originally published 7/16/2008
At left, Banjo Bluesman John White with a “Why Gourd” Bob Thornburg jumbo gourd banjo. Behind him are examples of fretless Victorian era English banjos.
When most people think banjo, bluegrass comes to mind.
Restricting the instrument to this relatively modern usage misses a long, though mostly unknown and unrecorded, history originating with African slaves in the Caribbean.
Longtime Pickens musician John White, best known for his fiddle-playing in the Yeller Cats, has gone back to roots of the banjo for his first cd, Banjo Blues.
“Taking the banjo back to the pre-recording days,” White said he has developed this blues style and theory based on what makes sense with the way early banjo players used the instrument as well as how the early blues was played.
This style of blues banjo would also have fit the purpose of the early music to provide entertainment and dancing by the slaves. He notes that the African slaves “revolutionized rhythm, scales and notes everywhere they went” playing music mostly for their own entertainment.
Banjos were a prime instrument in minstrel shows, well before they became a staple of bluegrass pickers, but were almost completely replaced by the guitar when recordings started being made of original artists in the rural south.
Listening to both the banjo work and blues produced by musiciants in the 1920s-1930s shows a surprising amount of talent and advanced musicianship, according to White.
“They were amazing,” he said. “They weren’t primitive; they might have been economically depressed, but not primitive by any stretch.”
White said he began experimenting with the blues-use after he purchased a fretless banjo.
The fretless banjo suits blues playing as the early players were slaves who would have been looking for notes and scales they were familiar with from their own culture - tones that would have been difficult to reproduce on a modern fretted banjos.
For the cd, White plays much of it on a “gourd banjo” made from a large gourd sliced in half in the same style as the early slaves who were looking re-create African instruments. These banjos are available online and handmade in several places today. Some other songs on Banjo Blues are played using an early English banjo, also fretless -- again found by White online.
“The banjo has gone full-circle” White says of his playing in an earlier style and with the simple gourd design.
For the album, White plays both instrumentals that he wrote and covers of traditional blues songs such as Wake Up Mama, later made famous by an Allman Brothers cover (Statesboro Blues), and Crazy About You from Little Walter.
Along with the “Why” gourd and a Victorian banjo, White uses a rubbing gourd, a rain stick and a washtub bass, made in Pickens County by Rocky Collins.
In an odd blending, the cd is mostly played on reproductions of the earliest instruments but was recorded at White’s home directly on computer.
White is known locally as both a Pickens High teacher and as the fiddle player with the Yeller Cats since the mid 1990s. The Yeller Cats have recorded some material, but White said they were never satisfied with it and it has never been released. The Yeller Cats continue to play at public events.
A Pickens native, White started playing fiddle with some lessons in college. He learned the basic fundamentals and started “toying with Irish and Celtic music.”
From there he attended some festivals and got into “old timey” music, a style that predates bluegrass, though many casual listeners will group them together as bluegrass.
Even though Pickens and the rest of the North Georgia mountains are home to a dwindling number of true “old-timey” musicians, White said he didn’t grow up with any particular homegrown influences, listening mostly to the commercial music that everyone else did.
White said he had always enjoyed the blues and much of the music on Banjo Blues comes as a result of him “messing around” with the songs he liked on the fretless banjo.
“If you’re in the right mindset, the sounds comes out,” he said.
Although he has heard recordings of early blues musicians saying they learned certain songs from banjo-playing elders, there is little recorded music with the banjo used for the blues.
But White said, “The rhythmic possibilities of the banjo are infinite.”