When most people think of the banjo, they think of bluegrass music or other country-like styles. Few today remember that the banjo came to North America with the Africans brought over as slaves in the 1700s. These early versions of the instrument were simply fretless sticks attached to an animal hide-covered gourd, strung with three or four strings.
Interestingly enough the manner in which they were played still exists today in the style known as "claw hammer". The player doesn't strum the instrument but plucks on the strings, literally clawing and hammering out the tune. It's this percussive style that most of us are used to seeing utilized in today's modern folk and bluegrass bands.
It's difficult for us to think of the banjo as an instrument used to play the blues; that's something we normally associate with guitars, harmonicas, and bass. But from the turn of the twentieth century up to the 1930s and 40s, the banjo featured heavily in the blues that was being played in the Border States like the Carolinas.
What we today would call country blues has its roots in this music. Unlike the fierce assault on the senses of the twelve bar blues that came up out of the Mississippi Delta, these blues were blended with the sounds of the Tennessee hill country. A meeting of the traditional Irish and Scotch ballads that were brought over by the European settlers and the music of the African slaves.
Where this music flourished the most was in the mix blood families that appeared to have the freedom to mingle with both the races and absorb and learn both styles of music. Sisters Etta Baker and Cora Phillips came from just such a family. According to family history, and the United State Census of 1850, they were a mix of Black, Native, and European bloodlines. Indeed, looking at a picture of the two sisters, one wouldn't know they were from the same race let alone blood kin.
The Music Maker Relief Foundation has released Carolina Breakdown, a CD of songs that were recorded between 1988 and 1990 in the homes of the two sisters. On occasion the tape has been left to run so you can hear them chatting before the songs. You get the feeling that you've stepped back in time to the days of house parties where neighbours would walk for miles to come sit in on a jam session that could go all night.