Griot Story – Part 2 (Thus Spoke Bruce)

Part 2

Thus Spoke Bruce

Perhaps Bruce can fill in some detail on all this. He was certainly good at filling in the details when it came to African history and folk music. Naturally, as with everything else, once you scratch the surface of a subject you discover a whole new world of enthusiasts, specialists, hobbyists and researchers, and this was no exception. Bruce, it seemed, had been on this African trek for some time. I don’t know just how long he had been specifically tracing out the African connections; I do know he had a lot of them, had been to Africa a number of times and kept in touch with African communities here in the U.S. As to just what sparked this interest in African music, I have an idea, but you’d best ask him. It wasn’t because he had any obvious African ancestry himself. He was as Dutch white as they come.

I think he was born in Wichita, Kansas, grew up there and went to college in Lawrence, where he obviously studied percussion instruments among other things. I never really asked much about the details of his education. I only remembered this much because the name Lawrence, Kansas, stuck out in my memory due to John Brown and radical abolitionists. When I mentioned this to Bruce he avoided any discussion of the conflict, saying his people—Dutch Mennonites—had not arrived in the U.S. until the 1880s. They had emigrated from the Crimea where they grew a lot of wheat; then they moved to Kansas where they basically did the same thing. Eventually, Bruce had come to settle in Charlottesville, Virginia, with his wife Jane, who was a head librarian at the University. My impression of her was of a woman who could have secured such a position in any university in the country, quite sharp. So I figured their choice of Charlottesville was a deliberate one based on their study interests. But that’s just a speculation—best ask them. Bruce did a regular radio show on WTJU called “Radio Tropicale“ that comes under the “world music“ category and focuses a lot on music from Africa, Brazil, and the Caribbean, but not exclusively. He was also active in some Indonesian music group and was the percussionist in the pit orchestra of the local opera company. In fact, it was hard to keep up with all of his musical involvements. Bruce said the southern, transatlantic trade zone his show focused on would be of interest to me as I was tracing the development of the five-string banjo and its community of origin. So I began tuning in.

A revival of interest in the origins of the banjo had begun to reach its near fevered pitch about the time I met Bruce in the mid ‘90s. I had for many years been working on the subject of Joel Walker Sweeney, the famed “inventor” of the five-string banjo. I was interested to know his music, how it sounded, how he played it, and just where did he get the idea. It seemed Bruce’s information pertained to the last question first, the origin of the idea, but possibly to the question of how he played also.

This way of thinking about things, the origin of an idea and how things sounded in the past, was something of a routine process for me. I tended to relate to music in a history/ research-minded way. For years I had been plowing back through the archives of old music, from 78s to cylinders, and on back into the print record. After the audio trail ran out, I had to learn to read music in print form. This was a very different proposition from listening to audio recordings, but music notation is a type of recording just the same, and so music reading proved both necessary and very beneficial. I eventually wound up in 12th century Western Europe playing recorder and crumhorns, etc.

Although the playing of music was always a focus for me, there were also other parallel focuses—music as a time machine, for one. Music was to me the simplest and most poignant way to evoke another historical era. It had the power to create the ambiance of another time and place with more ease than any other art form I knew of. A sense of this, most familiar today, is found in the marketing expression “golden oldies.” The very appeal of this genre lies in its undeniable ability to transport older generations back in time, in their mind anyway, to their youth and stimulate memories of that past. It’s actually different music to different generations, and truth is, every era had its golden oldies for as long as people have written/recorded music. I felt therefore that music was the best way to make history alive, to give the contemporary mind a real feeling and sense of connection to times past. When Bruce explained at one point that the griot was to be thought of as one who conjures spirits and brings the dead back to life, my sense of just how old and cross-cultural the idea of “golden oldies” is expanded tremendously.

