African Roots

The Banjo

The banjo was brought to western civilization by the memories of enslaved Africans taken from their homes beginning in the 16th century. From there, the ability of slaves to be able to play the banjo became a coveted and bragged about skill amongst slave holders. The banjo was played exclusively by African Americans in colonial times and early America and was mostly a southern instrument. It began to become popular among white people when blackface performers began to use the instrument. The banjo shares design elements and playing techniques with African plucked spike lutes, which is where most agree the banjo originated from. However, the banjos made in the Caribbean had a gourd body and flat, fretless fingerboards.

The banjo was also used by runaway slaves to make money but could also be a detail that led to their recapture by their slave holders. Some slaveholders would advertise runaway slaves’ ability to play the banjo. Some slave owners did not like the fact that slaves possessed a skill that they did not and banned the banjo from their premises. They feared that music would bring slaves together and could lead to a potential uprising. Others took advantage of the skills slaves possessed and used them as performers in front of guests.

I think this song emulates the feeling that many slaves had when they would share music amongst themselves. Music was seen as an escape from the horrible reality that slaves lived in. This song was written by Amythyst Kiah and won her a Grammy and also won her Song of the Year at Folk Alliance International awards. The song emulates the scene of slaves working in the field. In the lyrics she sings to the oppression and the hypocrisy of the oppressors.  

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