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Four people play music on a stage
Abby Brack Lewis, Photographer. The Carolina Chocolate Drops in the Coolidge Auditorium. February 18, 2012. Library of Congress.

New Research Guide: African American Banjo Players

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This guest post announces a new research guide focused on African American banjo players by sharing the motivation behind the guide and highlighting some of the content. The author, Joe Z. Johnson, is one of the Center’s 2023 Bartis Folklife Interns and produced the guide as his primary project during his internship– and this valuable resource will greatly enhance discoverability and access for materials held at the Library of Congress. Joe is a multi-instrumentalist, arts educator, and Black music researcher currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Ethnomusicology from Indiana University (read more about him here). Today marks the final day of his internship with AFC, and we all wish him the best in the coming years! Note: This post was slightly revised on August 1, 2023 in response to a reader comment.

Today, the American Folklife Center (AFC) announces a new research guide that highlights collection materials that are crucial for understanding African-American banjo players. This robust guide is a community-specific expansion of Robert Clayton and Greg Adams’s legacy guide to Banjo Recordings in the AFC. It is a great resource for individuals interested in starting their deep dive into African American banjo research.

A man plays the banjo
Hubby Jenkins, in a screenshot from his 2021 Homegrown concert for the American Folklife Center.

Why This Guide?

This guide centers on the ethnographic and commercial recordings of African American banjo players found in the Library’s catalog. African American fiddlers also frequently appear throughout this topical guide, but a critical assessment of Black banjo and fiddle histories reveal that each practice comprises distinctly different processes of transculturation throughout the African Diaspora. Therefore, each instrument’s Black lineage must be considered on its own accord.

Photograph depicting African American man sitting on chair while playing a banjo.
Melody. V.G. Schreck, photograper. 1911. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs.

Research on African American banjo players and Black folk musicians since the 2005 Black Banjo Gathering has largely focused on historical antecedents to blackface minstrelsy, the genres of old-time, bluegrass, and hillbilly music, and the modern fretted banjo. Rarely have researchers considered developments in the field of Black studies and even fewer write within the lineage of Black music researchers. As a Black music researcher, I intervene in this body of work by centering my assessment of archival materials around Black lives and politics. This directory to materials at the Library of Congress will become a foundation to my larger research project which places the contemporary Black banjo reclamation movement into conversation with larger trends of the Black arts movement(s), Black consciousness, and Black music studies.

Though it is not comprehensive, this is the most robust open access research guide to date that focuses on African American banjo players. Many resources in this guide have been directly referenced and/or reimagined by contemporary musical leaders Rhiannon Giddens, Dom Flemons, Jake Blount, and Trey Wellington. As I am also a Black banjo player who has been learning the repertoire found in these collections, I encourage others allow this guide to bolster their own musical practice. Further, I invite scholars to turn a critical eye towards the documentation and interpretation of African American banjo players. Through a deep engagement with certain silences and misrepresentations, I believe that we can learn what work still needs to be done to support this vibrant, living tradition.

The guide includes images of performers, information on relevant digital collections, blog posts, podcasts, relevant Library of Congress publications, and catalog records of material available onsite in the Library’s Reading Rooms. The catalog records encompass fieldwork projects, field recordings, commercial recordings, mixed manuscripts, paper ephemera, books, articles, videos, and interviews of contemporary artists.

Highlights from the Research Guide

Now What a Time: Blues, Gospel and the Fort Valley Music Festivals
Scan of page from 1944 issue of a publication called the Peachite.
The Peachite Vol. II, No. 2, Folk Festival Number, March 1944. Lewis Jones and Willis James Recordings at Fort Valley State College (AFC 1943/012). Library of Congress, American Folklife Center.

John Wesley Work III, Lewis Jones, and Willis Laurence James documented the Fort Valley State College Folk Festival in Fort Valley, Georgia. Fort Valley’s festival slightly predates the American Folk Music revival, running annually from 1938 to 1943. This digital collection contains 104 audio recordings, 63 manuscripts, and a periodical of the Fort Valley State College student newspaper, The Peachite. In addition to featuring a variety of African American musicians, this collection contains recordings of, children’s games, vocal groups, blues artists, and eleven songs sung by banjo player Sidney Stipling.

Jake Blount: Homegrown Concert Series
A person stands outdoors, holding a banjo.
Jake Blount. Photo by Tadin Brown, courtesy of Jake Blount.

Jake Blount’s performance in the AFC’s Homegrown Concert series outlines the ways that African Americans and queer people continue to shape American Roots music. His performance acts as sharp commentary on the climate crisis through a meditation and innovation on Black string band music largely found in the Library’s collections. In addition to a video of Blount’s performance, this research guide also includes an interview where he discusses complications of reclaiming the banjo as a Black, queer person. Both videos, along with an exploration of the connections between Jake’s music and AFC field recordings, can be found at this link.

Margaret Mayo Collection

This mixed manuscript collection includes field recordings of old-time music, square dance music and calls, fiddle and banjo tunes, folk songs, religious songs, conversation, and storytelling collected by Margot Mayo, Stuart Jamieson, and Freyda Simon in September 1946. Particularly, it features recordings of an African American string band consisting of Murph Gribble (banjo), John Lusk (fiddle), and Albert York (guitar).

This research guide (which once again can be found at this link) is a fantastic tool to highlight intersections between multiple collections containing materials about African American banjo players, and it can help make searching the vast collections databases at Library of Congress less daunting by pointing you in the right direction! It is always a good time to join in the work of learning about African American banjo players because the banjo is the African American instrument.

Comments (2)

  1. It is unfortunate that whoever selected photographs was taken in by the faked picture of a supposed Black Banjoist produced in 1902 by one Victor Schreck of Savannah Georgia, a minor Democrat segregationist politician, and I believe banker, who also marketed “nostalgic” pictures of Black people illustrating the idea that African Americans especially the generation of liberated ex-slaves were ruined by freedom and reconstruction like the several picture Schreck took of the unfortunate model of this picture.

    I presented on this kind of misrepresentation of African American banjoists as a whole, but in particular at the end of the 19th and early 20th Century at the 2018 Banjo Gathering using this picture and others of that series as an example, and extended on how the popularity of this fake reflected the continued misrepresentation of African American Banjoist particularly in the period it was taken. I contrasted the stereotype represented by this racist fake picture with the real images and real careers of Hosea Eason, Charles Stinson, and Vance Lowry, three real African American banjoists who were internationally known.

    Its unfortunate that these shoddy goods find some resonance among those who seek to represent African American banjoists, while the images of actual banjoists especially those like the men I mentioned who were widely known and cherished among Black people are not

    • Thank you for providing more context on the photograph in question. We have modified the framing of the photograph so that the person is not described as a performer. Apologies for this oversight. However, it is important to recognize that this blog and the research guide present an assortment of materials and perspectives from the Library’s collections so that researchers can critically assess these materials.

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