itself a reaction to the older music associated with the fiddle & the banjo, again because of the slavery connection. In this reading, the blues became a revolutionary music, a turning away from the past.
The reality is never quite that simple, of course. As we know from the great Carolina Chocolate Drops, the string band tradition never completely died out in the African American communities, especially in the south, & there were plenty of popular musicians who continued to incorporate fiddle & banjo music into the blues & some of its relations (like hot jazz & jug band music) thru the first few decades of the 20th century.
But while that arc isn’t true in anything like an absolute sense, it is generally true in terms of an overall trend. & not only was that a cultural trend within the black community; it also describes the musical development of a talented & intriguing musician named Otis Taylor, who’s made a name for himself over the past 17 years as a blues musician & composer of considerable talent & vision (in fact, Taylor also was a performing musician as a young man in the 1970s, but he walked away from it for almost 20 years.)
Taylor’s first instrument was the banjo; however, when he learned about its history of appropriation & minstrelsy, he put the instrument aside in favor of the guitar. However, in recent years, Talor has returned to the banjo, & in fact released Recapturing the Banjo on Telarc in 2008, a seminal contemporary banjo album on which Taylor is joined by the likes of Alvin Youngblood Hart, Keb’Mo’ & several other notable black blues artists to produce an album of reclamation.
Only in retrospect do we know both how much & how little was accomplished on June 19, 1865. There was the absolutely necessary implementation of the Emancipation Proclamation, & a literal end of the horrific institution of slavery; yet this was followed by the implementation of Jim Crow & the feudal sharecropping system. & let’s not delude ourselves that these problems were restricted to the south; in Boston, once the center of the abolition movement, school integration turned ugly even in the late 20th century. Also, while we’ve advanced culturally to the point that we can elect a black man as president, it’s disturbing to witness the unconscionably disrespectful treatment he’s received from a significant portion of the population, including elected officials at almost every level. We still have far to go.
Hope you enjoy the music, & hope you take the chance to follow some of the links & learn more about Juneteenth, Otis Taylor, & the banjo!
The photo shows the Juneteenth committee from 1900 in Austin, Texas. The image is in the public domain.