OFFICERSPresident: Dell Upton vice-President: Richard Priebe Secretary: D. Rosalind Hammond Treasurer: Fred F. Knobloch Archivist/Editor: Charles L. Perdue, Jr. Membership Chairman: Nancy J. Martin-Perdue Officer-at-Large: J. Roderick Moore Officer-at-Large: Natalie K. Moyle
HONORARY LIFETIME MEMBERSC.Alphonso Smith, Jr. Elmer Smith Fred F. Knobloch
The cover photograph, taken by Martin C. Perdue in the spring of 1976, is of the James Morgan Jarrell homestead located on U.S. Highway 29 at Shelby, Virginia--about 20 miles north of Charlottesville. One can see the evolution of the homestead over time as larger living units of different 'styles' were added. A further evolution occurred when the present owner abandoned the old home and moved into a modern brick rambler--shown at the left of the photograph.
[Inside front cover]
Volume 1       1979
|A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE VIRGINIA FOLKLORE SOCIETY |
by Charles L. Perdue, Jr.
|The BLACK BANJO-PLAYING TRADITION IN VIRGINIA AND WEST
by Robert B. Winans
|'TIPPY' RHODES: A BLACK STREET DANCER IN
CHARLOTTESVILLE, VIRGINIA |
by Thomas E. Barden
|INSULT AND SLANDER IN SEVENTEENTH-CENTURY VIRGINIA |
by Mary C. Beaudry
|COMMUNICATING WITH CRITTERS |
by Elmer Smith
|NOTES & QUERIES||59|
|BLACK MUSIC AND TALES FROM JEFFERSON'S MONTICELLO |
by Elizabeth Langhorne
|FRESH PEANUTS IS THE BEST OF ALL: A STREET CRY FROM
SUFFOLK, VIRGINIA |
by Anne Warner
|VERNACULAR ARCHITECTURE IN VIRGINIA: A BIBLIOGRAPHY |
by Dell Upton
[End page 1]
EDITORS TYPISTS Charles I. Perdue, Jr. Charles L. Perdue, Jr. Dell Upton Nancy J. Martin-Perdue Janet Marinelli LAYOUT & GRAPHICS Nancy J Martin-Perdue Nancy J. Martin-Perdue
The publication of this issue of the journal has been assisted by a grant from the Virginia Commission of the Arts and Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts.
The Virginia Folklore Society was founded April 17, 1913, in
Richmond, Virginia, It was incorporated as a non-profit,
tax-exempt, educational organization in Charlottesville,
Virginia, March 9, 1974.
Folklore and Folklife in Virginia, the Society's
journal, is published annually. Copies of the journal may be
purchased by members of the Virginia Folklore Society for $2.50;
and by non-members for $4.00. [Note: This issue of the
Journal, Volume 1, 1979, is out-of-print and no longer
available. Subsequent journals have not been published
annually, only as occasional issues.]
Annual membership dues for Society members are: $5.00
(Individual); $7 50 (Family); $3.00 (Student); $25.00 (Patron);
$50.00 (Sustaining). [For more information on joining the
society, go to the Membership
Editorial Policy: Folklore and Folklife in
Virginia is intended to serve primarily as a forum for the
presentation of articles dealing with Virginia folk culture and
secondarily as a forum for folklore scholars teaching/living in
Virginia but dealing with folklore outside the Commonwealth We
will consider for publication articles based on fieldwork;
articles of a theoretical nature; and collectanea of folklore
materials. We hope to strike a balance in these matters but that
will, of course, depend on the availability of publishable
material. Unsolicited manuscript materials should be accompanied
by a self-addressed, stamped return envelope.
Viewpoints expressed in articles published in this journal are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or of the Virginia Folklore Society.
All correspondence should be addressed to:
C. Alphonso Smith, Sr.
Arthur Kyle Davis, Jr
Ben C. Moomaw, Jr.
A Brief History of THE VIRGINIA FOLKLORE
[Note: "A Brief History of The Virginia Folklore
Society," by Charles L. Perdue, Jr. will not be included
here. This article, which was about 2 ½ pages in length, was
used as the basis for a revised and greatly expanded version of
the Society's history by Nancy Martin-Perdue, "The Virginia
Folklore Society: A Retrospective", published in Folklore
and Folklife in Virginia, Volume 4, 1988. The endnotes for
the original article also included some material presently found
in the "Guide to VFS Archives". Both the "Retrospective" and
the "Guide" can be viewed on the From the
[End pages 4-6]
The Black Banjo-Playing Tradition in Virginia
and West Virginia
In 1781, Thomas Jefferson wrote in Notes on the State of
Virginia that "The instrument proper to [blacks]
is the Banjar, which they brought hither from Africa, and which
is the original of the guitar, its lower chords being precisely
the four lower chords of the guitar."1 While Jefferson
was wrong about the banjo being the original of the guitar, he
was right about its having been brought from Africa and about its
being "proper" to blacks, which I take to mean uniquely their
instrument and rather widely played by them.2
Both these facts have been denied at times in writings about
the history of the banjo. However, even the characteristic fifth
string or short thumb string of the banjo, the invention of which
legend has attributed to Joel Walker Sweeney of Appomattox,
Virginia, seems likely to have been a black invention. A
watercolor entitled "The Old Plantation" at the Abby Aldrich
Rockefeller Collection of American Folk Art in Colonial
Williamsburg shows that the short thumb string was in existence
on at least some banjos as early as 1800, well before Sweeney,
who was born in 1813, is supposed to have invented it. The
watercolor, painted in South Carolina sometime between 1777 and
1800, depicts a group of slaves dancing to the music of black
musicians playing drums and a banjo. The banjo has three
full-length strings and a short string going only part way up the
neck. If Sweeney added any strings at all, he may have added
another full-length string to extend the range downward.
Until recently, little evidence that a black banjo-playing
tradition had survived into the twentieth century had been
collected and many people assumed that it had not. But it did
[End page 7]
part of an Afro-American banjo/fiddle tradition very similar to the better-known Anglo-American tradition of old-time string band music. In this essay, I will trace the history of black banjo playing in Virginia, and discuss contemporary black banjo players in Virginia and West Virginia--especially their playing styles, repertoire, and interactions with white musicians.3 I will show that the tradition has survived in Virginia, and that it was very active until a generation ago. The tradition is less active now because the dances which created its demand have largely disappeared.
