The Old-Time Herald Volume 9, Number 7

Issues in Old-Time Music

Below is Tony Thomas' original article, "Why Black Banjo." In response to Tony's dissatisfaction with the version of his article which appeared in the magazine, we have agreed to print the original as received. As with all the Old-Time Herald's "Issues in Old-Time Music" articles, the opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the OTH.

Don't forget the Black Banjo Gathering, which is to be held at Appalachian State University, Boone, NC from April 7-10. For directions, places to stay, and all kinds of information about the event, visit the website:

Why Black Banjo:
The Black Banjo List Serve
By Tony Thomas

I started Black Banjo Then and Now because I thought Black banjoists I kept meeting online needed to get together. As well, we soon found other banjoists and scholars needed a place to discuss the African origin and Black legacy of the Banjo.

We needed a place to express the explosion of African American banjoists including African American Heritage Elder Etta Baker, Taj Mahal, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Guy Davis, Otis Taylor, Sule Greg Wilson, Don Vappie, Dr. Joan, and Rex Ellis, all known in the old-time, blues, classic, and jazz banjo communities. There are others, less famous, we’ve found along the way like Boston civic and cultural leader Dr. Theodore Landsmark, William the Bluegrass picking bailiff on TV’s Texas Justice, Rashunda a former TV anchor from Highpoint, North Carolina now working in Zurich whose online queries got me to launch the Black Banjo Then and Now Group in the first place, elementary school students in Mississippi and Buffalo studying four string banjo, and a young brother in Georgia who wants to play the blues.

I did face bigotry from a small pseudo-redneck element in Banjo L in the month’s before I launched Black Banjo Then and Now.  However, banjo-l’s members and its owner handled them and handled them well. I launched Black Banjo, not out of any negative feelings bout Banjo-L as has become the myth, but because of the positive need to gather the Black banjoists and because of a need to focus the discussions others I met on banjo-l and elsewhere wanted to have about Black banjo playing, then and now.

The significant racism comes from those who see old-time music as a cultural white flight to an old time world as white as the suburbs they inhabit, where the only blacks are kindly aged relicts who can be foci of their paternalism. For example, when I casually mentioned Black Banjo in the Yahoo group of an old-time jam I participated in or on various online lists brought a series of attacks on me or the idea for having a Black banjo group. Responses included the idea that banjo playing and old time music are supposed to be “fun” and apparently Black Banjo playing isn’t and the ever popular idea that discussing anything from an African American perspective is “racist.”

Yet, in addressing the real history of the music, you cannot escape the issue of race. As my dear friend Allen Feldman likes to say, race pervades and you cannot ignore it or remain neutral. The old time South had a great racial mixture in music and culture as well as murderous terror against Black people. Youth influenced by cultural and political radicals revived old-time music in the late 1950s and early 1960s to embrace the culture and the struggles of poor and oppressed people, not to flee to the suburbs. The original Friends of Old Time Music had concerts not only for Tom Ashley and Dock Boggs, but also for Son House and Dock’s friend, Mississippi John Hurt. Black Banjo Then and Now revives and intensifies  this discourse. We cannot help but confront the fact that not only was the South of the “old times” pervaded with racism, but that the society we live in,  including the playing and discussion of old-time music, blues, and every other music, is pervaded with racism .

Black Banjo Then and Now is a forum for old-time music players, scholars, and thinkers who remain concerned for the history and struggles, the Black and white that pervade the banjo and its musics. We’ve had great contributions from Dan Gellert, Kerry Blech, Allen Feldman, Joel Shimberg, Andy Cohen, George Gibson, Scott Odell, and Anita Kermode. Before illness blocked the way, we had the support and many contributions by the great Stu Jamieson. We’ve all talked about Maybelle Carter’s banjo and Tom Ashley’s trombone as well as the Black Johnnie Bukka and the two white Johnny Bookers.

Yet, Black banjoists also aim to connect with Black scholars, cultural workers, community leaders, and every day people about how Black banjo playing relates to African American culture and community Then and Now. We’ve just received the assistance of Henry Louis Gates in connecting major African American music scholars with our Gathering and our group. Our goal is to repatriate the banjo to the Black nationality as well as to connect to our African and Caribbean cousins who brought the banjo to our shores.  We not only look back to the past, but forward to how Black banjo playing can relates to the expression of 21st Century Blackness.

We found things many of us did not expect. For, example we’ve become fascinated with the continuing story of four and six string Jazz banjoists, the most significant 20th Century African American banjo experience. We’ve also discussed the parallels between Black fiddling and banjo playing in the transmission of playing styles and traditions from Africa. We’ve come to recognize how much African American string band music of all kinds has been neglected by both the commercial recording industry and by folklorists of other eras. We’ve also celebrate the way contemporary African American banjoists use the banjo for jazz, blues, funk, rap, and other musics that continue the Black tradition.

All along we’ve received great support from many in the banjo community, particularly from the Old Time Herald and its hard working staff and editors.

Tony Thomas is the founder and list-owner of Black Banjo Then and Now, an internet listserve. He lives in North Miami, Florida. He has been playing traditional music since 1962 and he plays a Gold Tone Whyte Laydie banjo.

<<<Return to the 9-7 Index

The Old Time Herald PO Box 61679• Durham, NC • 27715-1679
Phone (919) 286-2041