Music, Mediation, Sustainability: A Case Study on the Banjo

Music, Mediation, Sustainability: A Case Study on the Banjo

Jeff Todd Titon
Brown University

The banjo mediates structurally, culturally and historically, and experientially. Structurally, it resists taxonomic classification. Culturally and historically, it is a mediator among African and European American cultures. For that, I interpret evidence of the Black-white vernacular music exchanges in the 19th-century sketches and genre paintings of the American artist, William Sidney Mount. Experientially, the banjo mediates in the old-time string band session as the banjo player creates melody and rhythm interactively with the other musicians. For this, I offer a phenomenological account of what goes through a player’s mind/body when learning and performing a previously unfamiliar tune at normal tempo in a jam session. This constructive, creative, and integrative faculty is expressive culture’s principal act of resilience, and it may be its main contribution to sustaining life on planet Earth.

List of figures.

Fig. 1. Photograph of William Sidney Mount., 1867. Photographer unknown.

Fig. 2. William Sidney Mount, Just in Tune, 1849.

Fig. 3. William Sidney Mount, Right and Left, 1855.

Fig. 4. William Sidney Mount, The Bone Player, 1856.

Fig. 5. William Sidney Mount, The Breakdown, 1835.

Fig. 6, William Sidney Mount, Catching the Tune, 1856.

Fig. 7. Violin patented by William Sidney Mount, which he called “The Cradle of Harmony.”

Fig. 8. William Sidney Mount, study for Catching the Tune, 1855.

Fig. 9. William Sidney Mount, The Power of Music, 1849.

Fig. 10. William Sidney Mount, Dance of the Haymakers, 1845.

Fig. 11. William Sidney Mount, sketches for The Power of Music and Dance of the Haymakers.

Fig. 12. William Sidney Mount, sketch of Black fiddler and dancer in a kitchen. Undated. In the possession of the author.

Fig. 13. William Sidney Mount, The Banjo Player, 1856.

Fig. 14. William Sidney Mount, The Banjo Player in the Barn, 1855.

Mediation, the theme of this folklore and ethnomusicology conference, is rich in possibility.1 Within public culture mediation arises chiefly in divorce law and diplomacy, where it means an attempt to find a compromise, common ground, a middle ground between conflicting points of view. In my current exploration of music and sustainability, I have worked with mediation and a related concept, complementarity, to try to find common ground in two areas. In exploring the intellectual history of the concept “Nature’s economy,” or Nature’s household, I found complementarity between the conflicting sustainability discourses operating in the worlds of ecology and economics (Titon 2009). Second, the relationships of speech and music, not only in my ethnographic studies of sacred speech, chant, and song, but in acoustic ecology more generally, have offered opportunities to think about mediation. Questions about the meanings of music seem to me empty without considering them as embedded in the development of sound communication in the evolution of species on this planet, whether the well known songs of birds, whales, and dolphins or the little understood sound communication among insects.2

But this afternoon, in response to this invitation, I will discuss mediation in relation to music and sustainability with a more specific topic in mind: a case study on a musical instrument as a mediator–specifically, the banjo. I will claim that the banjo mediates in three important ways: one, structurally; two, culturally and historically; and three, experientially. The banjo is a mediator by virtue of its construction in relation to other instruments; but it is also an instrument that transcends easy categorization, whether structurally, musically, or culturally. Culturally and historically it is a mediator among African and European American cultures. Significantly, this mediation is fraught with a history of racism, classism, sexism, and erasure. The outline of that story may be followed in the history of minstrelsy, the attempted class and gender elevation of the banjo in the late nineteenth century, its subordination to the guitar and other instruments in jug bands, ragtime, and jazz in the twentieth century, its resurgence in the old-time and bluegrass musical revivals beginning in the mid-twentieth century, and its African American reclamation in the contemporary string band music of groups such as the Carolina Chocolate Drops and the Ebony Hillbillies, the Black banjo gathering, and the vigorous, current exploration of its African roots and historical connections in the Americas. The banjo is also a mediator experientially. In its role in the old-time string band, the banjo is a melodic and rhythmic mediator, as the banjo player attempts to interact with the fiddler and guitarist in a musical way that is constructive, integrative and creative, not merely expressive. I locate this constructive, integrative and creative aspect of the expressive culture of music at the center of its sustainability, and at the heart of music’s role in sustaining human life on planet Earth.

