Appalachian music as we know it would simply not be possible without the contributions of African Americans. This fact, which is very poorly recognized by the public, allows not only a deeper understanding of the music but also of the region itself. There are many qualities crucial to Appalachian Music that can be directly attributed to African-Americans, but of them none seem so hidden in plain sight as the banjo. A banjo is generally a 5 stringed instrument consisting of a percussive stretched drumhead as the base of the instruments, four strings for melody, and one drone string. The banjo is fingerpicked mainly in two different styles, one using downstrokes witht the thumb and upstrokes with the rest of the fingers, and the other being all downstrokes which is known as “clawhammer” and is more unique to Appalachian music. In fact, both the instrument and the “clawhammer” playing style descend from West Africa. Doug Orr, co-author of Wayfaring Stranger and Appalachian historian explains “It is generally known that the American banjo’s origins trace back to West Africa and a gourd-like instrument, the “ngoni,” (Orr, 1) Scholars agree that the West-African ancestry is undeniable, however there isn’t a consensus on exactly which instrument is the closest relative. Further research by a Gambian scholar named Daniel Jatta suggests that the closest predecessor is actually an instrument called the akonting, he says, “the akonting to me has more similarities, more objective similarities than any other that has ever been mentioned.” (NPR, para. 8). The akonting looks and sounds very similar to a banjo, but it is the way that it is played with a “clawhammer” style that really shows its clear relation to the banjo and Appalachia. Watch the following two following videos two see the relationship. Pay attention to both the sound of the music, the playing hand, and the rhythm.
In any case, it is thought provoking that the instrument which by and large is the symbol of the “traditionally white” Appalachian music, is literally an African instrument. [picture of ngoni and akonting]
There is more to African contributions than the banjo. The vocal style of much Appalachian music grew off of “the call-and-response work songs from the toil of the plantation fields; spirituals stemming from church worship” and “the hush lullabies sung by mammies to their babies, and sung with irony to the children of the plantation overlords.” (Orr, 1) Complex rhythm came with the banjo, but also with the general African emphasis on rhythm. Since drums were banned in the South due to the fear of slave uprising (using drums as communication tools), African Americans developed other techniques for percussion. Deborah Thompson, professor at the University of Kentucky discusses this in her essay Searching for Silenced Voices in Appalachia.“Using one’s body as an instrument, or ‘‘patting juba,’’ was also used as accompaniment for instruments or for dancing, and evolved into the practice of ‘hambone,’” (Thompson, 5). Finally, African-American’s added the element of improvisation, which became one of the most distinctive qualities of Appalachian music because it allowed a higher degree of expression, contrasting the rigidity of so many other kinds of traditional music.
The timeline for the integration of these elements is impossible to tell exactly, and the methods of transmission aren’t exactly agreed upon, but scholars have developed a few possible theories. Firstly, since slaves were cut off from their heritage, they had to rely on their oral traditions passed through generations to connect to their ancestral culture.“The plantations were something of an incubator for music of the African American slaves” (Orr, 1) On the plantations, slaves would sing in the fields and play music in their free time. It is likely that banjos made by slaves in their free time were the first seen by many white people. Not only were whites exposed to the banjo, but the slaves were exposed to the fiddle as well as European music which they would then “emulate what they heard on their own instruments, and thereafter return the tunes with added interpretations that included more syncopated, improvisational, bluesy, and rhythmic styles,” (Orr, 1) This idea of a learning cycle between the slaves and whites is known by scholars as the “reciprocal short loop”, so each group seemed to learn and change by taking from the other. All of this information spread westward, away from the plantations and towards the mountains. In Appalachia, “From 1820 to 1860, the population of blacks in the region ranged from 15.1 to 19.5″ (Thompson, 71) African Americans were by and large the largest minority, and going from those numbers it seems up to 1 in 5 people were African American in the region. The numbers of African Americans in the region combined with the fact that the region was poorer and had fewer and smaller slave owning households possibly allowed more interaction between whites and blacks than in other parts of the country. “This does not imply an equality of social relations between blacks and whites but that there was greater opportunity for interchange than is sometimes credited (Dunaway, 2003).” (Thompson, 71) This region was not by any means more accepting of black people, as it was very racist at the time, but rather simply that their was more potential for cultural interchange because the lifestyle gap between blacks and whites was not as large. Both groups were arguably demographically more similar in this region than other areas of the country.
Not all scholars agree with this theory. Banjo Scholar, Dr. Bob Winans believes that the institution of minstrelsy was a more powerful source of interchange. The Minstrel shows he is referring to were essentially traveling shows of white comedians in blackface, whose entire source of material was inherently designed to support racism against black people. Watch the video below to get a whole picture, but at least come away with this: the early minstrel song books, since learned from African Americans, are “the early minstrel record books are a window, that we can look through, which may not be totally clean,” Winans says, “there’s enough that you can see what’s going on, what the black banjo players were doing before minstrels.” (Winans, 4:33) So minstrelsy could have been the midpoint between the banjo being a slave instrument and an instrument associated with white people. It surely would have provided the incentive for black people to not be associated with the banjo.
After all of this evidence began to be uncovered, a movement began for African Americans in Appalachia to take bake their heritage. The word “Affrilachia” was coined by black Appalachian poet Frank X Walker in his poem by the same title (Thompson, 74) The main purpose of the movement inspired by Walker has been to uncover and showcase African American important to Appalachian culture. Read Walker’s poem below.
(for Gurney and Anne)
anywhere in Appalachia
The Affrilachian movement has been a modern resurgence and celebration of everything that has been seemingly forgotten about African American’s roles in the region. After all, there is plenty of evidence to come to this conclusion. So the only question left to ask is why was this all left out?