Yet a third focus and of compelling interest for me was to understand the political and social psychology of mass media. Questions like how mass media first creates and then seeks to control the mass and also how the masses might sometimes control the media were always on my mind. In my own lifetime I had witnessed, even experienced, how music could act as an integrating, unifying force in society. Rhythm and blues and rock and roll and the Motown sound had, in my mind, quite possibly averted a second civil war in the U.S. as it created a new, all-inclusive national culture that appealed to the young and vigorously crossed racial barriers. Related questions also arose like: how much does the popularity of a performer determine his recording career; how much does the broadcasting of a recording determine the popularity of a performer; does one necessarily come before the other? In the early phase of recording, were musicians recorded because they were popular or did they become popular because their recordings were routinely broadcast; basically what’s different “now” from “then”; what’s the same? I felt like accurate answers to such questions could reveal the functional and fundamental attributes of human nature and outline a trajectory to the course of human events. I just wanted to know what was going on and where it was going and what it meant to me personally. I felt I would be able to see the future through this process. So when Bruce at some point said that griots were the prophets/visionaries of their society, I definitely started to detect a pattern here. Well, honestly, I had no idea I was in such a griot walk of life until I met Bruce. Anyway, I was forever interested in and looking for where an “idea” or “style” first originated, and as history is so contiguous, it always led me back, back, and back into the preceding generations. That’s how I became what Bruce called an “American griot“ or what most people in the U.S. would call a folk singer/musicologist.

By the time one gets back to say 1619, the official date for the arrival of Africans in Virginia, there are fewer written recordings, none audio, of course. The field of musicology doesn’t even officially begin until, let’s say 1714. That’s when Europeans noticed there were file cabinets full of all this old music, 300 plus years worth, and some of them began to try and sort it out. By the late 1700s a few snatches of “Negro Jig” music, written out by Europeans, existed, but the Africans themselves didn’t seem to be as concerned with writing things down. Bruce would explain to me the main duties of the griot in African culture were first to know and to recite the social and cultural history of their identity group, usually with musical accompaniment. They also knew and performed all the “golden oldies” of their culture and composed the new hits as well. This served to unify the identity of their culture, an essential act for the creation of a larger political structure, like the “kingdom,” predecessor to the “nation” concept. Bruce said the music and stories were purposely not written down because the griot was meant to physically embody the traditional history and music culture of his society, and they owned their music. A European equivalent of this might be the Guild system of medieval times, in which various secrets of a trade were closely guarded and taught by the elder members to the younger. It was kept in the “family,” so to speak, a job security issue, in a way. But the physical embodiment issue was also truly a way to protect the culture itself. It obviously worked, for Africa still has its griots in spite of all it has been through. I think its functionality is akin to the common belief in the U.S. that a person will take better care of something if they have ownership of it.

Bruce said a secondary, everyday role for the griot was as praise singer for a benefactor, a wealthier upper class person most often playing that part, but not always. Bruce suggested, in the transition to the New World, it was the wealthy planters of the south who most naturally fulfilled that role for the griot. He thought it would be a quite easy transition for the trained African griot. I thought that was quite an insight. My mind flashed through the files and I found myself thinking, so this is how “Blackface Minstrelsy” came to dominate the pop entertainment culture in the U.S. by 1830. That might be quite a mental leap for those who view Blackface from a retrospective, historical format. But with Bruce I was getting it from a future perspective, looking at the becoming of something rather than what it became. The two perspectives offer very different views of the same subject, enhancing an understanding of it. It’s a pet peeve of mine that too often history is thought of as something that happened in the past, and that past is over and settled, “undynamic”. Of course, relying on a single-perspective view is itself “undynamic” and grossly inadequate for the development of a useful and accurate understanding, just as cause and effect must be studied in relation to one another.1

The founding traditions of Malian culture through which Bruce was studying these relationships dated back to the 13th century, being established about 300 years prior to the beginnings of the transatlantic slave trade. (The earliest recorded English folk song, “Summer is a Cumin In” dates back to this century.) Although written traditions, i.e. Judaism, Christianity and Islam would be having their impact via caravan route across the Sahara (an important distinction to be discussed later), the griot tradition would remain very tenacious in Africa. I later read an account of Islam in Mali in a Time-Life publication on “African Kingdoms.” It said when clerics were sent out from the central office some time after the initial establishment of Islam in Mali, they were alarmed by various Malian adaptations. However, upon learning of the jailing of young men above a certain age for not having memorized essential passages of the Koran and their detention until such passages were memorized, they forgave the other violations, and Malian Islam was stamped approved. Malians obviously valued and cultivated memorization skills, and all members of the society were expected to know the basics—family ancestry and essential cultural historical and religious info. The griot was a specialist in these areas, especially gifted and trained in memory and recitation functions. This is a functional role common to any society, which has knowledge of itself, of course. Bruce said what was significant about Mali in our case was the duration of its kingdom identity from around 1300 AD to the present and the fact that the music employed an eight note diatonic scale similar to that of western Europe.