Oral histories collected from living black banjo players trace
an active black banjo tradition back two generations, back at
least as far as the Civil War. And scattered documentary evidence
records the tradition in Virginia even further back--to the
middle of the eighteenth century.
The thirteen black banjo players discussed here range in age
from their mid-forties to their mid-nineties, though most are in
their fifties, sixties, or seventies. All learned to play when
they were young, between the ages of eight and sixteen, at a time
which they say was a very active period for black string band,
banjo/fiddle music. This period, as defined by the dates they
learned to play, extends from around 1910 to around 1940. All of
the contemporary players could name several people of their
parents' generation who were then active players and who taught
them to play.
The youngest of the group, Bob Jones, is in his mid-forties,
and he's lived in Bedford, Virginia (Bedford County), all his
life. His father played blues guitar (as his brother, Ray, now
does) and frailed the banjo. An even more important influence on
Jones's playing was his mother's brother, Uncle Henry Robinson,
who still lives nearby. Now 76 and no longer able to play, he
once was an accomplished frailer. Also under fifty is "Big Sweet"
Lewis Hairston, who has lived most of his adult life near
Martinsville, Virginia (Henry County), though he was born in 1929
[End page 8]
McDowell County, West Virginia.4 Hairston has been playing the banjo since he was around eleven. He learned from an uncle, who also played fiddle and guitar, and from other, older black banjo players, all of whom frailed.
Three of the musicians are in their fifties. John Jackson,
born in 1924 and raised in Woodville, Virginia (Rappahannock
County), now lives in Fairfax County. He has also been playing
banjo (and guitar, for which he is better known) since he was
eleven. His father, who was born in 1888, played the banjo, but
Jackson says he could never figure out what his father was doing,
since he played left-handed. So he learned more from his Uncle
Jim Clark, who played in a drop-thumb trailing style, and from a
number of other banjo players in the neighborhood, especially
French Turner. Irvin Cook, also born in 1924, has always lived in
Henry County, Virginia. As a boy he learned to play banjo in a
two-finger picking style from his father, Sylvester Cook, born in
the 1890's.5 Cook frequently plays with Leonard
Bowles, who accompanies him on fiddle. Bowles, born in 1919 in
Henry County, where he still lives, also plays the banjo. He took
it up only a few years ago, after a banjo-playing uncle died, so
that the tradition would not also die. Bowles's mother and an
aunt also played the banjo; they frailed it while his uncle used
a two-finger picking style.
Among the three informants in their sixties is Rufus Kasey,
whose family has lived in Huddleston, Virginia (Bedford County),
for several generations. Kasey was born in 1918 and has been
playing the banjo since he was eight. His father (1882-1946) and
all of his uncles played in a drop-thumb frailing style, as did a
number of other black banjo players in the area. Like most of the
other banjo players noted here, Kasey and his father played
mostly for local dances, usually with fiddlers and sometimes also
a guitarist. Robert Stuart, born in 1916 in Check, Virginia
(Floyd County), where he has always lived, learned his frailing
style as a boy from a much older cousin who was a sort of uncle
to him. His wife's brother also used to play banjo. John Lawson
Tyree lives in Sontag, Virginia (Franklin County), a few miles
from where he
[End page 9]
was born in 1915. He has a sister who used to play banjo and guitar. They both learned from their mother's family, several of whom played banjo and fiddle. Tyree learned primarily from his uncle, Torrance Wade; another uncle, Jack Wade, also played. Tyree and his wife have very fond memories of the dances he used to play for, accompanied by other black musicians, usually fiddlers.
John Calloway is one of the four musicians in their seventies.
He was born in 1906 in Franklin County, Virginia, but has lived
forthe last sixty years in Henry County. When he was a boy, he
learned his frailing style from older, local black banjo
players.6 James "Clinks" Fantleroy was also born in
1906, near Tappahannock, Virginia (Essex County), where he still
lives today. He and his good friend, Peter Bundy, born a year
earlier and also raised in the area, were semi-professional
musicians for many years. Fantleroy played primarily the guitar-
and Bundy the fiddle, though they both also play the banjo, and
Bundy the mandolin and guitar as well. There seems to have been
little or no musical tradition in their families, but as boys
both were inspired to learn the banjo by an older black player,
William Giles, who passed through their area. Uncle Homer Walker
was born in 1904 and raised in Summers County, West Virginia, and
for the past twenty or so years, he's lived just across the
border in Glen Lyn, Virginia (Giles County). He started playing
the banjo when he was seven or eight. His brothers were also
musicians and played guitar, fiddle, and mandolin. He learned to
play banjo from his mother, who was born in the 1870s, and an
uncle. Other black banjo and fiddle players in the Summers County
area also influenced him.
The one musician in his nineties is Clarence Tross, born in 1884 in Hardy County, West Virginia, where he lived his whole life, as his father had before him. Tross learned to play from his father, Andy Tross, who was born around 1850 and died around 1910. He also had an uncle, Mose, who played fiddle with his father at frequently held dances.7
At least one white banjo player remembers black banjo players
[End page 10]
Virginia from early in this century. Dock Bogg said:
When I was a young boy 12 or 13 years of age [i.e., around 1910], my younger brother Rosco brought a colored man home with him one evening who played [banjo] with a brass band that used to be around Norton [Wise County, Virginia]. I heard him play "Alabama Negro." He played with his forefinger and next finger--two fingers and thumb.Boggs implies that much of his style is based on what he heard from these black players. (I am sure that other white banjo players could also talk about black players, if they were asked the right questions.)
