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New York Times
18 Nov 2023
Adam BradleyJustin French

NextImg:Black Folk Musicians Are Reclaiming the Genre

TRAY WELLINGTON KNOWS that many will take the title of his 2022 album, “Black Banjo,” as an oxymoron. The banjo, and with it an entire body of folk-based music, is now so thoroughly associated with whiteness as to obscure its origins in Black musical tradition. “One of the first things I heard when I started playing banjo was, ‘You’re not supposed to be doing this,’” says Wellington, 24, whose father is Black and mother is white. But for him, playing the banjo has become an act of reclamation.

Contemporary audiences still tend to associate the banjo with white Southern traditions of bluegrass, old-time and what record labels used to market as hillbilly music, but its roots are in Africa, in stringed instruments like the akonting, the buchundu and the ngoni. During the 19th century, the banjo became inextricably linked to minstrelsy: variety shows in which white performers (and, increasingly after the Civil War, Black performers) “blacked up,” grotesquely caricaturing Black facial features. The minstrel show, which persisted onstage and onscreen well into the 20th century, accounts for the banjo’s conflicted legacy — both part of the visual vocabulary of white supremacy and a point of creative contact between Black and white musicians.

Wellington’s interest in the banjo was stoked by his maternal grandfather’s love of classic country, which he’d play for Wellington on fishing trips or while working in the backyard garden of the family home in Ashe County, N.C. After some cajoling, Wellington’s mother (a hip-hop fan) took her 13-year-old son to a pawnshop, where they purchased one on layaway. Playing banjo eventually led Wellington to East Tennessee State University’s renowned Bluegrass, Old‑Time and Roots Music program, where he learned the history and practice of folk music and joined a community of mostly white teachers and students. Many of his classmates welcomed him (he plays with fellow E.T.S.U. grads in his current band); a few subjected him to scorn. “People would often ask me, ‘How does it feel to be Black in this music?’ I would put if off because I didn’t want to talk about it,” Wellington says. Recording “Black Banjo” during the pandemic lockdown and amid protests for racial justice, however, occasioned an awakening. Being a Black banjo player is “kind of a rare thing,” he says. “It’s who I am.”



This Is Our Music

The folk musicians Dom Flemons, Kara Jackson, Amythyst Kiah and Tray Wellington discuss the complications of being a Black performer working in a genre now commonly associated with whiteness.

