Every musical instrument has a history, an origin story with primary practitioners that were storytellers and sound makers. Every origin story exists within social, political, economic, and cultural contexts. Origin stories are often contested, the facts and circumstances and the meanings ascribed, at the time and after, to those facts and circumstances. For example, the banjo has a transatlantic and transregional history that may surprise our fantastic readers. A new book, Well of Souls: Uncovering the Hidden History of the Banjo, Kristina R. Gaddy, explores these connections between music, slavery, and white supremacy, as well as religion, spirituality, and public policy.
"Through meticulous research in diaries, letters, archives, and art, she traces the banjo's beginnings from the seventeenth century, when enslaved people of African descent created it from gourds or calabashes and wood. Gaddy shows how the enslaved carried this unique instrument as they were transported and sold by slaveowners throughout the Americas to Suriname, the Caribbean, and the colonies that became U.S. states, including Louisiana, South Carolina, Maryland, and New York. African Americans came together at rituals where the banjo played an essential part. White governments, rightfully afraid that the gatherings could instigate revolt, outlawed them without success. In the mid-nineteenth century, Blackface minstrels appropriated the instrument for their bands, spawning a craze. Eventually, the banjo became part of jazz, bluegrass, and country, its deepest history forgotten."
The documentary film, "Reclaiming History: Our Native Daughters," released in 2021, explores the relationships of four Black female musicians to the banjo's living history. In an article by Dave Paulson from the Nashville Tennessean, musician Allison Russell explains the origins of the documentary in an interview she did some ten years prior about a banjo documentary.
"But when the conversation steered to the instrument's roots, things quickly ground to a halt. As soon as I [Russell] said, 'West Africa,' he was like, 'No, no, no, it's Appalachian,' in his lovely British accent," Russell recalls. Her response to the filmmaker: "Well, yes, many people in Appalachia played the banjo, including all the Black people who used to be there, before they had to flee the terrorism of Jim Crow…' And he would not hear it."
The film premiered on the Smithsonian Channel, and you can find it here.
"In January 2018, Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah, Leyla McCalla, and Allison Russell collaborated on a groundbreaking and deeply personal album for Smithsonian Folkways called 'Songs of Our Native Daughters.' The result was a powerful, modern take on Black women's history and America's shared, but often hidden, musical roots. From a secluded Louisiana bayou recording studio to electrifying concerts around the country, witness four incredible musicians on an extraordinary creative journey." Giddens, Kiah, McCalla, and Allison Russell are forces of the universe as imagined by Nnedi Okorafor and N.K. Jemisin (who, like Giddens is a McArthus Genius winner). Stay tuned for a future post about Jemisin.
As reported in Guitar Girl Magazine, Giddens, Kiah, McCalla, and Russell, "Acting as the narrators throughout the documentary…seamlessly weave the insight, personal experience, and unexplored history that inspired the lyrics for this album of original work, except for one Bob Marley cover, done in partnership with Smithsonian Folkways. Though they are all accomplished artists individually, this endeavor proved more kismet than serendipitous as the documentary makes an irrefutable case that only these four women could have produced such a work of timely and masterful storytelling."