As a musical instrument, the banjo mediates elements of the African musical bow, a one-stringed instrument formed like the bow that shoots an arrow, and other African stringed instruments which use a shell resonator such as a gourd or part of an animal, covered by an animal skin. The earliest African banjo-like instruments attached these resonators to sticks, not necks and fingerboards as on New World banjos. Strings were tied with loops, not tuning pegs, although pegs and fingerboards are found in banjos in the Caribbean in the 1600s. A fifth string (the one that sounds the lowest pitch and what modern players call the fourth string) was added in the nineteenth century and, later, frets as on the guitar were added to the fingerboard. The modern banjo is constructed out of wood and metal with its round pot over which is stretched the plastic or skin head that gives a percussive sound to the music that it plays. In effect it is a drum with a neck and strings. Four-string banjos (without the drone string) gained in popularity early in the twentieth century, when many variants were produced, chiefly by attaching different necks and fingerboards to the pot with a skin head: the banjo uke, the banjo mandolin, and the six string banjo-guitar being the most prominent. Evidently the pot was the sine qua non, the identifying characteristic of these banjo hybrids.

In the Sachs-Hornbostel classification of musical instruments, the banjo is usually regarded as a plucked lute, or chordophone. But a good argument may be made on the grounds of its drum head that it is also a membranophone. Although part of its sound comes from the chordophonal vibration of its strings, another part of its sound and timbre arises from the resonance it receives from its vibrating membrane, or head. In evading easy classification the banjo collapses the foundation of the most generally accepted system of musical instrument taxonomy. An organologist’s nightmare or delight, depending on how one looks at it, the banjo is the most changeable of instruments, the consummate hybrid, both fact and symbol of structural mediation, or ambiguity if one is inclined to interpret it that way.

Second, the banjo is a mediator in American cultural history. Scholars of American music have long proclaimed that the ragtime and jazz of the turn of the twentieth century was the first American music, in the sense that it was the first to escape European dominance and thus to reflect American cultural hybridity, and a gift to the world that revolutionized popular music in the twentieth century. But by this criterion, the first American music came a century or so earlier: the fiddle and fiddle/banjo dance music that resulted from Black-white musical interchanges in the nineteenth century, an exchange in which Native Americans also were involved. One of the popular forms arising from this exchange, minstrelsy, became a craze in America and Europe prior to the Civil War. Ragtime and jazz arose decades later as manifestations of that interchange.

Figure 1. Photograph of William Sidney Mount. 1867. Photographer unknown.

One of the least known aspects of that earliest interchange is that which took place in the northern United States. We are fortunate that a skilled American genre painter, William Sidney Mount (1807-1868), documented it in his native area, eastern Long Island, not far from New York City. I became aware of Mount’s paintings when writing my dissertation on blues in 1970.3 Mount also was an accomplished amateur fiddler. His brother Robert Nelson Mount was an itinerant dancing master who played the fiddle to provide music for the dances he taught. Nelson, as his brother addressed him, spent much of his time traveling in the South. In Just in Tune(1849)

Figure 2. William Sidney Mount, Just in Tune. 1849. Oil on canvas, 30” x 25”.

a man resembling Nelson4 is pictured turning a peg to put the fiddle in tune, while the fiddle itself is rendered with unusual accuracy, even to the flame on the maple sides.5 William Sidney Mount’s letters to his brother in the South included fiddle tunes in musical notation, some of which he had learned from local fiddlers in and around his residence in Setauket, Long Island. Altogether William Sidney Mount notated a few hundred of them, chiefly for his own use, and appears to have spent almost as much time each day fiddling as painting.6

Besides representing tunes, Mount represented the Black-white musical interchange in nineteenth century genre paintings without peer or parallel. He portrayed the Black-white musical interchange taking place in Long Island, New York and, we can say with some certainty, one that was occurring in many other places. Although Mount meant to include humor and sentiment in his genre paintings, for the music historian Mount documented the music and dance of his time as no other painter did. He did not succumb to the minstrel stereotype in drawing and painting African Americans; and what is more, partly because he himself was a musician, he took care to illustrate the instruments, the playing positions, and the dancing accurately. Figure 3 shows William Sidney Mount’s 1855 painting of a left-handed, African American fiddler, his facial features an emblem of the Black-white musical interchange. The title is a play on words: “left and right” is a dance call, while the fiddler is left-handed. (Contemporary lithographic reproductions of this painting showed it, incorrectly, as a mirror image.)