[GUITAR PLAYING] I really think folk music can find its origins in all Black music. There are some times where I’ll hear a country song that sounds so much like a soul song to me that it makes you wonder, how could they really get to country music without soul? (SINGING) When you become somebody’s band and then their heart becomes your lute, what kind of player does that make you? There’s this sense of a Black revival in country music right now. I think a lot more people of color are being represented in the folk and country space and a lot more people of color are also just being interested in country music and interested in folk music. [BANJO PLAYING] The main thing about folk is it is a storytelling genre. So any genre that conveys a story to the audience I would consider folk music. I joined this club at my middle school called the Mountain Music Club. I heard banjo in there for the first time, and I instantly fell in love with it. It is difficult for a lot of Black people to trace back their cultural heritage because there were no records kept. The banjo is, I guess, the closest that I’m going to get to having an ancestral understanding of where I come from. But it’s all sonic. The sonic aspect of it comes first. I grew up in suburbia, so my world was very much alternative rock, skateboarding, and I didn’t have any real sense of where do I come from beyond that. I was in my early 20s when I started playing old-time banjo or claw hammer banjo. And I took lessons at East Tennessee State University here in Johnson City. That’s where I really started to dig into Appalachian history and culture and the music of where I’m from. [FOLK MUSIC PLAYING] There was a particular act called the Carolina Chocolate Drops. I learned about them at a pretty pivotal point in my life. “(SINGING) Ain’t this soul seems [INAUDIBLE].. Ain’t this —” Well, I always had a desire to sing and play music. So when I found that I could just get a guitar and pick it up and start playing and singing music, that was it for me. ”(SINGING) If you want a Gibson —” So, back in 2005, I met with two people by the name of Rhiannon Giddens and Justin Robinson. We spent our time sitting at the feet of an elder musician by the name of Joe Thompson, who was an old time fiddler. So we started to make music together that was showcasing early African-American fiddle and banjo string band music. We came together as three young African-American people reinventing and re-imagining the African-American folk songbook and bringing that to new audiences. But first, I just picked up the banjo because I liked the sound of New Orleans jazz and also bluegrass music. But then later on, I found out that the banjo has a deep African root. [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH] Learning about that history and how West African music played a huge role in country music gave me the opportunity to have a lot of really productive conversations with people. It was a teachable moment to explain, well actually, there’s this long tradition of Black musicianship within country music. “(SINGING) When you get down to Holbrook, you won’t find me there, good Lord. I called the first thing —” Folk is a type of genre that is outside of the mainstream music popular framework. It’s something that is removed from Black culture in a lot of ways. And so there’s always an uphill battle to bring a stronger, more predominant Black audience into the mix. “(SINGING) God, the first thing smoking down the road somewhere.” Thank you all so much. I wanted to do a group selfie with y’all if you’re cool with that. [CHEERS] My audience throughout my entire career has been predominantly white. I think that is a direct result of creating genres based on race in the early 20th century. Genre, at the end of the day, as it exists in the music industry is really about profit and how to market someone. ”(SINGING) The rolling credits —” I’m really inspired by a concept that Gwendolyn Brooks instilled in me which is writing what’s under your nose and just documenting what’s right in front of you everyday people and everyday life. ”(SINGING) I have so many —” We’re entering a time where a lot of the music feels disconnected from people’s lives. And you listen to the top 40 artists, and they’re singing about how much money they have and how many things they have. And that doesn’t feel like it reflects a country that is teetering into a depression, essentially. “(SINGING) Wake up, wake up, darlin’ Corey, what makes you sleep so sound?” I think that there’s just a general yearning for lyricism again too. I think people want to hear stuff with messages and people want to connect with music in a different way now. “(SINGING) Well the first time I saw darlin’ Corey, she was sitting on the banks of the sea.” I’ve always treated myself as someone who’s standing on the shoulders of all these musicians who have come before. I’m also trying to lift up all the different voices so that we have a more well-rounded picture of African-American folk music traditions. “(SINGING) — in the meadow —” When it comes to what a lot of people look at as bluegrass, I’m one of the only Black musicians in it — definitely one of the only ones on the touring circuit and bluegrass festivals. And so I think in that regard, I’ve brought that kind of idea that, oh yeah, this is my music too just as much as it’s anybody else’s music. “(SINGING) We’re going to let —” A lot of people I know don’t like country music. But then I play music for them, and they’re like, “Oh, I like this.” And so I think a lot of my job is trying to complicate country music and maybe ruffle feathers along the way.” “(SINGING) We’re going to lay darlin’ Corey down.”

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The folk musicians Dom Flemons, Kara Jackson, Amythyst Kiah and Tray Wellington discuss the complications of being a Black performer working in a genre now commonly associated with whiteness.CreditCredit...Justin French

Today Black folk performers have reached a critical mass and level of exposure not seen since the early decades of the 20th century, when Black bands like Cannon’s Jug Stompers and the Memphis Jug Band were among the most commercially popular in the country, touring in medicine shows and playing vaudeville stages. In a 2013 essay about Gus Cannon, the banjo-playing frontman of the Jug Stompers, the multi-instrumentalist and cultural historian Dom Flemons writes that it was only out of an “absurd racial insensitivity” that a “legitimate Black art form developed.” Flemons, 41, who goes by the name the American Songster in tribute to the players of the past, believes we’ve now entered “a postmodern contemporary folk period” in which new and more expansive definitions of traditional music are taking root. He’s among a new generation of Black folk musicians that includes Rhiannon Giddens, Valerie June, Amythyst Kiah, Allison Russell and many others who are returning to songs that are decades (even centuries) old. They play fiddles and jugs, bones and guitar — and most of all the banjo.

