On the Vox platform, musician Jake Blount restores the banjo to its former glory

Why This Instrument Explains Black American Folk Music

On the Vox platform, musician Jake Blount restores the banjo to its former glory

Why This Instrument Explains Black American Folk Music. On YouTube's Vox platform, in a rural and natural setting, with a smile on his lips and a light tone, Jake Blount, a young American musician aged 26, banjo virtuoso, tells why, in his opinion, this stringed instrument and folk black american are related. Why they were so long "neglected and misinterpreted". Why and how this musical genre was outright "parodied and stolen" by white labels and artists.

During slavery and the period that followed, the banjo was logically associated with black people, since they had already been using it for almost two centuries. In the 19th century, minstrels began to paint their faces black (the famous "blackface") to play the instrument for white audiences, "while mocking the black musical tradition," says Jake Blount.

Here is the paradox: it was "cultural appropriation" by white people that helped popularize the banjo and the music that goes with it. Bluegrass (country version of country music) thus appeared to be the main way to get to know this stringed instrument, as illustrated by the film Alabama Monroe (2012), by Van Groeningen, which features a white banjo player belonging to a bluegrass group, or Délivrance (1972), by John Boorman, in which a guitar-banjo duet between two white people has become cult.

Black mentors and collaborators

Pretty soon, Jake Blount laments, labels "decided to confine black musicians to the 'Race Records' category and white people to the 'Hillbilly Records' category" — "hillbilly" means "hick" in American. As a result, black people who composed "hillbilly" banjo music (early country and string bands) couldn't publish them because of their skin color, and were restricted to "black" music - which would become the most popular –: jazz and blues.

The irony is that many of the early white country musicians had black mentors or collaborators, such as Lesley Riddle (1905-1979), who taught the Carter family, a legendary country trio whose one daughter married Johnny Cash (1932-2003). As one can imagine, these professors were never recorded themselves.

Jake Blount's latest album, The New Faith, was released by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings in September 2022 as a continuation of this legacy. This "Afro-futuristic album that explores the traditional sounds of black folk after the climate crisis", as its author describes it, has been praised by The Guardian and Rolling Stone. The red thread of the album is a dystopia which depicts a small community of black people forced to flee the American continent ravaged by war. Jake Blount stages the banjo to celebrate his predecessors and do them justice. "Turns out that the technique they've been developing for a hundred years is...good," he concludes with an obvious tone, with a wry smile.