This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

March 23, 2006 - banjo and the bluetail fly

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that I was learning to play the banjo. I took lessons for six weeks from Swallow Hill (www.swallowhill.com). I continue to practice.

Along the way, I did a little reading up on the instrument.

The banjo (also called banjar, banjil, banza, bangoe, bangie, and banshaw) came from the west coast of Africa. Originally an instrument made from gourds, a neck, and four strings, it was recreated in the New World by slaves.

There were several early banjo-playing legends -- all of them African-American. Some escaped, became famous, were recaptured, escaped again -- and managed to make their living as banjo players. Banjo players then were like rock stars now, sought after and well-paid.

Eventually, however, the banjo was appropriated by white minstrel players -- white performers in "blackface," playing broad and sentimental versions of slave songs and ditties. And over time, the instrument changed. First, frets were added, then, finally, the fifth string.

At that point, African-American banjo players, arguably the best in the nation, abandoned the instrument. In the time just before and immediately after the Civil War, banjos went from being an instrument of liberation -- a memory of a time before captivity, a celebration of remembered rhythms -- to further evidence of mockery and stolen heritage.

Two banjo styles developed. The first was closer to the original, in which the banjo was a rhythm instrument, mainly played by strumming. This style eventually evolved into something now known as "frailing" -- an alternation between picking (with the thumb) and strumming (usually, with the back of the fingernails).

It also moved from minstrel show to the Appalachian hills. There, it merged with Celtic rhythms and hillbilly verse to form an enduring underground folk style.

Curiously, for some 15 years (1930 to 1945), hardly any mainstream musicians played the banjo. You couldn't even buy banjo strings; no one made them.

In the 1940's a banjo revival slowly awakened, led in part by Pete Seeger, who published one of the only banjo books to be found during the instrument's long dormancy. He also recorded many songs that might otherwise have been lost.

The second style was "finger-picking." In the late 1800's, some white musicians tried to make it a classical instrument. Later, players moved into what is now known as the three-fingered Scruggs style -- named after Earl Scruggs. He played a very quick, very precise series of picking patterns, called "rolls." Scruggs, and now others, use metal finger picks for the index and middle fingers, and a plastic pick for the thumb.

This is the style that predominates today, when the banjo is again surging into popular, mostly country music.

But this week's story is about one of the songs that first appeared in the minstrel period, and may be a sly bit of folk memory.

The song is "Blue Tail Fly." You may remember it from grade school. It begins with:

"When I was young I used to wait / On master and hand him his plate / Pass him the bottle when he got dry / And brush away the blue-tail fly."

It has the chorus:

"Jimmy crack corn, and I don't care / My master's gone away."

Well, here's a new spin on an old song. The setting: the "old master," who is clearly a tippler (note that bottle) liked to go for rides on his horse. But he took a young slave with him to brush away the horse flies from a "pony being rather shy / when bitten by the blue-tail fly."

Well, at one point, the pony "threw my master in a ditch." And the master went away.

Did the young slave miss the blue-tail fly? Or did he deliberately swat the shy pony on the thigh?

There was a trial. "He died and the jury wondered why / The verdict was the blue-tail fly."

In short, behind the mugging of the minstrel show was a sly and subversive message. "The blue tail fly," taught in many elementary schools as a slice of Americana, may well have been about a successful murder by an enslaved African-American.

For more information about the history of the banjo -- and the contributions of early musicians -- see "With a Banjo on my Knee: A Musical Journey from Slavery to Freedom," by Rex Ellis. You can find it (and Pete Seeger's classic book on the 5 string banjo) at the Douglas County Libraries.

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