Musical Roots

You can’t change the past.

 

What’s done is done and there’s no way to undo it.

 

But don’t tell that to Rhiannon Giddens.

 

The 28-year-old musician has become an enthusiastic champion for reintroducing the banjo into the black community.

 

The truth is that black culture and the banjo go way back. It’s just that along the way, things went awry. For nearly a century, banjos were the musical mainstay of blackface minstrel shows. Their distinct “plinka-plunk” was the soundtrack to racist musical revues and bigoted novelty songs.

 

Today, Giddens and a small group of dedicated musicians are working to reacquaint the African-American community with a musical instrument that is more theirs than they realize.

 

It might seem an unusual cause for a classically trained soprano from a folk-music family in North Carolina. But then again, nothing Giddens does is typical.

 

She grew up in Greensboro, the daughter of a black mother and a white father who were both part American Indian. Her dad played folk at local clubs; Giddens sang at Indian gatherings. At home, Giddens sang with her sister and absorbed the sounds of Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez and The Police.

 

She earned a master’s degree in opera from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio and pursued a passion for the traditional music of the British Isles. Giddens learned flatfooting and the fiddle. She joined Gaelwynd, a Celtic band from North Carolina. And she became an avid contra dancer and folk-dance caller.

 

As a black woman adrift in a sea of Scottish dancers, opera singers, Celtic musicians and Appalachian folk enthusiasts, Giddens was used to standing out.

 

“I’m exotic. The token, the mascot, whatever,” she said. “I can accept that.”

 

Aside from the inevitable “Funny, you don’t look Irish,” she fit in nicely. But then along came the banjo.

She was first exposed to the five-string twang at folk dances, where many of the backing bands played old-time music.

 

“I really liked it, but I always thought only white people played it,” Giddens said.

 

But an “aha” moment came after she read “African Banjo Echoes in Appalachia,” by Cecelia Conway, a professor at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C. In the book, Conway traced the origins of the banjo back to Africa, where early versions were made with gourds and animal skins.

 

In the 1700s, African slaves who were transported to Latin America and the Caribbean brought the instruments with them. Thomas Jefferson noted that the “banjer” was a popular diversion among slaves at Monticello.

 

“There is such a negative connotation to the banjo,” Giddens said, “but it is truly an African-American instrument.”

 

In January, the North Carolina native moved to Richmond to teach music and drama to first- and second-graders through SPARC (School of the Performing Arts in the Richmond Community). When the job didn’t pan out, she focused on being a full-time musician.

 

Giddens found local gigs and made frequent trips to North Carolina. But she struggled. Even though Virginia, and her home state, were incredibly rich with black musical heritage and accomplished artists, she still felt out of her element.

 

“I dreamt of being in an all-black string band, but I didn’t feel like part of a community,” she said. “I felt like I was forcing my way into this all-white club.”

 

One day, she found salvation on the Internet.

 

She discovered Black Banjo: Then & Now, a small online community of black banjo enthusiasts formed in March 2004. The group was also very interested in setting the record straight about the instrument’s heritage.

 

From the start, the banjoists had their work cut out for them. Even in their own group, they were an anomaly. Out of more than 200 members, only about 30 were African-American.

 

But 30 was enough for Giddens. She jumped in with both feet (likely bare, since she can’t play banjo with shoes on).

 

She contacted the group’s founder, Tony Thomas, a 57-year-old black folk musician from Miami. And she helped organize the Black Banjo: Then & Now Gathering, a four-day coming-together of members that took place at Appalachian State last month.

 

“Tony pictured 10 of us hanging out, eating barbecue and playing banjo,” Giddens said.

 

But attendance far exceeded their expectations, as did the energy level. The crowd included musicians, historians, fans and notables such as banjoist Bela Fleck. Inspired performances by artists including Mike Seeger, Joe Thompson, The Ebony Hillbillies and Don Vappie led to riotous jam sessions. The atmosphere was electric and the experience, pivotal, Giddens said.

 

“I happen to be a very spiritual person; I feel like we were being watched over,” she said. “It changed my life. I feel like it’s what I’ve been waiting for my whole life and I didn’t even know it.”

 

Joan Dickerson, a 61-year-old classic banjoist from Pittsburgh, was inspired by the new generation and heartened by the camaraderie.

 

“Each of us had some issues,” Dickerson said, “as to the acceptance of the banjo in the black community. But now we won’t be performing alone; we’ll be performing knowing this is a celebration of history and ancestry.”

 

For Dickerson, the most important thing is to move the music forward.

 

“The banjo has always adapted to whatever music was popular at the time,” Dickerson said. “We have to get some modern music kids to grab a banjo. If we don’t, it will die out with people who play old music.”

 

That urgency likely inspired Dickerson to hand over a gift that left Giddens speechless. The new banjo was far superior to the Deering Goodtime that cost Giddens two months of hostessing at Romano’s Macaroni Grill.

 

“She just gave it to me,” Giddens said. “That’s what the gathering was about, helping each other out, keeping it alive.”

 

After returning to Richmond, Giddens said she went through withdrawal. She needed a way to continue what began in Boone. She needed a band.

 

Giddens called on a pair of Gathering alumni, veteran percussionist Sule Greg Wilson and rising banjoist Dom Flemmons. All three agreed that the show must go on and, despite the logistical hurdles (Wilson and Flemmons live in Phoenix), formed the San Kofa Strings. Giddens will visit Arizona in June and has already started lining up dates for a short tour.

 

A “San Kofa” is a West African glyph that means “go back and get it,” or, as Wilson put it, “As you move forward, bring the things you need with you from the past.”

 

Wilson, an author, musician and educator, hopes that the San Kofa Strings will inspire young people to make their own music.

 

“All black kids see is music that is processed,” Wilson said. “There is this whole world of music out there. Black people are not BET [Black Entertainment Television]. We are much more than that. We have always been much more than that.”

 

Giddens can’t wait to get started, to play and let the banjo speak for itself. For her, every song will be a red line through revisionist history. Every performance will shake loose more demons.

 

“I want to jump on it right now,” she said. “I think the time is right.”

 

You can’t change the past. But every time Rhiannon Giddens slips on her banjo strap and slides off her shoes, she turns bad memories into a bright future.

 

Originally published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on May 9, 2005
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