There was a colored string band playing for a dance in Norton. I stuck my head in the door and I liked the way the banjo-player played, so I said to myself, "I am going to learn to play that way and I am going to pick it plain so that people will know what I am trying to play.8
Nearly all of the informants said that there were generally a
lot of black banjo (and fiddle) players in the previous
generation and that they played frequently at dances. It all adds
up to substantial evidence of a very active black tradition of
banjo/fiddle music fifty to seventy years ago. Those from whom
the informants learned were adults during this period, so,
assuming that they too had learned when they were young, the
tradition must have existed back as far as around 1890. In fact,
oral histories from some of the informants provide specific
information for tracing the tradition back even further than
Bob Jones's grandfather, Ellie Robinson, played banjo in a
frailing style. He was probably born in the 1870s and presumably
learned to play in the 1880s in the Bedford area. In nearby
Huddleston, both of Rufus Kasey's grandfathers played frailing
style banjo (Bob Jones and Rufus Kasey are actually distant
cousins). Kasey's father (1882-1946) learned to play from them,
and Kasey himself was directly influenced by them, since they
were alive and still playing when he was young and learning to
play. Kasey thinks that they were probably both born sometime in
Two others could also trace their traditions back to someone
born around 1850. Uncle Homer Walker lived for a while with his
[End page 11]
grandfather and learned banjo from him (as well as his mother and an uncle, as noted above). His grandfather was born a slave in West Virginia, probably around 1850. Walker claims that he lived to be 102 and died some twenty-odd years ago. As previously mentioned, Clarence Tross's influences can be dated to the 1850s.
These black banjo players born sometime around the 1850s
indicate that a tradition of black banjo playing extends as far
back as the 1860s at least. How active or widespread the
tradition was in Virginia and West Virginia at that time is not
clear from the oral evidence, but my guess is that if all the
informants could supply information going back this far, the
outlines of a tradition just as active then as it was fifty years
later would be apparent.
Documentary evidence shows that a black banjo tradition
existed in Virginia not only during the Civil War years, but also
up to a hundred years earlier. This documentary evidence is
summarized in the following table of historical references to
black banjo playing. Much of it has already been made available
by Dena Epstein in her 1975 article in
Ethnomusicology, "The Folk Banjo: A
Documentary History," and in her more recent book, Sinful
Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War. I
have gone back to her original sources to get more specific
information about location for the Virginia references, and I
have added a number of references from sources she does not
utilize, especially ex-slave interviews.
|1850s-1860s||dances||Suffolk (Nansemond Co.)11|
|[End page 12]|
|1850s-1860s||songs and dances||Charlotte Co.12|
|1850s-1860s||dances--with fiddles, tambourines, bones||Yanceyville14|
|1850s-1860s||songs and dances||Forest (Bedford Co.)15|
|1853||dance--with fiddle, bones||Lynchburg16|
|1840s-1850s||with fiddles||King George Co.19|
|1840s-1850s||dances--with fiddle||Franklin Co., near Rocky Mount 20|
|1830s-1850s||dances||Prince George Co.21|
|1839-1842||dances--with fiddles||Mecklenburg Co.23|
|1830s||dance||Prince Edward Co., lower end24|
|1832||songs and dances||between Richmond and Jamestown25|
|1820s||not specified||toured Northern Neck, Fredericksburg, Charlottesville, Richmond, Norfolk26|
|1820s||taught Joel Sweeney||Appomattox Co.27|
|1781||not specified||Virginia, esp. Albemarle Co.31|
|1755-1780||not specified||Nansemond Co., near Suffolk32|
|late 1760s||dances||toured Norfolk, Jamestown, Richmond, Petersburg south to North Carolina34|
|1759-1775||songs and dances||Caroline and King George Co. 35|
The documentary evidence depicts a continuous line of black
banjo players in Virginia as far back as the middle of the
eighteenth century. How widespread the tradition was at various
[End page 13]
along the way is difficult to say. Some of the sources refer only to individual players, but a third of them, distributed throughout the century between the 1760s and the 1860s, specifically make a case for the general popularity of the instrument among Virginia blacks. It is also useful to point out that, for the century just mentioned, more historical references to black banjo playing have been found for Virginia than for any other state. This may have as much to do with the distribution of historical documents as it does with the distribution of black banjo playing, but it is a point worth noting.
The geographical distribution of these citations within the
state of Virginia is also interesting. Nearly all are located in
Tidewater and Piedmont Virginia; in the early part of the period
they are mostly from the Tidewater area, and in the latter part
of the period some are at the very western edge of the Piedmont.
This distribution is not too surprising, given the pattern of
settlement in Virginia, but it does indicate that this area
should be subject to more fieldwork than it has been so
far--especially, I would say, the Northern Neck and the area
south of Richmond, west of Norfolk, and east of Danville.
Three other observations about these historical references are
also important. The majority specifically connect the banjo
playing with dancing, just as the contemporary informants do,
indicating continuity in the primary function of the instrument.
In addition, again consonant with oral testimony relating to the
late nineteenth and the twentieth centuries, a number of the
documentary citations mention the banjo and fiddle together.
Since the principal focus of this essay is the banjo, many
references to black fiddlers will not be discussed. The point is
that black banjo playing is only one-half of a continuous
tradition of banjo/fiddle music functioning primarily as dance
The third observation is more speculative, but still worth
discussing; it deals with the number of strings the black folk
banjo had in earlier periods. Most of the sources do not mention
[End page 14]
precise number of strings on the banjos they refer to; in fact, only two make unequivocal statements: Jefferson said there were four and John Smyth specified three.37 This is meager evidence, but it, along with other non-Virginia references, suggests that in the early period the form of the instrument was probably variable. By the middle of the nineteenth century, however, this was no longer true. Lewis Miller's 1853 sketch is a little ambiguous, since it shows six tuning pegs on the peghead but only five strings and five knots at the tailpiece; but the testimony of Clarence Tross, Rufus Kasey, and Uncle Homer Walker, based in all three cases on direct knowledge, is quite clear. Pross's father, Walker's grandfather, and both of Kasey's grandfathers, who were all born around 1850 and probably learned to play banjo in the 1860s, all played five-string banjos. So it seems safe to speculate that sometime between the 1760s and the 1860s, the form of the banjo in black folk tradition became standardized at five strings.
We know that the five-string banjo became standard in the
minstrel shows by the mid-1840s at the latest, and probably
earlier. It seems quite possible that the extremely popular
minstrel show brought standardization to the form of the banjo
played in black folk tradition, as well as having been of great
importance in introducing the banjo to large numbers of whites.