As all this information from Bruce began to filter into my mind and lead me to seek out additional sources, I began to realize a change was taking place in my perspective. This was like the other end of the string. Following the string would take me up from the other side of the murky beginnings of American pop music. As I followed it, I would at some point meet myself tracing it out from the other side, the American end. The idea of an actual point of convergence—that we might be able to pinpoint a moment, a place in time, maybe even a person, where European and African music would first combine into something uniquely American—excited me. Of course, the convergence would begin immediately upon first encounter between Africans and Europeans, but the issue of when the African became American was for me the real question. It had taken the Englishman a little under 200 years of life in the New World to come to the realization that he was something else other than English. I suspected that the African’s awareness followed a similar time frame, even though his experience was different.

* * * * *

The rise of and actual predominance of African Americans in the creation of pop music forms in the U.S. is extremely well documented from blackface minstrelsy to ragtime, to jazz, to blues, to soul, to rock and roll, to rap. The foundation period that had preceded the great northern minstrel shows was of much interest to me, but as I’ve said, the archival trail begins to thin out prior to the blackface minstrel show phenomenon, which began around 1840.

The creation of this national mass cultural movement had a lot to do with the Industrial Revolution, which was in full swing by then. A new printing machine, patented in 1843, made printing so cheap that the issue became not why and how but what else to print. What would the average American working class, this new mass audience, pay twenty-five cents for? Where religious, temperance and abolitionist societies also greatly benefited from the new printing machine, they weren’t in the business of selling their printed material, but rather were sponsored by donations and wealthy benefactors and distributed their tracts freely. The new innovation in printing meant they got to print and distribute more.

The minstrel show and the “pop” music that began to be published in relationship to it, however, were a very different prospect. It was commercial in nature, meant to be sold to a public in demand of, and willing to pay for it. In fact, on the basis of supply side economics, it was the tremendous, popular demand for minstrelsy that drove the explosion of printed music and minstrel hall development. A popular stage presentation like T.D. Rice’s “Jim Crow” could expect to sell well, and it did, both as a stage presentation and as sheet music following a rave review. Here was the true beginning of the American “pop” music industry.

And yet “Jim Crow” and “Zip Coon” didn’t just appear out of thin air. There was a setup that came before them, a platform from which these caricatures and their music were launched, and it was this period that was as yet unclear, murky, without much of a print record to follow. But it was there, and the very national popularity of “blackface minstrelsy” gave an indication of some preceding existence just out of site and hearing. Like astronomers find planetary bodies that can’t be seen by detecting gravitational pulls on the ones they can see, something was there and I was looking for it. I now had a triangulation that involved Europe, Africa and America. The European tracking could begin with such 12th century transcriptions as “Summer is a Cumin In.” The African one could begin from the Malian Kingdom coming into existence around the same time and the third point, America. Well, living there, it was the one I new best. Wow. I hadn’t even known there was a Mali until I met Bruce. I had been missing a vital part of the picture. I had been very focused on African Americans for some time without much thought about Africa itself. Now I had reference points for three different orbits destined to cross paths at a future date, and the tracking could begin in earnest.

In the 12th century, be it English or Malian society and throughout the rest of the world as well, music could be many things: ritual, military, aristocratic, royal, traditional, ceremonial, religious, medicinal, formal or folk—a lot of things, just not “popular.” The idea of music as a popular commodity that any “Joe Blow” could purchase and play for his own amusement according to his own whim or desire was not developed much ahead of the great 18th century revolutions, even though there were hints at it by the 16th century. I remember Mike Seeger once used the term the “commoditization” of music to me in a discussion we were having about publication of early banjo methods. He expressed that he understood a clear distinction between folk music and pop music. The “pop” category couldn’t really exist in a world where it made no difference what “the people” as a political identity group thought and where they had no real purchasing power to create that category. In the Old World one had to be selected out, part of a distinct group, a family or a guild, and it would be understood that this was one’s life’s vocation. There wasn’t any whim to it, and only the wealthiest upper class had the leisure time to engage in amateur musical pursuits or hire professionals. This is not to say there weren’t popular fads prior to the great revolutionary movements of the 18th century. As I pointed out earlier, history is contiguous and we can always find the seeds of one era in preceding ones. (Barbara Tuchman describes some interesting music and dance fads that swept Europe in the 14th century in A Distant Mirror). But it really took the American and French Revolutions followed by important advancements in printing before the multibillion-dollar pop music industry could be created.

