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Otis Taylor, "Recapturing" the banjo

Posted by tfaux on Friday, June 25, 2010

There was a recent thread that became a coversation about "ownership" of the banjo.  One poster noted that it's always important to acknowledge the African history of the banjo.

I agree that history is super important. The banjo carries many stories and a lot of heartbreak, and the more we know, the richer our playing is going to be. The banjo's form uniquely reflects the bad historical relations between Europeans and Africans, and the better handle we have on that, the deeper our relationship with the instrument. And yes, racism, exploitation, and heartbreak are alive. History is alive.

Still, saying that contemporary musicians like Otis Taylor own the music, or had it stolen (or "captured") from them adds a level of confusion to an already confusing landscape of music and racism. Otis isn't actually "recapturing" anything. Perhaps "reclaiming," but mainly--I think-- "claiming." 

Yes, the instrument has roots in West Africa, in black slavery, and in blackface minstrelsy. It also has roots in Ireland, European exploitation, Victorian parlors, Appalachian coalmines, and the music industry. It has been used by a very wide variety of black and white players, with a wide variety of musical and social agendas. Some of those agendas have been hideous and exploitative, some have been incredibly inventive and powerful. Some have been both.
But just because you're playing an instrument that was invented by someone else's ancestors (weren't they all?) doesn't mean you're stealing it. And just because your ancestors came from someplace where an instrument was invented (whether it's Ghana, West Virginia, or both) doesn't mean you own it. Some of my ancestors are from Europe, but I don't have any particular claim on the violin unless I learn to play it. "Recapturing" is Otis Taylor's great sensational metaphor for playing the musical styles of earlier, often exploited African American players. It shouldn't be taken literally.

9 comments on “Otis Taylor, "Recapturing" the banjo”

stanger Says:
Saturday, June 26, 2010 @8:04:23 PM

I'm not so sure African American players, especially the minstrel players, were exploited at all, even though most minstrels were white. Playing the banjo was a way for a black man, free or slave, to rise above the hard work that faced most African-Americans for a lifetime. Just like today, a talented player made a good living, and especially the few black minstrels, who became stars of their day.

tfaux Says:
Sunday, June 27, 2010 @5:28:41 AM

Thanks for the comment stanger.
After the Civil War many of the minstrel companies were actually made up of black performers in cork. They were considered to be "more authentic" by white audiences and it's true, some were fairly successful.
On the other hand, being successful in that business mainly meant setting yourself up for humiliation at best. Regarding exploitation, check out the history of the Theater Owners Booking Association (TOBA), the booking agency that handled most pro black performers in the early 20th centure. It was known as "Tough On Black Asses" for a reason. Sure, performing generally provided a better life than ironing sheets, but the life of professional black Vaudeville entertainers in the 20s and 30s was kind of textbook example of ill treatment.

stanger Says:
Sunday, June 27, 2010 @8:33:18 AM

Please don't get me wrong, Tom... I'm a fervent supporter of African-Americans taking back up the instrument that is very rightfully theirs. I believe the banjo will greatly profit from it as it happens, too.

I think your comments are over-generalized. Sure, black folks were exploited, by not to the same degree everywhere- and there was no exploitation going on at all in some areas of the country where there were very few black folks... in those areas, they were more of a curiosity than anything.
The same is true with humiliation. Humiliation is internal- one can feel humiliated or not. All comedians make humiliation their stock in trade to some degree; while the audience laughs at what they think is humiliating, the comedian is happy for the laughs and the money those laughs bring in. This is true with all races, everywhere.
Serious musicians have always been respected, regardless of their race, by other serious musicians. Respect from peers is the thing that always counts among the professionals, not public success.

I think you should drop a line to my friend Al Caldwell and get his opinions, if he has any. He's widely respected as a bass player, but he took up the banjo as an alternative instrument because he simply loved his Grandfather's playing. He had no social agenda at work when he did.

That's exactly the way it should be, I think. While the banjo is full of divisional attitudes in those who don't play or listen to it, the community of players is color-blind, indifferent to gender, age, politics, and casual stereotypes. I believe this has always been true.
Thanks for this topic. It's been hashed here on BHO before, but needs to be revived from time to time, and the BHO is always a passing parade.

tfaux Says:
Thursday, July 1, 2010 @6:06:06 AM

Again, I appreciate the comments Stanger.. Coupla points:

I think the instrument "rightfully" belongs to anyone who masters it.