Figure 3. William Sidney Mount, Right and Left. 1850. Oil on canvas, 30” x 25”.

Both Just in Tune and Right and Left were part of a series of paintings commissioned for lithographs by the Paris firm, Goupil, Vibert and Co. Minstrel shows enjoyed great popularity in Europe as well as North America in the 1840s and 1850s, and in Mount Goupil had a willing and knowledgeable artist to depict musicians. The correspondence between Mount and William Schaus, Goupil’s American representative, reveals they thought of Black and white fiddlers both as interchangeable and, notably, that two paintings, one of each, would be “companions.” Mount wrote to Schaus, “Do you wish a negro man, or a white man as a companion to the picture ‘Just in Tune?’”7 Schaus replied “I think a Negro would be a good companion to ‘Just in Tune’ . . . . You have probably already an Idea what you intend to make the Companion and I hope you will finish it soon.”8 Another in this series for Goupil was The Bone Player (1856, fig. 4), while the best known of these today is The Banjo Player(1856; fig. 13), which I will discuss shortly. Interestingly, Mount never painted a minstrel show; his paintings show music in barn dances, taverns, homes, and in moments of apprenticeship or practice as well as in informal, community performance for dancers and listeners.

Figure 4. William Sidney Mount, The Bone Player. 1856. Oil on canvas, 36” x 29”.

Mount understood a good deal about music and dancing. Figure 5 shows an early painting of a solo dancer, dancing to the rhythm of hand-clapping and, possibly, a tune sung by the clapper. The crowd around the dancer is white, but a Black man looks on at the far right, taking it all in. Old-time Kentucky fiddler Manon Campbell learned tunes from his mother’s sister, who did not play the fiddle but who whistled the tunes to her son.9

Figure 5. William Sidney Mount, The Breakdown. 1835. Oil on canvas, 22’ x 27”.

In the days before recordings this was not uncommon. In Mount’s 1866 painting, Catching the Tune, a fiddler is shown learning the tune from a man whistling it.

Figure 6. William Sidney Mount, Catching the Tune. 1866. Oil on canvas, 22” x 27”.

A close look at the violin reveals that it has no corners. Fourteen years earlier, Mount had invented and patented a hollow-backed, cornerless violin, which he called “The Cradle of Harmony.”

Figure 7. “The Cradle of Harmony,” the cornerless violin that Mount invented and patented in 1852. Two of Mount’s hand-written transcriptions of fiddle tunes are at the right of the violin.

In his diary Mount names the tune “caught” in his painting (fig. 6) as “Possum Up a Gum Tree,” a title known today and attached to more than one distinct tune in the South and Midwest. All three men as well as the women onlookers are white. A study sketch that Mount did for this painting is notable. The musicians’ faces show a subtle increase in African features as the eye moves from the one on the right to the one on the left.

Figure 8. William Sidney Mount, study for Catching the Tune. Pencil sketch, 1865.

This progression tropes the Black-white musical interchange: the source of the tune is shown on a continuum of racial features that deconstructs the categories black and white.

One of Mount’s justly celebrated paintings, from 1847, is entitled The Power of Music10and shows an African American worker with his axe and molasses jug outside a barn, likely having stopped by after work, listening to a white fiddler playing for two appreciative older men. The barn, which Mount depicted in a number of paintings, belonged to his friend and neighbor Shepard S. Jones, a skilled local fiddler for whom Mount composed a hornpipe.

Figure 9. William Sidney Mount, The Power of Music. 1847. Oil on canvas, 17” x 21”.

The models for this painting were identified in a biographical sketch of the artist: the fiddler is the teenager John Henry Mount, son of William’s older brother Henry Mount; the seated man is Caleb Mills; the standing man (who may be dancing) is Dick Ruland; the Black man is Robin Mills.11 The shared surname opens the possibility that prior to manumission Robin was owned by Caleb’s family.

The Black man’s appearance in The Power of Music is arresting. Handsome and sympathetically drawn, his character is related to but also transcends then-contemporary images of contented, older Black men on southern plantations. Hidden from those inside the barn, he is listening, “catching the tune.” His left hand is cupped very like the fiddler’s left hand, showing that they share the music; coupled with his attentive and approving attitude, it even suggests the possibility that he has mentored the young fiddler.12

In an 1845 painting entitled Dance of the Haymakers, the African American youngster outside the same barn keeps time with percussion sticks while the white fiddler plays and the two men dance.