This standardization, in fact, may be Joel Walker Sweeney's real
claim to fame. He may have been the first to popularize the
five-string form of the instrument, causing the minstrel show to
adopt it, and thereby influencing all other banjo traditions.
This is all somewhat speculative; the five-string banjo may
already have existed in black folk tradition before Sweeney and
the minstrel show arrived on the scene; but even if that were the
case, I suspect that it was still only one of several forms, and
that it took Sweeney and the minstrels to actually standardize
Contemporary black banjo players in Virginia and West
[End page 15]
use two basic playing styles: a down-stroking, frailing technique and an up-stroking, two-finger (meaning one finger and the thumb) picking technique. There are, of course, many individual variations on these basic styles, so no two players sound exactly alike.
Least numerous are those who play only in the two-finger,
thumb-lead, picking style. They include "Big Sweet" Lewis
Hairston, whose style is hard-driving, somewhat syncopated, and
rather bluegrassy, and Irvin Cook, whose style is a more
straightforward, old-time, two-finger picking.
Five of the thirteen banjo players studied play only in a
frailing style. Uncle Homer Walker plays in a fairly
uncomplicated, non-drop-thumb frailing style, as does Bob
Jones.38 John Lawson Tyree uses a non-drop-thumb
frailing technique which incorporates a fair amount of
syncopation. Leonard Bowle's non-drop-thumb frailing places
little emphasis on melody and heavy emphasis on rhythm, though
without much syncopation. John Calloway also plays in a rather
non-melodic style, though his playing is so rusty that it is hard
to know exactly what his style is, or was.
The other six informants use both styles; in all instances,
though, the frailing style is used more commonly than the finger
picking style. Due to severe arthritis, Clinks Fantleroy no
longer plays the banjo (and the guitar, his main instrument, only
a little), but he says that he once both frailed and picked. His
friend, Peter Bundy, plays a normal banjo left-handed, so both
his picking and pseudo-frailing style are a little strange. The
tapes of Clarence Tross's playing that I have heard (recorded and
graciously made available to me by Mike Seeger) indicate that in
addition to simple two-finger picking and standard drop-thumb
frailing styles, Tross played at least one piece in a modified
frailing style which reverses the flow of the stroke (so that the
thumb note rather than the finger note comes on the beat) and
creates considerable syncopation. John Jackson plays the banjo in
two- and three-finger picking styles, in a straight non-drop
[End page 16]
thumb frailing style, and in a unique style of his own that starts as a frailing down-stroke and ends as picking, producing a very full, rippling sound. Rufus Kasey plays the banjo most often in a rather syncopated non-drop-thumb frailing style, but he occasionally finger-picks a tune, usually a bluesy one, with two fingers. Robert Stuart does not play much anymore but, when coaxed, plays mostly in a simple non-drop-thumb frailing style, though he used two-finger picking on one piece he played for me.
Contemporary black banjo-playing tradition in Virginia, then,
includes both frailing and finger picking, with some musicians
using only one or the other, but many capable of using both. I
was unable to find a coherent pattern of distribution of frailing
vs. picking styles; they both seem to be spread throughout the
region. Overall, frailing is more common. Among those who frail,
only a couple use a drop-thumb technique; most use the thumb only
on the fifth string. Other features common to both basic styles
among these musicians are slides and the frequent use of
hammer-ons and pull-offs with the left hand to get extra notes.
Rarely do any of them play above the fifth fret.
The way in which these musicians tune their instruments is
somewhat related to their playing styles so they use several
different tunings, all of which are also known and used by white
banjo players. The most common tuning is the G-tuning, gDGBD,
also called "high bass" by some. The next most frequently used
tuning, sometimes called "low bass," is the C-tuning, gCGBD. An
open D-tuning, aDF#AD, is used for "Reuben" and a few other
pieces, and the "Cuckoo" tuning, a modal tuning, gDGCD, is used
for "Cuckoo Bird" and several other pieces. The "Fox Chase"
tuning, gDGAD, is used only for that piece. Nearly all of the
informants tuned their instruments somewhat below standard pitch,
and a few tuned them quite far below.
Both frailing and picking were also known to the previous
generation of players, back at the turn of the century, although
[End page 17]
was probably even more prevalent then than it is now. And more of the frailers used a drop-thumb technique in that generation than today. For instance, Rufus Kasey does not drop his thumb, but says that his father and uncles did in their playing. As yet I have found no evidence of anything but frailing among black players two generations ago, back into the 1860s. A slight amount of documentary evidence lends support to the thesis that the earliest black playing style in Virginia was probably a kind of frailing, not finger picking.
William Smith's comments about a "beer dance" in the 1830s
include some remarks that relate, indirectly, to playing style.
He attributes the "pleasurable hilarity" of the scene, not to the
persimmon beer, which he feels is not intoxicating, but rather to
the "wild notes of the 'banjor"':
There is an indescribable something in the tones of this rude instrument, that strikes the most delicate and refined ear with pleasing emotion; the uninterrupted twang or vibration of its strings, produces a sound as it dies away, that borders on the sublime. I never could account for its wonderful effect on a well-organized ear, capable of distinguishing and appreciating agreeable sounds; unless it be admitted, that concord and discord are so completely blended as to produce perfect harmony.
These roundabout remarks would seem to suggest that there was
something strange yet pleasing about the sound of the banjo to
one used to European music. Further on, he speaks of the "ban-
jor-man. . .Tumming his banjor, grinning with ludicrous
gesticulations and playing off his wild notes to the company,"
and of "the banjor's tum, tum,
tum."39 The wildness of the sound, the
uninterrupted twang, and the tum, tum, tumming are all more
suggestive of the sound of a frailed banjo than a finger-picked
one. In the 1760s, Jonathan Boucher suggested some of the same
qualities in his description of the banjo: "Its sound is a dull,
heavy, grumbling murmur; yet it is not without something like
melody, nor incapable of inspiring cheerfulness and
mirth."40 Interpreting Smith's and Boucher's remarks
as evidence that a frailing style was used may be somewhat
conjectural, but other remarks provide comparisons that make this
interpretation more substantial.
