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…as I was saying…

For some years, my dad made some extra scratch as an after-dinner speaker on the topic the History of the Banjo.

The way I remember it, he took banjo from Joel Sweeney — the first white man known to play banjo on-stage, circa 1830 — through the army camps of the Civil War and then right into the 20th Century and bluegrass.

I didn’t know until years later what a gigantic chunk of banjo history got left out (and I didn’t know until this month it extended to Britain). For almost a hundred years, banjos of various kinds were THE parlor instrument, a staple of vaudeville and the centerpiece of many bands, amateur and professional. Minstrel style, finger style, classical and tenor, four string, five string, six string, eight string. The banjo was HUGE.

Funny we don’t remember that today. Maybe because nearly all the styles of music played on the banjo fell out of favor, with the exception of bluegrass. Maybe because the banjo era ended just as recording was coming on the scene, so little of it is preserved. Maybe because banjo sounded crap in early recordings.

I’m guessing, though, it’s because the banjo is so tightly bound up with minstrelsy. Spend five minutes poking around Google for early banjo and you’ll be up to your knees in burnt cork and n-bombs. No, of course you can’t impose a 21st Century racial attitude on the 19th Century, but it’s awfully hard to look back at blackface performance without thinking, “sweet Jesus — WTF?”

New Dead Pool tomorrow, 6pm WBT. Be there, or be somewhere else!

June 23, 2011 — 10:30 pm
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