In 1961, Robert Cantwell was seduced by a banjo—a Gibson Mastertone, to be exact, in the hands of Earl Scruggs.
Banjo enthusiasts typically have a passionate, personal relationship to the instrument. As a Pete Seeger fan in a Jewish high school on Chicago's north side, Cantwell had dallied with the tinny sound. In the lunchroom one day, a friend mentioned Scruggs as someone he should check out. He noted the funny name.
"So I went to the record store and I bought a banjo record called Foggy Mountain Banjo," recalls Cantwell, now an American studies professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. "It would not be an exaggeration to say that that record has largely determined the direction of my personal life and my professional career. I'd never heard anything like that."
This weekend, The Southern Folklife Collection at UNC celebrates the banjo with a day of performances and talks entitled "The Banjo: Southern Roots, American Branches." It begins with a symposium and exhibition on the instrument's African origins, playing styles and cultural significance and culminates with performances at Memorial Hall. Think a miniature MerleFest, just with an American studies or ethnography credit attached.
Plenty of the "lecturers" will have banjos in hand. Dom Flemons of the Carolina Chocolate Drops and Jim Mills, a six-time IBMA Banjo Player of the Year who tours with Ricky Scaggs and Vince Gill, aren't there to read theses or idly click through Powerpoint slides.
As they play and talk, they'll share the banjo's journey across continents and between very different cultures. Steve Weiss, curator of the Southern Folklife Collection and organizer of the day's events, thinks that the banjo conveys hard truths and triumphs about national history: "It's a very American story in terms of some of the really ugly parts of our history: minstrel shows, the slave trade, Jim Crow," he says. "There's a lot of exploitation going on. But also, today, you see the banjo being reclaimed by the African-American community."
The Carolina Chocolate Drops exemplify both this reclamation and the symposium's combination of education and entertainment. The Grammy-winning group sells out shows playing fife-and-drum, jug-band and early jazz music from the 1920s and 1930s, with a veneer of Southern black music history lessons. An Arizona native, Flemons first came to North Carolina for the Black Banjo Gathering at Appalachian State University in 2005. After moving to Chapel Hill and joining the Drops, he spent time onstage and logged hours with headphones on in the Southern Folklife Collection. To his mind, study and spirit are the same thing.
"With a lot of old-time banjo music, you have to do a lot of studying just to find the tune, and also find the techniques," Flemons notes. "That sets you up to find that the banjo is a definitive instrument for a lot of social, political and racial ideas and also conflicts. You start to find that there's a whole other history that most of the time you don't get to hear about. It was a part of black communities for many years before it was picked up in the white community. And, through the music of the banjo, it was probably the first big interaction between black and white people."
Cantwell, who authored Bluegrass Breakdown: The Making of the Old Southern Sound, plans to talk about the African connections that made the Scruggs album such a big event in his life. The traditional clawhammer style of banjo playing means striking the notes with the fingernails of your right hand, giving the music what Cantwell calls a "very distinctive froggy sound." Turns out, that approach appears to be rather ancient.
"Many of the players in the minstrel shows played in that style. Its origin appears to be in West Africa among the griots who play their instruments in a similar way," Cantwell explains. "They play a whole range of instruments that have resonant heads on them—gourd banjos, that kind of thing. They have either two or three strings, or as many as 25 strings. But from a structural point of view, they're all basically banjo-like instruments, combining strings and drums."
During symposium breaks, participants can see one of these gourd banjos in an exhibition, running through Dec. 31 at UNC's Wilson Special Collections Library and surveying the instrument's evolution and its North Carolina heritage. Six specimens document the banjo's evolutionary arc. A West African akonting, the banjo's direct ancestor, has a gourd where banjos have a snare drum. Something of an abbreviated harp or lute, the akonting's three strings are tied off to the neck at different points. The shortest string maps to the fifth string of the modern banjo, which stops about three-quarters of the way up the neck.
In addition to the akonting, five banjos rest in cases set into a wall. A handmade "tack-head" banjo, thought to have been fashioned by enslaved African-Americans before the Civil War, is the oldest continental example. Fretless, the simple instrument's skin head is tacked on rather than bracketed.
But it's a Gibson Mastertone from the 1930s that makes the curator, Weiss, swoon. The quintessential bluegrass instrument, this Gibson was Earl Scruggs' ax. "This is the equivalent of the Fender Stratocaster of the '50s and '60s—the highest quality of production," Weiss says, shaking his head in awe. Although the Mastertone was mass-produced, only about 200 remain of this superior prewar vintage.
Still, the Gibson isn't the Goliath of the collection. Having first heard the banjo as a teenager at a folk festival near Asheville, Pete Seeger wrestled with the instruments for years but couldn't resolve the chords and tuning with his singing style. He extended the neck of his Vega banjo by three frets. Other folk singers followed suit. As it turns out, Cantwell played the Vega, too, at least until Scruggs' recording came along.
Cantwell laughs that Steve Martin, the comedian who now works with the Tar Heel act Steep Canyon Rangers, tells essentially the same story about Foggy Mountain Banjo onstage. "I think there are probably thousands of banjo players in my generation who had the same experience," Cantwell says.
That sort of passion and camaraderie is why Weiss has put together this event.
"It's a rare opportunity," he says, "for people who've never had the chance to immerse themselves in the banjo for a day."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Hootenanny at the academy."