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Black Banjo Songsters of North Carolina & Virginia (Smithsonian/Folkways SF CD 40079)


Have to say that I’ve been (sadly) disappointed w/the Smithsonian’s tenure as the owners of Folkways... Most of their easily available cds merely recycle 60s urban “folk” stuff...that has never actually been hard to get ahold of - or follows other labels re current “world music” trends. Meanwhile, truly irreplacable back-catalogue material languishes - only intermittently available on cdr, and w/difficult access - look: the whole situation is a damnable disgrace, especially for an institution w/the resources of the Smithsonian...and we ought to take every opportunity available to attack them for it...

This one, however, is a marvellous exception. Unfortunately, w/the eyes & ears of early researchers firmly fixed upon “the blues”, much of the most fascinating archaic rural black American music went almost unrecorded, until most of its key practitioners had died off without real heirs. In no other area was this trend more marked than with black banjo players - until the 70s, when Cecelia Conway (and others) finally started to document this stuff in real detail.

Because, let’s face it...the history of the banjo is bloody odd! A black instrument, now viewed as a hallmark of authentic white rural styles...and played by few blacks today - the whole situation is very strange, and the material that was recorded opens up entire stylistic vistas for that instrument, that no younger players are (yet) exploring...

Now, there’s a wealth of different artists/approaches on this collection - the companion-piece to Conway’s (marvellous) book African Banjo Echoes in Appalachia (Tennessee: 1995) - but, like her, I’m entirely fascinated by the great Dink Roberts...the most unique & archaic artist she worked with - and whose recordings alone would make this disc an essential one, even if all the rest were omitted.

The home-made fretless banjo sounds like no other...it shuffles/hammers, constantly shifting the angle of attack, while his gnarled voice delivers gnomic fragments amidst its outpourings and - underneath - the foot taps on, grounding all...Dink always refused to deliver “proper” finished performances - instead, he’d slyly slip bits in throughout his monologues, like some shaman that denied even the possibility of de-contextualized learning - and usually “ended” his music w/a joyous chuckle...having (once more) denied fixity in favour of life...

Sadly, Dink - and his headrag-adorned dancing partner Lily - are no longer with us... But, we should remember them, and their high-living, tricksterish style, for what they were - a great affirmation of human originality and spirit, and an eternal reproach to all those who would seek form/system at the expense of same...




John Henry Calvinist