When you hear a banjo, what images come to mind? Maybe an old white guy plucking a tune on a sagging porch, or a river rapids trip that’s about to go terribly wrong? Those are valid associations, but there’s a lot more to the instrument, says Silver Spring-based musician Dom Flemons. In his performance at the 12th annual Mike Seeger Commemorative Old Time Banjo Festival at The Birchmere on Sunday, Flemons will trace the history of the banjo from its Afro-Caribbean roots to its role in the development of quintessentially American genres including folk, bluegrass, jazz, ragtime and beyond. Flemons, formerly of the Grammy-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops, gave us a glimpse into this humble instrument’s fascinating past and potential future.
You don’t generally see a lot of black banjo players.
You know, the banjo is an African-derived instrument. It started as a gourd-based instrument that was brought over back in slavery days, and it was something enslaved Africans had as a part of their culture. And then it developed from these varied instruments from across the continent into the banjo as we know it. So the banjo is one of the few instruments indigenous to the United States.
Why did African-American musicians abandon the banjo at some point?
I think it was the same thing that moved people away from string-band music. During the Great Migration [which began around 1916], people didn’t want to be associated with the old sharecropping system. The banjo represented a community in the South that was born out of slavery, and so if you’re someone who has just been emancipated and you move away from that old culture, the banjo is left behind with it. African-Americans moved to the North and West, from rural places to cities, and music went towards jazz, blues, spirituals and then, later, gospel music. The guitar ended up becoming the instrument for the blues, and the banjo was left behind.
So is that how the banjo ended up becoming almost a musical cue for backwoods racism?
One of the best-known banjo tracks is “Dueling Banjos.” It was actually made by two studio musicians — very refined players who were playing these very sophisticated folk arrangements. Ten years later, their music got unceremoniously repackaged as the soundtrack to “Deliverance,” which cemented its association with some of the darkest parts of Appalachian and rural white culture.
Musically, what makes the banjo special?
It has the elements of a melody instrument and it has the head of a drum. You can roll through chords and create these very sophisticated rhythms and play the melodic line and a countermelody, all at the same time. That’s what’s always drawn me to this instrument — it can do so many things all at once. It can fit any type of music and it can really go anywhere.
How did you end up playing banjo?
Being from Phoenix, Ariz., I found one in an old music shop. I had been playing the guitar at that point, and I ended up developing a style of banjo playing that combines aspects of country, blues guitar, Dixieland jazz as well as old-time banjo music. Then I came to North Carolina for the Black Banjo Gathering of 2005, and I learned about the very deep history of the banjo. That’s where [Carolina Chocolate Drops] began coming together, and that was something I found very important from the get-go: to be young, educated, African-American performers that were adding our voices to the general conversation about the banjo.
It sounds like education has always been a big part of your mission as a musician.
That was something I found was very important — adding African-American history back into the early history of American music. Now young African-American musicians are listening to old-time music and folk music and saying, “Oh, I think that’s cool. Is there anyone that looks like me represented within this music?” And now they have kind of a precedent within which to develop their own journey.
I’m amazed that such a simple instrument can have so much historical baggage.
That’s the thing that makes the banjo so important! In its original context, the banjo had to sound African, but it couldn’t simply reference backwards, it had to move forward. It had to produce music that was new and fresh. It reminds me of a proverb from the Gold Coast of Africa, “sankofa,” and it means, “Go back and fetch it.” Take the things from the past that you want, and take that with you into the present, into the future. The banjo, to me, is the physical manifestation of that idea.
Old-timey meets new
The 12th annual Mike Seeger Commemorative Old Time Banjo Festival isn’t just a trip down memory lane. The event features a variety of innovative folk musicians. Dom Flemons will perform new songs he’s written about black cowboys and other forgotten figures of the American West. The lineup also includes Grammy winners Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer, who infuse familiar folk arrangements with progressive messages, and father-son duo Ken and Brad Kolodner, who push the technical boundaries of the banjo and hammer dulcimer with inventive virtuosity. The Birchmere, 3701 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria; Sun., 7:30 p.m., $29.50.