By: Cordelia Tremont
Typically when you think of banjo music, you think of Dixie, Country, and of course, the Blues. Banjo and the Blues have a very strong connection but the interesting thing is that the type of Blues played is influenced by various areas of the country. Each offers a unique sound even though it all comes from the same instrument. The banjo is a very special instrument that creates a sound like none other.
For about 300 years banjos and fiddles have been primary instruments of African American music. Ever since the late 1700s, blacks and whites alike have loved the banjo, and shared their tunes and styles. By the late 1800s and early 1900s, the music began to change, reflecting its regional roots. For instance if you listen to banjo music in the Mississippi Delta it varies quite a bit from that heard in the Virginia Piedmont.
In the early 19th century black musicians were responsible for the way the banjo sounded. Gus Cannon, more commonly known as “Banjo Joe” was a very popular player. His accompanist was often a man named Blind Blake. In 1927 “Banjo Joe” made some records for the Paramount label. His techniques soon were celebrated. Among them were “frailing”, a method still studied, slide banjo, and rolling.
Today, you hear banjo played with a square dance type sound, swing, blue grass, and everything in between. The music played in the late 1800s had a more fluid sound, almost like good friends gathering for a good, old-fashioned jam session. The sound back then was accented with off beats and speckled with rhythm. What we hear more of today is a stiffer sound. While still a wonderful instrument, you cannot help but miss the old playing of Allen Shelton and many of the other famous banjo players that knew how to cut loose.