Early Virginia Banjo Music
The banjo, long associated with country music and bluegrass, is actually an immigrant to America from Africa. It was in Virginia, however, that it began to evolve from an instrument played by slaves into the banjo familiar to modern audiences. This recording is an effort to replicate the sounds of the banjo that early Virginians would have heard. It ranges from slaves to boatmen, circus performers, and early minstrelsy, from the plantation to the parlor. Wherever they heard it, the banjo was a part of the social fabric of early Virginia.
The tunes are:
1. Pompey Ran Away (1:37)
Among runaway notices printed in 18th century Virginia newspapers there appear occasional references to fugitive slaves who play upon the banjo, banger, or banjar. This curious piece, with its constant repetition of phrase, is from "A Selection of Scotch, English, Irish, and Foreign Airs"(1782). It is subtitled "A Negro Jig (Virginia)." It is performed on a gourd banjo, accompanied by a wicker rattle and goatskin drum.
2. Juba (0:51)
Music was one of the few pleasures in the life of enslaved Virginians and any nocturnal gathering would quickly produce gourd banjos and drums, where the participants "patted" and "danced Juba" in time with the instruments. Variations on the tune "Juba" apparently go back as far as the late 18th century. The tune is performed here on a gourd banjo, with percussive accompaniment consisting of sticks, a wooden bowl, and a tin cup, as might have been heard in a slave quarter gathering.
3. Coal Black Rose (2:02)
George Washington Dixon, born in Richmond Virginia, was one of the earliest blackface entertainers. As a singer and dancer, he introduced this song about 1827. It has been described as "the first burnt-cork song of comic love" and quickly acquired a nationwide popularity. In the 1830s it was sung by a young Stephen Foster, who had formed a "Thespian Company" amongst his neighborhood playmates. The catchy lyrics, written in Negro dialect, were an early American "hit:"
Lubly Rosa, Sambo cum,
Don't you hear the Banjo
tum, tum, tum
One of the first published editions pictured "Lubly Rosa" and "Sambo" on the title page, playing on primitive gourd banjos. An early tack-head style, "cheese box" banjo is used here, with stick tap percussion and tambourine.
4. Lynchburg Town/Grapevine Twist (2:10)
Tobacco was transported down the James River by both black and white boatmen using barges and bateaux. It was marketed in Lynchburg and then made its way to the chewing tobacco and cigar manufactories in Richmond. It was natural that the banjo appeared on the river, as the boatmen entertained themselves. "Lynchburg Town" dates to the early 19th century and is combined with the "Grapevine Twist," an instrumental piece that allowed one to show off their dancing. It is played on a tack-head banjo accompanied by bones.
5. Circus Jig/Jim Along Josey (2:17)
Traveling circuses gave many early Virginians their first exposure to banjos in the hands of white performers. The aptly named "Circus Jig" recalls the days when the banjo shared the sawdust of the center ring with bareback riders and acrobats. "Jim Along Josey" was written by Edward Harper sometime around 1838. It proved to be a wildly popular song, "dat first rate ballad," known by everyone. A minstrel banjo, backed by fiddle and tambourine is heard here.
6. Whar Did You Come From? (1:23)
This song, written by Joel Walker Sweeney, was published in 1840. Sweeney, a Virginian, is generally credited with developing the modern five-string banjo, however the instrument pictured being used by Sweeney on the cover of the published sheet music depicts a four string banjo. The tune is played here as an instrumental piece on an early tack-head banjo, with bones.
7. Jonny Boker (3:56)
Another early Sweeney song, "Jonny Boker, or De Broken Yoke On De Coaling Ground," was published as one of Sweeney's "Virginia Melodies." The 1840 sheet music proclaims it as "The Original Banjo Song as sung with great applause at the Tremont Theater by J. W. Sweeney." Its popularity insured its inclusion in numerous minstrel playbills for the next two decades. It is played here on a minstrel banjo with bones accompaniment.
8. Old King Crow (2:13)
A comic song, published in 1843, Old King Crow was written by A. F. Winnemore and made popular by the Virginia Minstrels. Its refrain of "Jenny, git your hoecake," worked its way into popular vernacular and was quoted in Melville's Moby Dick. In this performance a minstrel banjo is accompanied by bones and triangle.
9. Mary Blane (1:50)
There are several variations of this sentimental song, originally written by Billy Whitlock, a member of the Virginia Minstrels, who learned to play the banjo from Joel Sweeney. Lyrics of a courtship nature are heard here, accompanied by a minstrel banjo and stick tap.