Once it got under way this “democratization” of music spread rapidly throughout the world. It has now conquered the whole globe in less than 200 years, and it has become this idea of music more than any particular political document or forms of government that has taken over even in the most ancient and closed cultures on the planet. For example, I attended a Chinese New Year’s celebration this year at the University of Virginia. There was a tiny smattering of traditional music and instruments, a lot of “American Idol”-style singing (at least it was all in Chinese), and a lengthy Beyonce dance segment. Current fusions of Iraqi and Afghan traditional music sounds are being routinely incorporated into “pop” broadcast as I write. It is fair to say that the pop music movement is probably the single most penetrating and dominant trend to emerge from the age of revolution. I think I heard that the “Dear Leader” of North Korea likes American jazz. The former Prime Minister of Japan is definitely an Elvis fan.

For some time before meeting Bruce I had been defining the beginning of “pop” music as a direct outcome of the Declaration of Independence! That thesis had been the thrust of a series of publications beginning in 1986. The first was entitled “Ring, Ring the Banjo,” a little pamphlet with an accompanying cassette, presented at the 125th Civil War anniversary reenactment of the Battle of Manassas in northern Virginia, a massive event with much national and even international attendance. It was here that I presented the idea that “Blackface Minstrelsy” of 1860 should be understood as being the tap root of all that came after it, right up to the rock and roll “pop” music of the 1960s. I used the Beatles as a simple demonstration of consistency: four Englishmen who had become enthralled with the African American rhythm and blues music in the U.S., learned to play it and we all know the rest of the story (and apparently will never here the end of it). I described an almost identical process that had occurred 100 years earlier with the Buckley Serenaders: four Englishmen who took up and excelled at an American music originating in the African American community and who became, in their day, as popular as the Beatles. I also pointed out how their instrumentation consisted of just string and percussion instruments and was built around music initially associated with African American dance routines, just like the Beatles. But no one seemed to know this story. To me the parallels were a remarkable comment on the consistency of the U.S. “pop” music formula and of just how consistent the American public had remained within 150 years of itself—and that spanning a period of the most intense political upheaval. This was a story worth telling.

In quick succession followed related albums: an Irish project, “Green Fields of America,” and “Banjos, Bones and Boatmen.” Then in 1988 I received some financial backing to record the “Old Dan Tucker” album, which exclusively featured the music of Daniel Decatur Emmett and the Virginia Minstrels. This project again sought to present the blackface minstrel era as seminal to all American “pop” genres that followed. It also suggested that a point of origin for the music was being cited, as not one member of the original group was actually from Virginia. In 1990 I released Volume I of the project I am still working on, now in the fifth volume, of Early 19th Century Banjo Classics. While still harping on blackface minstrelsy as the beginning of “pop” music and the birth of rock and roll, I also suggested the five-string banjo in terms of its broad popularity in the U.S. as a direct predecessor to the electric guitar.

I had for many years played guitar, performing wherever I could and focused mostly in acoustic blues, some country music and a little pop folk, while I studied classical guitar. In 1976 I moved to Buckingham County, Virginia. I had always wanted to play the banjo as my granddad did. An old Richmond buddy from the “Fan” days, Bruce Bouton, had given me his old Kay banjo, as he went on to study pedal steel guitar, around 1972. I took it with me to the country, along with the famous Earl Scruggs’ Method. The history in the back of the book fascinated me. There was a photo (a daguerreotype probably taken in the 1840s) of Joel Walker Sweeney, hailed as inventor of the instrument. He just happened to be from Buckingham County where I was now living. It was then and there while learning bluegrass banjo technique that I decided I wanted to find out the what and how of Sweeney’s style. I had no idea when I made that decision it would take the next 30 years to see a light at the end of the tunnel.

* * * * *

In pursuing the story of Sweeney, I had come across much interesting information in the archives, particularly banjo method books from the mid 19th century. Having studied classical guitar and therefore familiar with the early 19th century published guitar methods, I immediately saw a connection between the guitar and banjo methods as both springing from the same European impulse to explain and develop a formal technical understanding and approach to playing a musical instrument. Even though the initial American banjo books were lacking in the detail of their European guitar forerunners, they were for all practical purposes based on the same model—a studied “scientific” explanation of how one proceeded to master the instrument. I was quite surprised that this hadn’t been pointed out before and decided right away to commence a republication of the most prominent of these banjo methods. The 1992 republication of the Briggs’ Banjo Instructor, the first of these, certainly grabbed people’s attention. Rosemary Cullen, my contact at the rare book room of Brown University’s John Hay Library, informed me that she had noted a sudden surge in requests for this banjo method immediately following our publication of it.