Regarding over-generalization, naturally the experiences of individuals varies widely. But we can still observe trends, make observations, and have a sense of the large picture. The alienation that many black performers experienced with regard to minstrelsy, and later with TOBA is well documented. While much professional comedy involves some sort of humiliation, the minstrel shows were surely in a class of their own. Sure, there was money to be made, it was fun, and folks made their choices. But there was definately a tradeoff. Read Bert Williams' biography to get a great sense of the layers of complexity behind the minstrel mask.

With regard to serious musicians having always been respected, I guess I'd point you again to the biographies of many 19th and early 20th century African American musicians for stories, both of respect, and of heartbreaking dismissal. Fats Waller, Bud Powell, and Billie Holiday come to mind. And regarding the color-blindness and indifference to politics and stereotyping within the banjo community, I have to respectfully disagree based on plenty of first hand experience.
Again, many thanks for engaging.


stanger Says:
Thursday, July 1, 2010 @7:48:18 PM

For sure, in the long history of black entertainers, there have been times better and worse than others. I know well about those entertainers you mention.
One of the most interesting things to me about the banjo is the heavy social context that surrounds the instrument, and always has. And there has never been a single context, either.

At the height of the Classical banjo period, when white players dominated the playing, and the playing was at a very high level of complexity and expertise, the advertisements of the day, when featuring a banjo, usually had a pickinniny playing one, or an adult with the coarsest and most racial aspects to the art.

But 20 years later, at the height of the tenor banjo popularity, all of a sudden it was a white guy in a tux more commonly represented. The black banjoists in jazz bands, just as sophisticated and expert as the whites, were much less represented.

I learned in the Navy that prejudice cuts 2 ways. I had a shipmate, an Aftican-American , who I became good friends with while on a cruise. Once we came back to home port, he asked me if I wanted to come to his house for dinner one night. I readily agreed. A day or two later, he came and apologized- he said his wife wasn't comfortable with a white guy coming for dinner, and his neighbors didn't like the idea, either.
That was over 40 years ago. I think things have changed in my children's generation, but I'm just as sure that the old feelings linger on in mine. I believe that the greatest change will come only after the baby boomers are all so old they're either gone or too old to care much anymore.

tfaux Says:
Thursday, July 1, 2010 @8:07:26 PM

stanger said:
"One of the most interesting things to me about the banjo is the heavy social context that surrounds the instrument, and always has. And there has never been a single context, either. "

Man, I totally agree. I'm not sure which I love more, playing the thing, or knowing its twisted history.
Again, thanks for picking up the conversation Mike.

stanger Says:
Thursday, July 1, 2010 @8:30:04 PM

You bet! It's been fun!
I fully appreciate any player who's interested in the banjo's history. It seems to me that most players tend to over-generalize, and most aren't aware of anything except the areas they're interested in, both in construction and playing styles.

I've always dipped my toe in any style or instrument I could pick up. It's a very rich history.

BrittDLD1 Says:
Friday, July 2, 2010 @7:08:26 AM

There was an article on Otis in a recent Fretboard Journal. Perhaps you should read what HE says -- about why he titled HIS project album "Recapturing The Banjo":

stanger Says:
Friday, July 2, 2010 @8:11:06 AM

Thanks, Ed...
Tom- meet Ed. Hee and I have been pals for years, and is a go-to guy on all things banjo for sure!

Otis' remarks as to why he put the banjo down and took it back up are very similar to other African-Americans I've corresponded with.

Many African-Americans came to see the banjo as a white instrument, and a symbol of Southern racism. And there was a view that the banjo wasn't a hip instrument to begin with. Like white kids, lots of black kids were ignorant of the banjo's past, and that's still common today, I think.
While Otis may say it more directly than most African-Americans who are taking it back up, I think his attitude is widely shared. The black community is no longer willing to let others define things for them. And just like the white kids, I think Black kids are looking for new ways of expression and inspiration in their music.

Ed knows I've been tickled about this development for a long time. I really believe that banjo music desperately needs an infusion of new music and new approaches to playing. African-Americans are going to provide a lot of that, hopefully, and put the bends to a lot of the stylistic divisions I see.
Al Caldwell, like Otis, uses a hybrid style that has a lot of blues influences. Al's main instrument is a 9-string electric bass, which allows him to play fairly high into the guitar range, and he also plays the steel guitar.

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