10. Alabama Joe (2:48)
This song was performed in the early 1840s by A. L. Thayer of the Guinea Minstrels and proved popular enough to be included in Briggs Banjo Instructor, published in 1855. It is performed here as an instrumental piece, using a minstrel banjo and bones.
11. Git Up In The Mornin' (2:39)
Wherever there were social gatherings in antebellum Virginia one might hear the banjo. Here two "heroes" attempt to liven up a shad bake with a lively popular tune and dance. A minstrel banjo and bones are featured.
12. The Floating Scow, or Carry Me Back To Ole Virginny (2:05)
Not to be confused with James Bland's "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny," published in 1878, this song was written by Charles T. White and published in 1847. It was a sentimental song of the type enjoyed by antebellum Virginians who believed that there was no better place on God's green earth than the Old Dominion. Homesick miners in California demanded repeated encores of the song from traveling minstrel troupes. Here it is performed with a minstrel banjo and simple forged-iron triangle.
13. Ring de Hoop & Blow de Horn (2:22)
This song appears in a songster of Edwin P. Christy's Minstrels of about 1850, subtitled "A Southern Negro Chaunt." In the period performance tradition of appealing to the audience of the moment, the location has been changed from Carolina to Virginia. It is played on a minstrel banjo, backed by a fiddle.
14. Boston Jig (2:10)
This tune, with its obvious Irish influence, demonstrates that not all banjo music concentrated on slaves and the South. It is played on a minstrel banjo, with a one-keyed flute accompaniment.
15. Jordan Is A Hard Road To Trabel (1:48)
Daniel Emmett, a member of the original Virginia Minstrels, composed this comic song about 1853. Rival minstrel performer Edwin P. Christy soon had his own version out as "The Other Side of Jordan." The lyrics commented on current events and made fun of everyone from British Royalty to the bearded lady at P.T. Barnum's American Museum. The jaunty tune soon became so popular that the Hutchinson Family Singers used it with abolitionist lyrics and in 1860, Lincoln supporters employed it to sing of the attributes of "Honest Abe." John R. Thompson, the Richmond editor of the Southern Literary Messenger, used the tune in 1863 for his Confederate takeoff, "Richmond Is A Hard Road to Travel." An instrumental version is performed here on a minstrel banjo with percussion provided by fire tongs, sticks, and wooden bowl.
16. Virginia Belle (2:16)
Facing financial difficulties, songwriter Stephen Foster published a dozen songs in 1860. Among them was "Virginia Belle," which was quickly dashed off and copyrighted on November 15, 1860. It was a maudlin parlor ballad, catering to the mid-19th century mania for bereavement and mourning. Here it is played using a minstrel banjo and one-keyed flute.
The Performers are:
Carson O. Hudson, Jr.: Gourd banjo, tack-head banjo, minstrel banjo, fiddle, bones, tambourine, fire-tongs, vocals.
Bill "Bones" Rose: Bones, tambourine, vocals, smoke-house dancing.
William Randolph Balderson: Gourd and wooden bowl percussion, wicker rattle, goatskin drum, tambourine, vocal background.
Valli Anne Trusler: Fiddle, vocal background.
Amy Miller: One-keyed flute, vocals.
Abigail Schumann: Hand clapping, vocal background, adoring bystander.
Total Playing Time: 35:06
All songs and tunes are traditional and/or public domain. Performance arrangements are Â© 2003 Carson O. Hudson, Jr.
Recorded May 20-23, 2003 at the Colonial Williamsburg Recording Studio, Bruton Heights Education Center, Williamsburg, Virginia.
Recording and mix down Engineer: Todd A. Judge, MPSE
Assistant Engineer: Chuck Smith, C.A.S.
Producer: Carson Hudson, Jr.
Check out the artist's website:
1. Pompey Ran Away
3. Coal Black Rose
4. Lynchburg Town/Grapevine Twist
5. Circus Jig/Jim Along Josie
6. Whar Did You Come From?
7. Jonny Boker
8. Old King Crow
9. Mary Blane
10. Alabama Joe
11. Git Up In The Mornin'
12. The Floating Scow
13. Ring De Hoop & Blow De Horn
14. Boston Jig
15. Jordan Is A Hard Road To Trabel
16. Virginia Belle