History with a Banjo

Class, Race, and Gender opened this semester to the toe tapping soundtrack of Ken Burns’ documentary Unforgivable Blackness. In fact, throughout the semester, music has been a constant accompaniment to our readings, from the spirituals written about by W.E.B. Dubois to the dancing in Junot Diaz’s story, “Fiesta 1980.”  Every age, region, and culture has a musical story, and as I read David Hollinger’s “National Culture and Communities of Descent,” I began to hear music in my head.

Hollinger introduces in his article the idea of “the will to descend” which he describes as “the claiming, on behalf of a particular descent-community, of contributions to civilization the value of which is already recognized in a social arena well beyond the particular descent-community on behalf of which genetic ownership of those contributions is being asserted.”[1]  This concept is similar to a idea that inspires the work of one of my favorite current musical acts, The Carolina Chocolate Drops.  The Carolina Chocolate Drops are a trio of young black musicians who explore the folk music of the Piedmont region through the use of traditional instruments such as the banjo, fiddle, jugs, kazoos, and bones.  In an interview with Terry Gross of NPR’s Fresh Air in 2010, they explained how their music is shaped by the West African phrase Sankofa.  Sankofa is a proverb which means “go back and fetch it and bring it forward.” [2]  The title track from their most recent album which was released this spring is called “Genuine Negro Jig,” and the story behind it captures both the idea of Sankofa and “the will to descend.”  In the video below the band explains the history of the song at a live show in Chicago.

As you can see, the Carolina Chocolate Drops are interested not only in preserving the heritage of black string music, but also acknowledgement of the presence of black musicians in the work of Dan Emmitt, the white father of the minstrel show.  While I have not read the book they reference, Way Up North in Dixie: A Black Families Claim to the Confederate Anthem, it seems to be a credible example of Hollinger’s idea of “the will to descend.”  What better symbol for the African American community to claim than the politically charged song of the south.  Hopefully the future will see more communities of descent become interested in the rich musical heritage of the United States.

[1] David Hollinger, “National Culture and Communities of Descent,” in The Challenge of American History: 319.

[2]Audio Transcript, “Carolina Chocolate Drops: Tradition From Jug to Kazoo,” Fresh Air March 1, 2010.

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