Some of these performers veer into activism. For Hannah Mayree, 34, a Northern California-based musician, “playing banjo as a Black person is not enough.” That’s why she founded the Black Banjo Reclamation Project, which supplies instruments to Black musicians and holds workshops where participants learn to make banjos for themselves. “The knowledge of how to build a banjo lives inside my body,” she says. Other musicians are folklorists, introducing listeners to source recordings that testify to an unbroken tradition of Black folk music in America. Still others see reclaiming the past as a means of creating a future. “As opposed to someone who is the caretaker of an archive, I think of my role as a living musician as a member of a future archive,” says Jake Blount, 28, a banjo and fiddle player from Washington, D.C. His most recent album, “The New Faith” (2022), presents an Afrofuturist refiguring of traditional songs. Black Americans, Blount says, have “had to be a forward-facing people because the past has been denied to us.” Part of that history is recoverable through sheet music and source recordings, but much is lost to memory.

IN THE BROADEST sense, folk music is a multiracial, working-class tradition, stretching across time and continents. In the United States alone, it comprises a repertoire of ballads and work songs, blues and breakdowns, songs of love and songs of protest. Folk is a body of simple tunes played by beginners — “Tom Dooley,” “Oh! Susanna,” “Down in the Valley” — and a platform for the greatest virtuosity. For some the term conjures a cinematic shorthand: the dueling banjos of “Deliverance” (1972) and George Clooney mugging his way through “O Brother, Where Art Thou” (2000). Folk’s history over the past century or more is best told through revivals, periods of intensified interest and participation in the music. In moments when the notion of a shared cultural heritage is most desirable — during the Great Depression, or the Red Scare paranoia of the ’40s and ’50s — people have often returned to what the 20th-century folklorists John Lomax and his son Alan once described as “the big song bag which the folk have held in common for centuries.” During a 1956 live performance of the spiritual “This Train (Bound for Glory)” — a song that’s now been recorded by scores of artists, including Louis Armstrong, Alice Coltrane, Bob Marley and Sister Rosetta Tharpe — the guitar legend Big Bill Broonzy teased an audience of earnest college students swept up in the latest revival. “Some people call these ‘folk songs,’” he said while noodling on his guitar, with the singer-songwriter Pete Seeger playing banjo onstage beside him. “Well, all the songs that I’ve heard in my life was folk songs. I’ve never heard horses sing none of them yet!”

ImageA black and white portrait Rhiannon Giddens, wearing her hair to the side, and dressed in a white shirt-dress.
Rhiannon Giddens at Cecil Sharp House, an arts center in London named for the English folklorist.Credit...Justin French

Folk is indeed the people’s music, yet early efforts to market it ended up, to borrow the historian Karl Hagstrom Miller’s phrase, segregating sound. In the 1920s, with the advent of the modern recording industry and broadcast radio, music executives, most notably Ralph Peer of Okeh Records, leveraged emergent technology to define marketable genre categories along racial lines. Out of this came so-called race records (which first appeared at the beginning of the 1920s, aimed at Black Americans) and hillbilly records (which arrived a few years later, geared toward Southern whites). Even as folk crossed racial boundaries — as in the Lomaxes’ recordings of Lead Belly for the Library of Congress — white song hunters often constrained Black performers inside narrow presumptions: attributing virtuosity to natural gifts rather than to musical skill; soliciting songs of protest and lament rather than those of love and happiness; and conjuring a mythic authenticity instead of making space for the real thing (as happened when the Lomaxes, after helping to secure Lead Belly’s release from Angola prison in 1934 in Louisiana, made him perform thereafter in a prison jumpsuit).

Over the decades, race records gave way to more coded genre designations, like R&B and soul. Hillbilly morphed into country and western and finally simply into country. By midcentury, folk was widely considered a genre, too, a narrow term to define acoustic, string-based music, mostly by white musicians and often with a political bent. Folk songs inspired generations of singer-songwriters like Seeger, Joan Baez, Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, whose global fame the term “folk” was too small to contain. Folk, at least for some, became a backward glance to a distant past, nostalgic and reverential. It became Southern and working class and, in the minds of many, it became white.