[End page 18]
In 1799, Thomas Fairfax recorded the following impression of black banjo playing:
He appeared to be quite an adept on this African instrument, which tho it may not bear a comparison with the Guitar, is certainly Capable of Conveying much pleasure to a musical ear. Its wild notes of melody seem to Correspond with the state of Civilization of the Country where this species of music originated.41Here are the "wild notes" again, and an awareness that the banjo sounded quite different from a guitar, which at this time would have been played in a simplified, "classical" finger-picking style. Further evidence that the earliest style was a kind of frailing rather than finger-picking comes again from Jonathan Boucher. He ends his comments on the banjo by quoting the following song verse:
Negro Sambo play fine banjar,
Make his fingers go like handsaw.
Joel Walker Sweeney and minstrel show banjo playing are also
relevant to this discussion of early black banjo-playing style in
Virginia. In a previous article, I showed that minstrel banjo
style was essentially drop-thumb frailing, that this style must
have derived from black playing style, and, more specifically,
that descriptions of Sweeney's playing indicate that he too used
this style.42 Since it is also hard not to conclude
that Sweeney learned to play the banjo from blacks in Appomattox
in the 1820s, this style can be attributed to them, So all of the
admittedly limited evidence available suggests that the earliest
black playing style was a down-stroking, frailing style.
A connection can also be made between minstrel playing and the
playing of Clarence Tross, the black banjo player from West
Virginia. One way in which minstrel banjo style differs from
traditional playing is in the use of what I call a reversed
stroke. Whereas the standard stroke, used by all traditional
[End page 19]
begins with the down-stroking finger followed by the thumb, the reversed stroke begins with the thumb hitting a string first, on a beat, followed by the down-stroking finger. While not all minstrel banjo pieces use this technique, it is not uncommon in them. And Clarence Tross, on the tapes I have heard, plays one song using this technique. This one song is a rather tenuous connection between black banjo playing and early minstrel playing, but one that I think is worth mentioning because, while I have heard no white banjo players who use this technique, I have heard two other black banjo players, one in North Carolina and the other in Mississippi, who also use it, even though most black banjo players do not.
A less tenuous differentiation between white and black playing
in general involves syncopation, The playing of the contemporary
Virginia and West Virginia black players discussed here, taken as
a group, is marked by a general tendency toward more syncopation
than the playing of whites. (This is only a tendency, and it
appears in varying degrees among the individual players; some do
not show this tendency at all.) Overall, the similarities in
white and black playing style outweigh the differences, a fact I
will come back to.
I have been interested in exploring not only the playing
styles, but also the repertoire of these black banjo players. At
this point, what I have to say about repertoire is only
preliminary. I have been to see most of these performers only
once, for several hours, and while in each case I think I
recorded the songs and tunes that were uppermost in their minds,
I certainly cannot claim to have exhausted their
repertoires.43 Nonetheless, I think the following
list of pieces that these musicians play and sing presents a good
cross section of the total repertoire known to black banjo
players in Virginia and West Virginia. What may not be valid
about the list is the number of informants who actually know
any one song. I have indicated alternate titles
[End page 20]
where I knew them or the common title of a song for which the informant gave an unusual title, but I do not guarantee that I have recognized and clarified all such situations.
|JOHN HENRY||LH, JJ, LB, IC, CT, BE, EN||7|
|GOIN' DOWN THE ROAD FEELIN' BAD (Lonesome Road Blues)||LH, JJ, IC, JT, RK, HW||6|
|FOX CHASE||PB, RS, JT, CT, RK, HW||6|
|OLD JOE CLARK||JJ, LB, RK, HW, PB, CF||6|
|SOLDIER'S JOY||LB, CT, RK, HW, PB, CF||6|
|CUCKOO (Bird)||RS, JT, JC, RK, HW||5|
|CLUCK OLD HEN||RS, RK, HW, CF||4|
|SALLY ANN |
Shake Your Little Foot Sally Ann
Pretty Little Girl Get Your Foot Out of the Sand
|MISSISSIPPI SAWYER||LH, RK(2), HW||3|
|CINDY||JJ, CT, HW||3|
|REUBEN||JJ, RK, HW||3|
|SHORTNIN' BREAD||LB, RK, PB||3|
|CRIPPLE CREEK||RK(2), CT, HW||3|
|HALLIE COME TO THE WINDOW||LH, LB||2|
|TURKEY IN THE STRAW||LH, CT||2|
|RED WING||JJ, PB||2|
|BOIL THEM CABBAGE DOWN||LH, JJ||2|
|OH SUSANNA||JJ, CT||2|
|COMIN' ROUND THE MOUNTAIN CHARMING BETSEY||JJ(2), JC||2|
|HOP LIGHT LOU (=Roustabout)||JT, RK||2|
|I'LL SEE YOU WHEN YOUR TROUBLES GET LIKE MINE||JC, RK||2|
|JESSE JAMES||RK(2), HW||2|
|SOURWOOD MOUNTAIN||RK(2), HW||2|
|SALLY GOODIN||PB, CF||2|
|ROUNDTOWN (Buffalo) GALS||RK(2), CT||2|
|COTTON EYED JOE||LH||1|
|DANCE AROUND LITTLE MOLLY (=Molly & Tenbrooks)||LH||1|
|GOING ACROSS THE OCEAN||LH||1|
|POOR BOY LONG WAY FROM HOME||LH||1|
|SITTING ON TOP OF THE WORLD||LH||1|
|HARD LUCK BLUES||LH||1|
|BILLY IN THE LOW GROUND||LH||1|
|GRANDPA'S OLD MULEY COW (=Here Rattler Here)||RS||1|
|MCKINLEY (=White House Blues)||RS||1|
|LEFT ME THIS MORNING BLUES||JJ||1|
|WHEN YOU AND I WERE YOUNG MAGGIE||JJ||1|
|[End page 21]|
|HATTIE WANNA LOU||JJ||1|
|I WISH I WAS A MOLE IN THE GROUND||JJ (2)||1|
|GROUND HOG||JJ (2)||1|
|LEATHER BRITCHES||JJ (2)||1|
|IT'S GOING TO BE RAIN OR SNOW WHEN YOU HEAR THAT COCKADOODLE CROW||JJ (2)||1|
|MY MOTHER TOLD ME IF I BE GOOD SHE BUY ME A RUBBER DOLLY||JJ (2)||1|
|IF YOU HAVE TROUBLE, SAVE YOUR SOUL||LB||1|
|EAT WHEN I'M HUNGRY||LB||1|
|TAKE THIS RING I GIVE YOU||LB||1|
|THE MAN WHO RODE THE MULE AROUND THE WORLD||LB||1|
|MOMMA, MOMMA, LOOK AT SIS||LB||1|
|RABBIT ON A LOG||LB||1|
|JOHN CROSSED THE ISLAND ON HIS KNEES||LB||1|
