Feb 6, 2021
[Updated July 4, 2021]
Black Lives Matter. I stand in solidarity with the black community.
For the past eight months I've been working on recognizing how I have benefited from White Privilege and trying to figure out how I can amplify black voices in my own space, which is bluegrass space--banjo space.
In recognition of Black History Month, I've tackled expanding, reorganizing, and updating this list of Black banjo resources to include bluegrass players, not just banjo.
Genres here range from old-time and bluegrass to Americana to hip-hop. This is not an exhaustive list, by any means. If you know of others, please let me know. The first four musicians listed collaborated on the amazing Grammy-nominated project "Songs Of Our Native Daughters."
Jake Blount, His new album "Spider Tales" is a perfect old-time album.
Kaia Kater, a black Canadian banjo player in the Americana vein.
Dom Flemons - co-founded the premier black old-time string band the Carolina Chocolate Drops in 2005, along with Rhiannon Giddens and Justin Robinson. He has garnered much acclaim as a solo artist and plays banjo, as well as just about every other instrument used in traditional music.
Tray Wellington - Young North Carolina bluegrass banjo player.
Chris Lord - English bluegrass banjo (and other instruments) player.
Valerie June - I have linked here to her singing "Drink Up And Go Home" accompanied by her own banjo playing. She is a hugely eclectic artist who spans genres, but her voice touches me in a similar way to Ralph Stanley or Hazel Dickens.
Greg Donlan - Bluegrass banjo player. Has a CD available if you message him through his Facebook page.
Gangstagrass - This multi-racial band plays a really interesting mashup of bluegrass and hip hop. Who knew banjo and rapping went so well together.
Hannah Mayree - California-based Americana artist.
Seemore Love - Does some cool improvisations on the banjo.
Nick Nicholson - Bluegrass mandolin player in California
The Ebony Hillbillies - Black old-time stringband from New York City. Their banjo player, Norris Bennett, passed away in May, 2020. I remember seeing him around at places like the IBMA conventions. They have released at least four albums, which are available at all the usual music places.
Joelle Tambe-Ebot - plays bass with Arizona band Cisco and the Racecars.
Blake Atkins - plays banjo for the Just Us Bluegrass Band. The only links I can find for him are old, so I don't know if the band is still performing.
Joshua Jimmerson - A banjo student of mine who is brimming with potential. I can't wait to see how his banjo playing develops.
Tony Thomas - is a old-time banjo player and historian. He gave a presentation on Key Concepts of Banjo History at the 18th Banjo Collectors Gathering. And his YouTube channel features several songs he performed with the Ebony Hillbillies. He wrote a fabulous photo essay for the Oxford American Studies Center called The Banjo and African American Musical Culture. He has chapters in the books Hidden In The Mix: The African American Presence in Country Music, and Banjo Roots and Branches.
Jake Blount recently compiled this page on Black Stringband Music: Recommended Resources on his website that lists excellent reading and listening links.
And this treasure trove of a website: African Bluegrass. It is compiled by Black bluegrass musician Adrian McKee, who played bass with the Unity Bluegrass Band, and has TONS of information. I haven't even had time to read through it all myself.
Banjology - Laurent Dubois, the author of The Banjo, has this website with all sorts of banjo history stuff to dive into. Excellent resource!
If you, like me, are wondering why bluegrass and old-time are so dominated by white musicians, reading or listening to Rhiannon Giddens's IBMA Keynote address from 2017 is a great place to start.
MUST READ: The Banjo, by Laurent Dubois. This fabulous book traces the history of the banjo from its development in the seventeenth-century Caribbean up through modern times. Also sheds light on why bluegrass and old-time are so white.
FOR THE SCHOLARLY-MINDED: Banjo Roots and Branches, by Robert Winans, et al. A collection of scholarly essays on the history of the banjo containing the most up-to-date research. It corrects much of what has been incorrectly assumed about the banjo's past.
Elderly Instruments is a black-owned business so it is a great place to spend your music dollars.
Black Banjo Reclamation Project - Aims to get more banjos into the hands of Black musicians.
Here is a good article by music scholar Charles Wolfe on rural black string band music: https://nativeground.com/rural-black-string-band-music-charles-wolfe/
The IBMA Foundation has established the Arnold Shultz fund "to support activities increasing participation of people of color in bluegrass music." Arnold Shultz was a Black guitar and fiddle player, the son of a former slave, and was a primary influence on Bill Monroe when he was learning and developing his style of music. Read more here. You can donate to the fund, as I have, through the link at the top of this page.
Exploring Black old-time and bluegrass music: DJ Peter Thompson hosts a weekly show on KALW called Bluegrass Signal. He devoted one of his July shows to Black musicians: "Peter Thompson presents contemporary performances by Black old time and bluegrass musicians, writing their own or reclaiming traditional material, along with an interview with Dr. Richard Brown about the seminal influence of Arnold Schultz. Included in the program are Kaia Kater, Dom Flemons, Hubby Jenkins, Richie Brown, Our Native Daughters, Carolina Chocolate Drops, Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah, Leyla McCalla, Vera Hall, Arnold Schultz, The Ebony Hillbillies, Jake Blount, … and others!"
It is no longer available to listen to, but you can check out the playlist. It is the second of the two lists here. The first one (last week's show) was exploring the Black roots of old-time and bluegrass, whereas this week's focused more on the contemporary side. And here is an Instagram post where a bunch of the album covers are arranged nicely if you want a more visual representation. Also the musicians are tagged if they are on Instagram.
I will continue to update this post as I find new information, but I'd better go ahead and post it now before I get interrupted!