Amythyst Kiah in front of her father’s home in Johnson City, Tenn.Credit...Justin French

THE RENAISSANCE OF Black folk music can be traced back to a single event nearly 20 years ago. In April 2005 in Boone, N.C., some 30 Black string-band musicians and dozens of other attendees came together for fellowship. Black Banjo Then and Now, as the gathering was called, began as an online community of over 200 members (only a small percentage of whom were Black), formed the year before by Tony Thomas, a Black banjo player from Miami. Among the group’s most junior members were Flemons, an Arizona native, then 23, and the then-27-year-old Rhiannon Giddens, a classically trained soprano from Greensboro, N.C. After graduating from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in 2000 with a bachelor’s degree in music performance, Giddens found her way back home, working two jobs — one as a singing hostess at Romano’s Macaroni Grill — until she earned enough money to buy her instruments, and calling contra dances, a form of line-based group folk dancing with roots in the British Isles.

Giddens sought a way to embrace her love of folk music and her Blackness, too. It’s a central paradox of folk today: How can a music so thoroughly identified with whiteness that, for the better part of 50 years, found definition in contradistinction to Black music and even Black people be so Black? She found her answer at the in-person gathering of Black Banjo Then and Now. At the time, she told the Greensboro News & Record that old-time was “something that really spoke to me, and it was OK that the people who were playing it were white. But when I discovered my people had so much to do with the music, and the string bands at the turn of the century were Black, well, this is a part of history.” The four-day event, held on the campus of Appalachian State University, drew musicians from afar, including the New York-based old-time string band the Ebony Hillbillies, and living legends from close to home, like the then-86-year-old North Carolina old-time fiddle virtuoso Joe Thompson. The experience was unforgettable, with epic jam sessions and intergenerational camaraderie. “It changed my life,” Giddens says. Out of this gathering, she, along with Flemons and, eventually, a third member, Justin Robinson, formed a modern Black string band called the Carolina Chocolate Drops.

The Chocolate Drops were both interested in history and utterly contemporary. All members sang and played multiple instruments, with the banjo at the center of their sound. Their style of performance owes a debt to Thompson (who died in 2012). “We had a pure mission to expose this music to as many people as possible and to tell Joe’s story,” Giddens says. On their 2010 album, “Genuine Negro Jig,” which won a Grammy Award for best traditional folk album, they covered the 2001 R&B song “Hit ’Em Up Style (Oops!)” by Blu Cantrell, taking a time-bound pop hit and making it feel nearly as timeless as “This Train.” The group disbanded in 2014, at which point, as Giddens says, the project had done “exactly what it was meant to do: inspire a whole generation of young people of color to say, ‘Hey, I see myself.’”

Tray Wellington with his banjo at the Pour House, a music venue and record store in Raleigh, N.C.Credit...Justin French

THE CAROLINA CHOCOLATE Drops and many others have now ensured that future generations can see themselves onstage but, once up there, such Black performers rarely see themselves in the crowd. Do Black artists need a Black audience? It’s a longstanding debate that sometimes pits the artistic against the sociopolitical functions of song. The writer Amiri Baraka once defined Black music as “American music expanded past the experience of the average American.” “It gets down,” he wrote. “It is about the life of the downed, yet its dignity is in the fantastic sophistication even at the moment of would-be, should-be humiliation and actual despair.” Giddens, who once described her music as “Black non-Black music” and now prefers to call it simply “American music,” understands this implicitly. “All the good things that come from American music [come from] mixture,” she says. “Hiding in plain sight in all the different types of American music is cross-cultural working-class collaboration. It’s people making music because that’s what they’ve got.”

The most powerful folk music has always addressed points of tension: between Black and white, rich and poor, sophistication and humiliation. Cannon’s 1927 song “Can You Blame the Colored Man?” tells the story of Booker T. Washington, the founder of the Tuskegee Institute, dining with President Theodore Roosevelt at the White House in 1901, the year Washington’s best-selling autobiography, “Up From Slavery,” was published. “Could you blame the colored man for makin’ them goo-goo eyes?” Cannon sings, after describing in detail the lavish dinner at the president’s table. Likewise, today’s best folk music still confronts issues of race and class. In 2019 Amythyst Kiah, now 36, a guitarist and banjo player from Tennessee, joined Giddens, along with Leyla McCalla and Allison Russell, in a string-band collective called Our Native Daughters. They decided to excavate American history, going back to the trans-Atlantic slave trade to find inspiration for new songs. One of the songs that came of that process was the startling and soulful “Black Myself.”