|WISH TO THE LORD I'D NEVER BEEN BORN||LC||1|
|OLD ROOSTER CROWED IN PINE TREE TOP||LC||1|
|HERE COMES A REDBIRD THROUGH THE WINDOW||LC||1|
|YOU ARE MY SUNSHINE||CT||1|
|CARRY ME BACK TO OLD VIRGINNY||CT||1|
|MISS LUCY NEAL DOWN IN THE COTTON FIELDS||CT||1|
|GOING BACK TO BALTIMORE||CT||1|
|SORRY I LEFT MY FATHER'S HOME (tune like Georgie Buck)||CT||1|
|GOIN' ON DOWN TO TOWN||CT||1|
|FAREWELL TO ANGELINE||CT||1|
|COLD DRINK OF WATER, COLD DRINK OF WINE||CT||1|
|LOW AND LONELY||CT||1|
|DARLING WRITE TO ME||CT||1|
|BABY, LORD, I DO LOVE YOU||RK||1|
|SEE YOU WHEN YOU'RE ALL OUT AND DOWN||RK||1|
|OLD AUNT DINAH||RK||1|
|OH, LORD MOMMA LOOK AT SAM||RK||1|
|WILL THE CIRCLE BE UNBROKEN||RK||1|
|TAKE ME BACK AND TRY ME ONE MORE TIME||RK (2)||1|
|ROCKING CHAIR BLUES||HW||1|
|BRIGHTER DAY A-COMING||HW||1|
|IF YOU DON'T LIKE THE WAY I DO, MOVE ON DOWN THE LINE||HW||1|
|DANCE ALL NIGHT||HW||1|
|ROLL ON BUDDY||HW||1|
|MY BLUE HEAVEN||PB||1|
|JOHN BROWN'S DREAM||CF||1|
[End page 22]
A number of observations can be made about the preceding list.
First, most of the informants sing words to most of their pieces;
strictly instrumental renditions are in the minority, although
this varies with the individual. Some, like Lewis Hairston or
Uncle Homer Walker, sing words to nearly all of their pieces,
while other[s], like Rufus Kasey or John Lawson Tyree,
know some words to most of their songs but rarely sing unless
pressured to do so, claiming they are not good singers. Second,
the repertoire includes extremely few ballads; songs with
anything like a full and coherent narrative are rare. The lyrical
folksong is the rule. Third, a genre of song that one might
particularly look for from black musicians, the blues song, is
well represented in the repertoire; but while most of the
informants played a few blues pieces on the banjo (some were
picked and some, less expectedly, were frailed), such pieces are
definitely a minor portion of any individual's repertoire.
Fourth, although a few of the songs are more popular than
traditional ("When You and I Were Young, Maggie," My Blue
Heaven"), the vast majority seem to be traditional, even if quite
local ("Hallie Come to the Window"). But it is especially
interesting to note that a good number of the traditional pieces
apparently originated in an earlier popular institution
connected, in ways not yet fully documented, to black music: the
minstrel show. Minstrel songs in the repertoire include "Turkey
in the Straw," "Oh Susanna," "Run Nigger Run," "Shortnin' Bread,"
Buffalo Gals," "Carry Me Back To Old Virginny," "Miss Lucy Neal
Down in the Cotton Fields," "Going Back To Baltimore," "Goin' On
Down To Town," and "Old Aunt Dinah." The informant whose
repertoire contains the largest percentage of minstrel songs,
Clarence Tross, in also the one whose playing on one song, as
noted above, used a technique common in minstrel banjo tunes but
not in traditional playing.
Most important, however, is that the repertoire list contains
a thorough mixture of songs with supposedly Anglo-American
origins and songs with supposedly Afro-American origins. I'm not
going to stick my neck out and go down the list saying which ones
[End page 23]
[and] which [are not] (some are obvious, some are not); nevertheless the mixture should be obvious. And most of the tunes on this list, whatever their origins, are also commonly played by white banjo players. "John Henry," in fact, is probably the most widely known piece among white and black banjo players alike.
That there is a body of tunes and songs like "John Henry that
readily crosses the color line and has crossed it for a long time
is, of course, not news. The phrase "common stock" has been used
to describe this body of racially shared songs. Tony Russell, for
instance, does a good job of discussing the common stock in
Blacks, Whites and Blues.45 He presents a
list of tunes that he says "gives a fairly comprehensive idea of
common-stock material," although he suggests that an exhaustive
list might be two or three times longer. Since only twelve of the
songs on the above repertoire list are included in Russell's
list, I would suggest that the common stock may be much more
extensive than it is usually thought to be, even more extensive
than two or three times Russell's list. However, the real point
here is that little about the repertoire of black banjo players
in Virginia is exclusively or uniquely "black"; the majority of
it is shared with whites.
This fact makes one curious about the amount of direct musical
interaction these black musicians have had with white musicians.
This is an issue that I discussed with most of the informants,
and,as one might expect, I got a variety of responses.
Unfortunately, I do not have responses from five of the
informants--three (Tross, Cook, and Calloway), because I did not
interview them and those who did did not deal with this issue,
and two (Jones and Bowles), because I myself neglected to deal
with it. My suspicion about the five is that they may have had
some direct contact with white musicians, but probably not very
The remaining eight informants, starting with those who have
had little or no contact, provide a more definitive basis for
discussion. Rufus Kasey said that he had never played with white
[End page 24]
though he knows some. He is aware of bluegrass as a white musical form and sometimes goes to hear a bluegrass group in Rocky Mount. Yet this music appears to have had no influence on his own music, all of which he claims he learned from his father and grandfathers. He assumed, in fact, that all white banjo players must use a bluegrass finger-picking style, and when I played "Cluck Old Hen" for him in a frailing style like his own, his jaw dropped, and he said when I was done, "I never saw a white man play that way." John Lawson Tyree has also had little direct contact with white musicians. He told me that he had sometimes played with them, but I got the feeling that this must have been rare, that he mostly played by himself and with other blacks at black dances.