As I kept trying to explain how it seemed obvious the roots of jazz, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, etc., all traced back to the blackface minstrel shows of the mid 19th century, the blunt and dismissive attitude I found in most all contemporary, scholarly writing on the subject seemed to me caught up in denial. Many refused to even acknowledge it as anything musically significant. (Hey, isn’t that what some said about jazz or rock and roll?) They even denied that African Americans with all their well-documented and undeniable musical prowess were in any way involved in the creation of this first national cultural expression despite massive evidence to the contrary. This very inability of scholars to view the national phenomenon of early American blackface minstrelsy as anything but racist drivel was disturbing to me. It reeked of a contemporary political agenda quite apart from what serious scholarship was supposed to be. In other words, it crossed the line between objective research and propaganda. There was no denying that racism existed in the United States, but this looked like an effort to “white wash” that dirty fact by trying to frame the past as decidedly more so than the present. Well, beating a dead horse is much easier than trying to beat a living one—it might kick back at you. There seemed to be an effort to force history to be progressive in spite of the “facts.” This in turn created an illusion of progress in the absence of the real thing. Clearly, a retro view was being employed. The early antebellum blackface minstrel shows were being viewed through the haze of post-war reconstruction and the abjectly racist “coon” song era that followed it. The Jim Crow laws and the rise of the KKK nationwide had come after the great war to free the slaves and bring racial equality to the U.S. In an effort to justify 600,000 uniformed deaths, not counting civilians that occurred as a result of a war solution history was being stood on its head. If the accepted premise was that war, even though tragic, was necessary to produce a good result, then it followed that what existed prior to the initiation of it was definitely worse than what came into existence after; therefore, the blackface minstrelsy of the prewar era had to be more racist than the blackface minstrelsy that came after. If that which came after and therefore closer to contemporary memory was really bad—Jim Crow segregation, lynching, coon songs, etc.—then the natural deduction was how much worse must it have been before the great war that supposedly corrected these things. The problem, of course, begins with accepting a bogus premise. Justification for any war always produces the creation of “a premise of justification” to compensate and give some sense and meaning to all the death, destruction and sacrifice. It does not, however, produce an accurate picture of reality. It is actually more of a coping mechanism needed to deal with the overwhelming trauma that war creates, very much a denial of reality of war. I came to understand this denial that anything positive was happening before the Civil War in “pop” music, or anywhere else, as indicative of that traumatized condition on a national scale. Correcting the underpinnings of this skewing of history would no doubt require a deeper look into the social, psychological and cultural effects of war, especially modern ideological “total” war as a means of resolving disputes. (The short answer is, it doesn’t really work.) The nation obviously needed therapy, but first they needed to know they needed it. And who was going to tell ‘em? I’ve heard it said that you can’t really tell a narcissist that they’re narcissistic, and nobody likes to be told they need therapy. So what to do? To tell a story that everybody could understand seems the best approach. Gee, I guess that’s like a real griot approach.

In effect, Bruce and I would have to dig out from under the rubble of the American Civil War to get a real handle on what was actually happening in this country before the great meltdown. Being born in Richmond, Va., meant I had grown up on the receiving end of devastating, modern ideological warfare (the warfare that through ideological mandate keeps on punishing centuries after). Although Bruce’s folks weren’t even here until the 1880s, still he had been processed in Kansas and attended an “abolitionist” university and his historical outlook was a different one, so there were no avoiding conflicts in our understanding. The fact that by birth and upbringing we had different viewpoints actually combined to increase and broaden our perspectives and made working together more productive. The way we fairly easily bridged this gap through our common pursuit to get at the truth of things always delighted me. My guess is that he found me enlightened, for a diehard Southerner. I thought that he was, at least, a well-intentioned fanatical abolitionist.

I informed him that current notions as to where to find the most authentic African American secular music were off the mark; I believed the it would most likely be the early banjo methods like the Briggs’ Instructor. There were several more, I told him, and there was some really interesting music in them, and it didn’t come from Appalachia either. It sounded more Caribbean to me. This was, of course, a quite contrary view from the status quo but Bruce, to his credit, remained open. I went on to say that I had the idea these early banjo methods did contain music considerably influenced by African American musicians, and that some of the compositions themselves may have been directly transcribed from early anonymous African American banjoists. Bruce took my point and began to add his own knowledge from the African end of the string and before I knew it we were making plans to present this idea to the largest musicological society in the United States at the Library of Congress.

1 It is well suited for an Orwellian mass control scheme designed to keep the masses themselves, undynamic


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