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.
Cora was well into her 80s when these recordings were made, so her technique probably wasn’t quite what it used to be, but her banjo and guitar playing are still smooth as silk. Listening to the sounds of the guitar and the banjo, or the two guitars, interweave is like listening to silk being spun.
Fine, intricate, and satiny is the best way to describe this music. Instead of the usual mad dash that I’m accustomed to hearing on songs like “John Henry”, licks are lovingly caressed and played for texture not speed. As musical styles go, it’s as different as night and day from the work of the blues musicians of today.
Carolina Breakdown is like a missing link in the development of American popular music. It captures in time one of the ways that the European and African roots of our culture first began to blend to form something unique to this continent. It’s also more than just a historical document.
It’s testimony to the fact that music is the province of the people. Originally it came out of memories of the music from whatever your country of origin. Music was the sole means of entertainment for some these communities in the Carolinas and it was the common ground between the different folks who settled in the area: it was a means of communicating
There were no record executives or producers to tell artists how they should combine the seemingly disparate modes of expression, so it just happened over the course of the all night jam sessions. If the players liked the way something sounded they kept it and somehow or other it became part of the collective understanding of what made up music.
Etta Baker and Cora Phillips are masters of this musical style. Their playing on Carolina Breakdown is a joy to listen to. There is something mellowing and relaxing about this music that makes you tap your toes and sway your body to the beat and rhythm. This was music that was going to be played all night long, so it wasn’t in any hurry; it had all the time in the world.
Listen to this music and be transported briefly back to simpler times. Listen to this album and appreciate the amazing talent that’s been hidden away from the public for years. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I put this disc in the machine to give it a listen the first time and I was blown away right off the top with their version of the standard “John Henry”. From then on, they had me.
If you have a love of traditional blues and old time country music, you will probably love this album. But there’s another good reason for buying this album aside from the great music: The Music Make Relief Foundation.
These folks have produced this and countless other albums of musicians who might otherwise have been forgotten. The money made from the sale of these discs, and other ventures, is used to help support some of these people who have ended up with nothing.
If you follow the link above you’ll find more information about programming and the artists who appear on their label. How often is it that we get a chance to listen to somebody’s music and know that by buying their CD we are making a real difference in the quality of their life?
If all the music they produce and sell is even half as good as Etta Baker & Cora Phillips’ Carolina Breakdown then they should have no problem in making good on their ambition to help keep these people going.