At some intermediate level of black/white interaction is
Robert Stuart. He told me about a lot of other musicians he knew
in the area, all of whom are white. Just how much he played with
them is not clear, but one of the few pieces he played for me, a
finger-picked, bluesy kind of piece, he said he learned directly
from a white man.
The rest of the informants have all had considerable direct
contact with white musicians and music. Uncle Homer Walker used
to play a lot with white fiddlers Henry Reed, Buddy Thompson, and
Harrison White. He also talked about the music he heard and
played in the coal fields of West Virginia when he worked there
in the teens; there were many musicians, black and white, and
many different kinds of music. In addition, he felt he had been
influenced a little by early recordings of white banjo players.
John Jackson grew up in an atmosphere of extensive black/white
musical interaction. He said that the many black and white
musicians in the Woodville area frequently played together, and
that they played essentially the same music. Black musicians
played for both black and white dances. Jackson told me that his
family was one of the first in the area to have a radio, and that
both black and white neighbors came over on Saturday night to
listen to the Grand Ole Opry together. Other radio music and
[End page 25]
both "race" and "hillbilly'" also had an influence on his musical development.
Another black banjo player who listened frequently to the
Grand Ole Opry and who seems to have been even more thoroughly
influenced by it, is "Big Sweet" Lewis Hairston. He plays
occasionally with local white bluegrass musicians, and his style
is rather bluegrassy, though he uses two fingers rather than
three. His playing has been significantly influenced not only by
the Opry, but by recordings of Flatt and Scruggs and Bill Monroe.
He will play "old" songs if persistently asked, but he prefers
bluegrass songs, especially Bill Monroe songs.
And, finally, both Clinks Fantleroy and Peter Bundy seem to
have had extensive contact with white musicians and music.
Fantleroy's first introduction to music was at the hands of white
musicians, His family had always worked for a white family in the
Tappahannock area; when he was growing up, the sons in this
family were all musicians, and he learned from them, rather than
from his own family tradition (there was none) or from local
black tradition (which apparently was slight). However, both
Fantleroy and Bundy say that the first five-string banjo player
they saw was a black man from outside their area. He inspired
them to make their own banjo and learn to play it. Fantleroy and
Bundy played together as semi-professional musicians for most of
their adult lives, at black and white dances both in their area
and as far away as Baltimore and New Jersey, and they apparently
came into contact with white musicians with some regularity. And,
more than any of the other informants dealt with here, their
repertoire (mostly played on instruments other than the banjo) is
heavily influenced by white popular music of the 1920s to 1940s,
probably through contact with radio and records.
Some scholars, myself included, have long considered
traditional banjo/fiddle string band music an expression of
southern, rural, basically white Anglo-American folk culture. And
the contemporary       [End page 26]
study of various genres of Afro-American music has tended to emphasize the uniqueness of that music, the degree to which it differs from Anglo-American musical form; this has been true for blues, for work songs, and for religious music. But here is a longstanding musical tradition where black and white players interact with one another to varying degrees, where black banjo players use the same tunings and the same basic playing techniques as white players, where they play the same songs, for the same dances. Some differences, such as the general tendency of black players to make greater use of syncopation, can be found, but overall the similarities far outweigh the differences. Traditional American banjo/fiddle music is unique to neither blacks nor whites, but is shared by them. Perhaps the entire tradition is "common stock."
I do not mean to imply that the similarities are due merely to blacks having absorbed a white musical tradition. I repeat my belief that the black/white exchange in this tradition has been a two-way street. Traditional American banjo/fiddle music is as much an Afro-American tradition as an Anglo-American one.
Robert B. Winans
Wayne State University
1 Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, reprint edition, New York, Harper Torchbooks, 1964, p. 135.
2 His comment on how the banjo was tuned is also of
interest, though it has caused confusion. Scott Odell recently
pointed out that the kind of guitar Jefferson would have been
most familiar with, and probably was referring to, was the
English guitar (rather than the now more common Spanish), which
was tuned Cegc'e'g'. This means that the "banjar would have been
tuned either Cegc', if by 'lower' he meant 'lower in pitch' or
gc'e'g', if he meant 'lower in position when held by the player.'
The former interpretation gives a scordatura tuning pattern still
sometimes used today for the banjo's four full-length strings.
The latter gives the tuning pattern of the modern 'G
[End page 27]
(Pre-publication copy of the article, "Banjo, to appear in the forthcoming new edition of Groves Musical Dictionary.) Since the earliest known minstrel banjo tunings, dating from the 1840s and likely to have derived from black folk practice, are closely similar to the latter, that seems to me the more likely interpretation.
3 I have interviewed and recorded most of the banjo players I discuss here, but I must thank Kip Lornell, formerly of the Blue Ridge Institute in Ferrum, Va., and now folklorist for the city of Newport News, for having first located many of them, and for helping me get started working with them.
4 Kip Lornell, booklet of descriptive notes accompanying record album, Virginia Traditions: Non-Blues Secular Black Music, Ferrum, Va., BRI Records, 1978 [BRI-001), p. 10
5 Ibid., pp. 7-8.
6 Ibid., p. 12.
7 Kip Lornell and J. Roderick Moore, "Clarence Tross: Hardy County Banjoist," Goldenseal, 2(1976), No. 3, 7-8. Clarence Tross died in 1976.
8 Dock Boggs, "I Always Loved the Lonesome Songs," Sing Out!, 14(1969), No, 3, 32-33.
9 John B. Tabb, Letter to the Editor, The Critic and Good Literature, n.s. 2(August, 1884), No. 32, 65.
10 Dorothy Scarborough, On The Trail of Negro Folk Songs, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1925, p. 164.
