For enthusiasts of early banjo
For more information go to www.palouserivermusic.com. This is a performance by Paul Ely Smith on fretless gourd banjo of his "back-engineered" ver...
Greetings. I'm posting here a long time after this was current, so I have no idea if it will even be seen, but I would love to respond to this really interesting discussion, since I have never before had a conversation about my work with the banjo, and I think you all had very thoughtful, kind, and insightful things to say about my music and scholarship. I’m sorry if this is too long a response, but you all gave me a lot to work with…
First, I have to say that I am a composer and player of many stringed instruments, and I like to think that I am an artist first, whatever that means, and I am a scholar to the extent that I am passionately interested in most things to do with music, from record production to instrument building as well. Nevertheless, my professional training is in music composition and I have never taken a musicology course, though I managed to develop and teach a "world music" curriculum at Washington State University for 15 years (I like to say that I’m not a musicologist, but I played one in the Pac-10). I just thought it was important to learn everything I could about American music when I went to college in the mid-1970s (and, by extension, West African and European vernacular music—I also play traditional Irish fiddle music for example), since almost nothing of value about American music was being taught in the music courses I took. I played the banjo and was never around anyone who played in any manner similar to the ways I wanted to play it, though I sure wish I had run into all of you guys about 1978. Pretty much all of my work on the banjo has been in a vacuum. I never had any idea there were people interested in this stuff, since this was all before the internet, and the music departments I was involved with regarded interest in American music other than European classical music or jazz (…maybe) to be a bit dubious as serious academic inquiry.
I wrote that article in graduate school at UCSD in 1989, as an independent study research project while I was getting my Masters in composition (this after the period where I did those Flying Fish records). I had only the vaguest advice, since no one there (except a wonderful music librarian named Garrett Bowles) thought it was that serious an inquiry—I mean, it was a banjo— and I started with the realization that in doing a survey of literature and reading a lot of interesting material (but there wasn’t that much in the mid-1980s) no one had examined Gottschalk’s “The Banjo” to see how it corresponded to known 19th-century banjo music, with which I had first become familiar back in the 70s as an undergraduate looking at the work of Robert Winans and Hans Nathan. I had played the piano piece at that time and realized that I might be uniquely prepared to take a look at this thing. Then I ran into the Gwendolyn Brooks poem and got her permission to use it (long story). I was a rank amateur as a musicologist, but this seemed like an interesting thing to check out—was she right? Had Gottschalk begun the great American tradition of stealing his big hit from some anonymous African-American guy? And had the story been broken by a Pulitzer-prizewinning poet?
The point of my article was that her complaint had merit. Sure, I used contemporary examples, and since brushing in clawhammer style (one of a number of similar examples) is obviously going strong after 150 years, to dismiss my position that numerous aspects of contemporary West African performance practice date back at least that far as well is contrary to the evidence. The whole revelation of the Western “discovery” of the akonting demonstrates that. “Historical presentism”? If history weren’t demonstrated in the present, there would be little reason to study it.
What you don’t know is that I couldn’t get a response (not even a rejection) from any journal I sent it to for years. Finally, Current Musicology accepted it, but insisted that I jettison the poem to a footnote. I was willing to cite one of the readers’ friend’s clawhammer banjo method (another demand), but I refused to cut the poem. No one would address my evidence but they kept coming back that I had to lose the poem (the editor tried to make the case that it wasn’t an appropriate academic tone for a journal, and I realized that he might not know who Gwendolyn Brooks was—I remember saying, “I don’t know, how many Pulitzer prizes have YOU won?”). Then one of the readers called me at home in the middle of the night to harangue me over it (“blind submission”—ha!). Really. I wish I had gotten the responses that you have all posted, which would have led to a much more interesting discussion. I stuck to my guns and they finally published it.
So I sort-of lost my taste for musicology, but I wanted to hear this music, so I made the banjo in the video about the time the article came out, which is when Jim must have heard me, since I did a few performances at the time. It had/has major problems, including the fact that it sounds like a little toy instrument because I copied the little head on that famous painting and made a pretty but problematic little rosette on the side. The bass is indeed a little tough. I put too much relief into the fingerboard so I have both clumsy action and buzzing as I go up the neck. I still loved the sound, though, but right after recording that video last year, I realized that I had to make a new instrument, which I just finished last week.
If you had endured the attack that I had over my little article, you might have decided as I did to perform the Gottschalk as close as possible to the way he wrote it, to demonstrate that those parts are not “impressions” of banjo music but something closer to actual transcription. Really, most of the stuff just falls right there under my fingers—the farthest-out thing perhaps is my recent interpretation (not in the article, but in the video) to do that one flashy bit in what I call “kora” style, shifting into up-picking. I don’t see any reason not to think that wasn’t part of African performance practice in the early 19th century, but, yeah, I’m making it up I guess. I like the music—remember that this is a flaky artist making these decisions, but I think that most of those textures are credible interpretations. To me it’s clear that the kumbengo-esque texture of the opening is what is really interesting about the piece (this is clearly a West African architecture, is it not?), but is there any other contemporary evidence of such chordal textures as there are at the end there? I often just play around with that first part, and my version of Gottschalk’s “Bamboula” is more freely interpreted (yes, I think that one’s banjo music, too), but I do think I have done more than executed some sort of parlor trick on this instrument. I was arguably guilty of that sort of thing early in my career, but I saw that was a dead end and left it behind (mostly), along with the steel-string, plastic head, fretted banjo I played back then. I think that the minstrels got some authentic stuff, and they clearly invented a lot of wonderful music out of their synthesis of that and their vernacular European heritage, but I see no reason to think they didn’t miss a lot in the way that white people have often misunderstood African-American music throughout the history of American popular music. I am missing a lot too, I’m sure. Anyway, I’m playing and recording again, and will hopefully have a CD of gourd banjo music out sometime in the next year or so. Thank you again for your thoughtful responses, and I look forward to exploring this great site.
Yep, this is where it ended. I didn't know this was posted when the video went up and was discussed--I wasn't aware of this site at the time--and so I wasn't part of the debate, unfortunately. You'll notice that my posts came six months after the debate, and no one ever responded until you did. Since this time, I realized that I had to redesign the banjo I had worked with, and I am just getting to work on the promised CD.
I do think that the minstrel style as presented on this site and through the tutors and all is authentic, but I also think that the Gottschalk pieces, The Banjo and to some degree Bamboula (the so-called "Second Banjo" is a posthumous publication of what looks like a sketch for the "The Banjo" and lacks the most interesting and authentic textures--it may be what prompted him to seek out an actual banjo player to transcribe), are like a kind of banjo Rosetta Stone that preserves a whole lot of banjo music that we don't hear again until the era of recording. I think the minstrel repertoire is an important part of 19th-c. banjo heritage, but the fact that it was written down gives it a higher profile in retrospect. For long-term impact on American music, however, the driving repetitive playing of African-American banjo music, built around improvisation over a fundamental groove (e.g., "kumbengo") was arguably the most important banjo music, only hinted at in minstrel music. The Current Musicology article is available on my website if you're curious, www.palouserivermusic.com.
My playing and building put me on the fringes here, and I may not win many over to my approach when I start showing what I've been working on over the last few years, but I have done my homework, and I am looking forward to putting it the world. Thanks for your kind words and interest.
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