Banjo to Blues: American’s Culture is the Child of an African One - Nunzio Rosselli


Banjo to Blues: American’s Culture is the Child of an African One

            In a country that is supposed to be moving forward and being on the forefront of change, what we see on social media and the television can often make our societal climate seem very much fit for a past century. While problems based on racial tensions are inappropriate for the 21st century and need to be talked about soberly and dealt with,  I think we far too little celebrate what diversity of culture has brought the world-and specifically in this case, America- in our public spheres. African culture preserved by slaves in North America and the Caribbean islands mixed with European cultures like the English, French, and Scotts Irish to shape and redefine a brand new culture: American culture. From fire roasted Caribbean meats becoming modern day barbecue, to African Gourd Akontings becoming the quintessential American banjo, many cliché aspects of American culture begin their roots in African Slave ships. African rhythms and storytelling, combined with Scotts Irish ballads to become the blues, in particular is prime mover of American culture, from blues music to jazz ,rock and roll and even pop music.[1]

            Rock and roll was one of the biggest revolutions in modern music. Many people however are unaware that rock and roll wasn’t invented overnight, but rather it evolved over time, predominantly out of certain styles of the blues that were popular in the 1950’s. To understand the blues however, we have to go back hundreds of years. It too evolved, but it was hundreds of years-not a just a few-before the style gained its name as “the blues.”

                        When slaves first arrived in America in 1619, they were stripped of any identity. It’s only part of human nature to adapt and persevere, and that’s what slaves did. I am interested in how this impacted our music today. Slaves carried with them certain musical elements foreign to Europeans, like rhythmic beats, call and response, and story telling through song. This story telling is how slaves kept tradition and history in a nation which stripped them of the privilege of reading and writing.[2] Instruments were made to represent certain African instruments, like the Akonting. This was a stringed instrument one played with their index and thumb, to accompany a singing voice with a melody. In the new world, slaves recreated this out of a hollowed out gourd and a broom stick. This would eventually become the  “banjo”.[3] Instruments like this were used by slaves to express their historical and contemporary strife, when coupled with their rhythmic beats and storytelling.

When viewing the evolution of music from slavery in a linear fashion, one of the first types of music could be considered to have started with field hollers. During  “field hollers”, slaves would sing about the hardships of slavery, and would yell back and forth to each other to tell a tale. This led to the call and response songs that slaves would use to make music while working in the fields. This storytelling aspect eventually fused with something that Europeans introduced: the hymn and the ballad.  These ballads told long epics, and soon, African slaves were combining and fusing these musical elements. Yet another fusion occurred when African American slaves were converted to Christianity: the Spiritual. This invoked religion, coupled with “field hollers” or call and response, and eventually hymns, to express faith as well as the hardships of slavery. A more contemporary Spiritual which many people are familiar with, is “Wade in the Water” written by an unknown songwriter around 1900. It incorporates call and response, rhythm, hymns, and religious elements, and is recognizable to most people.

It’s important to realize that some of these changes were happening simultaneously. This was not a linear evolution. Somewhere, not written down, never recorded, was the beginning of the birth of the blues, and it is often said, “the blues wasn’t written. It was born”. Over generations, these call and response in certain plantations was combined with the ballad, now telling full stories over repetitive beats and rhythms. The two finger picking on the Akonting had given way to banjo picking, and the guitar had made its way into the mix as well. Now, people were sharing stories of hardship and faith, while picking on a guitar in a similar fashion to how the banjo had been picked. They were mimicking call and response on the instrument along with their voice, and sometime around the late 1800’s, probably the 1890’s-early 1900’s the “blues” ,as a musical style, was born.[4]

Many scholars would agree that this “birth of the blues”  can be estimated to be around the mid to late 1860s. [5]This was an especially hard period in African American life, just before, during , and shortly after the civil war. The blues was a way of venting the anger and woes of African American life, and it’s no doubt that this was a time in which the blues gained many of the attributes we know of today-songs with sad or harsh verses, common blues patterns played on an old guitar, and so on. Some notable musicians of this style include Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, and Charlie Patton, the father of Delta blues, recognizable by its heavy use of the finger slide.

The blues took many forms, the delta blues being one of the most noticeable, with its distinct twang of the picked guitar or banjo and the glass slide giving it an almost Indian sound. But all blues music had one thing in common, it told a story. Usually that of hardship, originally about the predicament of the life of African Americans, and eventually about love songs and other emotional themes. The first blues recording was “Crazy Blues” by the Jazz Hounds in 1920. This paved the road for legends of the blues like John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, and B.B King. The blues and what it had morphed into became a big hit in the early to mid-20th century. Other groups started to adopt the blues and incorporate it into new styles. Chuck Berry, credited with being the father of rock and roll, used blues bars to forge this new style. The Rolling Stones, a household name in rock and roll, based their sound almost entirely on the blues of the past, and even did covers of traditional blues tunes.

It’s no question that the blues is very much alive, in one way or another. Most of our modern music is based off of the same principles as well. Whether you know it or not, when you turn on the radio, you are listening to musical elements developed in the blues. I find it fascinating that such an American sound is African in origin. You can hear the rhythm in the chunky bars of Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley. You can hear the call and response in the notes B.B King plays. It started in the West Coast of Africa, was formed and refined in the fields of American plantations, and ended up on the frets of King’s guitar.


[1] Singley, Roots 2020

[2] LOC, African American Song

[3] NPR, Banjos Roots

[4] LOC Painful Birth of Blues, 2017

[5] Pearley, Historical Roots of Blues Music, 2018

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