Earlier this week I traveled north to play some music with my friend Marek Bennett, with whom I share a mutual interest in 19th century banjo. Springtime is good for renewing connections and rediscovering passions; I spent most of this last winter isolated and sitting at the sewing machine, but there is nothing like making music with other people. Marek is one half of The Hardtacks, who released a new album called Global Banjar just last month. The album features a number of 19th century songs performed on period style instruments. Here’s Jordan is a Hard Road, which was quite a popular song around the time of the US Civil War:
Because the 5 string banjo has become so closely associated with American country and folk traditions, there is a widespread (and incorrect) assumption that the instrument was invented by white European immigrants in the hills of Appalachia. Although it’s true that the banjo is closely associated with traditional music from that region, its origins lie in the gourd instruments of west Africa which made their way to the Caribbean and North America because of the slave trade, and eventually evolved into what we know as the banjo, becoming wildly popular in 19th century popular culture. It’s a complex and uncomfortable history of cultural appropriation and racism, and the Hard Tacks as well as other responsible early banjo enthusiasts are trying to recognize some of those issues while keeping this music alive.