11 Charles L. Perdue, Jr., Thomas E. Barden, and Robert K. Phillips, Weevils in the Wheat: Interviews with Virginia Ex-Slaves, Charlottesville, The University Press of Virginia, 1976, p. 225: interview with Matilda Henrietta Perry (b. 1852).
12 Ibid., p. 231: interview with Levi Pollard (b 1850).
13 Ibid., p. 267: interview with Marrinda Jane Singleton (b.1840).
14 Ibid., p. 316: interview with Nancy Williams (b. 1847). Yanceyville, Va. is in Louisa Co., but the reference here may be to Yanceyville, N.C., in Caswell Co.
15 Ibid., p. 326: interview with Robert Williams (b. 1848).
16 Watercolor sketch by Lewis Miller, reproduced in Dena Epstein "The Folk Banjo: A Documentary History," Ethnomusicology, 19(1975), 365; Epstein, Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War, Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1977, p.157; and on the album of BRI-001, Non-Blues Secular Black Music.
17 Weevils, p. 49: interview with Fannie Berry (b. 1841).
18 Ibid., p. 265: interview with Martha Showvely
[End page 28]
19 William Ferguson Goldie, Sunshine and Shadow of Slave Life, Reminiscences as Told by Isaac D. Williams to "Tege." East Saginaw, Mich., Evening News Printing and Binding House, 1885, p. 62, reprinted in Epstein, "Folk Banjo," 357.
20 Weevils, p. 82: interview with Baily Cunningham (b. ca. 1838).
21 Peter Randolph, Sketches of Slave Life; or, Illustrations of the 'Peculiar Institution, 2nd ed., Boston, published by the Author, 1855, p. 68; cited in Epstein, "Folk Banjo," 357.
22 Weevils, p. 141: interview with Marriah Hines (b. 1835).
23 Mary A. Livermore, The Story of My Life; or. The Sunshine and Shadow of Seventy Years, Hartford, Conn., A.D. Worthington and Co., 1897, p. 257; cited in Epstein, "Folk Banjo," 357. Epstein's date of 1847 is a little later than Livermore was actually in Virginia.
24 William B. Smith, "The Persimmon Tree and the Beer Dance," Farmers' Register (Shellbanks, Va.), 6(April, 1838), 58-61; reprinted in Bruce Jackson, The Negro and His Folklore in Nineteenth Century Periodicals, Austin, University of Texas Press, 1967, pp. 3-9.
25 John Pendleton Kennedy, Swallow Barn: or, A Sojourn in the Old Dominion, Philadelphia, Carey and Lea. 1832, I, pp. 110-113; cited in Epstein, "Folk Banjo," 355-356.
26 John Finch, Travels in the United States of America and Canada, London, Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, Green and Longman, 1833, pp. 237-238; cited in Epstein, "Folk Banjo," 360.
27 Arthur Woodward, "Joel Sweeney and the First Banjo," Los Angeles County Museum Quarterly, 7 (Spring, 1949), 7.
28 James Kirke Paulding, Letters From the South, by a Northern Man, New York, Harper and Brothers, 1835, I, pp. 96-97; cited in Epstein, "Folk Banjo," 355.
29 Thomas Ashe, Travels in America, Performed in 1806, London, R. Phillips, 1808, I, p. 233; cited in Epstein, "Folk Banjo," 360.
30 Thomas Fairfax, Journey from Virginia to Salem. Massachusetts (1799), London, Printed for Private Circulation, 1936, p, 2; cited in Epstein, "Folk Banjo," 354.
31 Jefferson, Notes, p. 135.
32 Virginia Gazette, Jan. 8, 1780, p. , col. 3, and Feb. 18, 1775, p.  , col. 2; cited in Epstein, Sinful Tunes, p. 34.
33 Hunter D. Parish, ed., Journal and Letters of Philip Vickers Fithian. 1773-1774, Williamsburg, Va., Colonial Williamsburg, 1943, p. 83; cited in Epstein, "Folk Banjo," 360.
34 John F. D. Smyth, A Tour in the United
States of America, London, Printed for G. Robinson, J.
Robson, and J. Sewell, 1784, I, p. 46; cited in Epstein, "Folk
[End page 29]
35 Jonathan Boucher, Boucher's Glossary of Archaic and Provincial Words, London, Printed for Black, Young and Young, 1852, BAN; cited in Epstein, "Folk Banjo," 353.
36 John Davis, Travels of Four Years and a Half in the United States of America During 1798, 1799, 1800, 1801, and 1802, New York, Henry Holt, 1909, pp. 413-416; cited in Epstein, "Folk Banjo," 360. An old slave mentions playing the banjo as a young man, probably in the 1750s.
37 "a banjor (a large hollow instrument with three strings); Smyth, A Tour, I, p. 46.
38 Jones hinted at one point that he also played in a finger-picking style, but he never demonstrated this to me.
39 Smith, "Persimmon Tree and Beer Dance," italics in original.
40 Boucher, Glossary, BAN.
41 Fairfax, Journey from Virginia, p. 2.
42 Robert B. Winans, "The Folk, the Stage, and the Five-String Banjo in the Nineteenth Century," Journal of American Folklore, 89(1976), 407-437.
43 In a few cases where I have not actually been to see the informant, I have been fortunate to hear tapes and receive information collected by Kip Lornell and Mike Seeger. In several other cases, tapes made by Lornell have supplemented my own.
44 The initials used here stand for the following
LH = Lewis Hairston, JJ = John Jackson, LB = Leonard Bowles,
IC = Irvin Cook, CT = Clarence Tross, RK = Rufus Kasey,
HW = Homer Walker, JT = John Lawson Tyree, PB = Peter Bundy, RS = Robert Stuart, CF = Clinks Fantleroy, JO = John Calloway. A "(2)" following an initial means that the informant told me that someone in the previous generation played that song, though they themselves no longer play it.
45 Tony Russell, Blacks, Whites and Blues, New York, Stein and Day, 1970, pp. 25-31.
[End Page 30]
[Note: For those who would like to hear examples of black banjo music from many of the same individuals and field-recorded sources Robert Winans discussed in this article, see the editor's commentary on the recent release, Black Banjo Songsters of North Carolina and Virginia, along with directions for ordering the CD from Smithsonian Folkways Recordings on the What's Happening? page.]