I don’t pass the test of the paper bag
’Cause I’m Black myself
I pick the banjo up and they sneer at me
’Cause I’m Black myself
You better lock your doors when I walk by
’Cause I’m Black myself
You look me in my eyes but you don’t see me
’Cause I’m Black myself

The brown paper bag test, as the literary scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. has written, was born out of colorism within the Black community, in nightclubs and house parties in New Orleans where anyone darker than the bag taped to the door would be denied entrance. In a song that confronts the experience of being shut out of traditionally white spaces — such as contemporary folk and country music — Kiah’s lyrics build toward resistance and joy: “I’ll stand my ground and smile in your face / ’Cause I’m Black myself.”

Addressing her race so explicitly in her music was a departure for Kiah. “I’ve always written songs in a way where anybody can put themselves in that position,” she says. Throughout her years of playing, she’s subscribed to the theory that the more specific and personal a song’s perspective, the more a listener — any listener — will relate to it. Just as Kiah, no poor white Southern girl from rural Kentucky, could relate to Loretta Lynn’s 1970 single “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” she says, so she hopes that listeners, whomever they may be, will relate to “Black Myself.”

Bluegrass and country, the music first marketed a century ago as hillbilly, might seem inhospitable to Black listeners and musicians. But there’s a longstanding tradition that binds Black people, both personally and aesthetically, to these sounds. “The way I talk is with an accent, so the way I sing is with an accent. And that has always needed to be explained because I’m in the skin I’m in,” says Valerie June, 41, whose voice carries the cadences of her native Jackson, Tenn. “There are [Black] people from where I’m from that talk like me. And if they started singing, they would probably sound like me.”

Flemons at FitzGerald’s.Credit...Justin French

This rootedness in place, particularly a rural Southern place where many Black Americans no longer live but that they never left behind, is central to Black folk music’s endurance. When Kara Jackson was a child, during the first decades of the 2000s, in Oak Park, Ill., just outside of Chicago, characters from her father’s hometown of Dawson, Ga., populated her imagination. “I grew up knowing these nicknames, hearing these stories from this small Southern town of 4,000 people,” she says. “It almost felt like hearing superhero tales.” She reveled in the stories she heard in songs as well, be they Wu-Tang Clan tracks that her older brother played or ballads from Dolly Parton LPs in the family collection. It wasn’t long before she began to write songs herself, composing by voice, then on guitar, then using the banjo that her father gave her when she was in high school. She wrote poetry, too, so well that she was named the national youth poet laureate in 2019-20.

Earlier this year, Jackson, 24, released her debut album, “Why Does the Earth Give Us People to Love?,” with songs that partake of folk and jazz, blues and rap. Her lyrics layer sound and simile: “I wanna be as dangerous as a dancing dragon / Or a steam engine, a loaded gun,” she sings on “No Fun/Party.” Her music is sometimes playful, sometimes searing; above all, it’s story driven, like the nearly eight-minute ballad “Rat,” in which Jackson assumes the role of troubadour from the opening couplet: “Take the story of Rat who’s headed west / His buddy once told him he likes the girls there best.” Memorializing the lives of people both real and real enough for Jackson to imagine is what her music does best. “I love songs that tell stories,” she says. “That’s what folk music is for me.”

After composing many of her songs in the isolation of her bedroom during the pandemic, she’s now growing accustomed to playing them for an audience. She recalls a recent performance where the energy was great, but the crowd was mostly white, which left her conflicted. “I am so grateful for anyone who listens to my music,” Jackson says. “But I secretly and very selfishly do want my music to reach my own people. And to prove that this is our music also. It’s not even like I’m doing something subversive. I’m just making the music that we came up with in the first place.”