Figure 10. William Sidney Mount, Dance of the Haymakers. 1845. Oil on canvas, 25” x 30”.

The model for the fiddler was Shepard S. Jones, while others have been provisionally identified as follows: the Black youth playing the sticks is Mathias, Jones’s apprentice; the dancer on the right is Wesley Ruland; the dancer on the left is Tom Briggs; and the man behind the fiddler is Horace Newton, a wheelwright from Stony Brook (Cassedy and Schrott 1983:66). Among the onlookers is a girl in the hayloft, likely the “nurse” of the white child also looking on from the hayloft. About 1845 Mount made a fascinating study sketch for both this painting and the later The Power of Music. The sketch for Power (top) depicts not Caleb Mills but a white listener outside the barn; the sketch for Dance (below) depicts a Black man dancing outside the barn, not the Black youngster playing percussion. Musicologist Christopher J. Smith, who is at work on a study of Mount’s paintings, has pointed out that the substitution of Mills in Power for the sketch of the white man is evidence of the Black-white musical interchange.13 That Mount could so easily interchange the two outside the same barn is telling.

Figure 11. William Sidney Mount, Sketch for The Power of Music and Dance of the Haymakers, c. 1845.

Mount painted Black fiddlers playing for white dancers, a customary practice in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Other Black figures in his paintings were onlookers, although in The Power of Music the onlooker is the center of attention, and in Dance of the Haymakersthe youngster, although separated from the others, is participating in the music; his sounds must be audible along with the rest. However, Mount did sketch a Black fiddler and dancer together. Here is an undated drawing that shows a fiddler and dancer inside an unpretentious kitchen. Like most of Mount’s sketches, it is a rough rendering of an idea; it is meant to capture gesture.

Figure 12. William Sidney Mount, sketch of Black fiddler and dancer in a kitchen. Pencil sketch, undated. 6 ¼” x 4 ¾”. In possession of the author.

Yet there is enough detail to make the figures recognizably Black, not simply poor as the clothing and room interior also indicate. It is a more intimate and private scene than Mount usually painted, and it probably is a documentary sketch (Mount made many) rather than a preliminary for a painting. If Mount did paint this scene, the painting does not survive.

In 1855 and 1856 Mount painted banjo players. His 1856 portrait of a Black banjo player, for the Goupil lithograph series, has become iconic. The banjo itself is so accurately rendered that its maker, William Esperance Boucher, Jr., can be identified.

Figure 13. William Sidney Mount, The Banjo Player. 1856. Oil on canvas, 36” x 29”.

The banjo player himself has been identified provisionally as George Freeman, who was bound out (from his family) as a servant to Robert Nelson Mount’s father-in-law (Cassedy and Schrott 1983:73). The playing technique is also recognizable in that the thumb rests on the drone string while the first finger plucks upward or downward on the melody strings and the hand itself has the characteristic “clawhammer” shape of the old-time nineteenth century stroke-style playing. The right or noting hand would be forming a D chord if the banjo were in G tuning (gDGBD). Mount may not have played the banjo himself, but he was a close observer of banjo technique.

Mount’s paintings commissioned for lithographic reproduction were called “fancy pictures,” “portrayals from the artist’s imagination rather than actual portraits” (Cassedy and Schrott 1983:20). Yet Mount’s fiddler in Just in Tune looks very like his brother Nelson, while George Freeman was said to have sat as a model for Mount twice a day for eight days (Ibid.:73). Although the musicians may have been understood as types arising from the artist’s fancy or imagination, Mount employed musicians as models and just as his fiddler was based on Nelson, it is possible, even likely, that George Freeman was a banjo player. The principal difference in Mount’s “fancy pictures” was not in the modeling or intended documentation, but in that these were not “actual portraits” commissioned by and for the individuals painted.

Figure 14. William Sidney Mount, The Banjo Player in the Barn. C. 1855. Oil on canvas, 25” x 30”

Ironically, George Freeman’s image is familiar today as an historical illustration of the banjo. The painter, the model, and the original context all have been subjected to erasure. Mount had also painted a white banjo player a year earlier, in the same barn he used for Dance of the Haymakers, Dancing on the Barn Floor, and The Power of Music. The painting was found among his possessions at his death in 1868, leading critics to believe that it was unfinished and that he intended to populate the painted barn more fully but never got around to it. Two additional figures were found chalked in, inside the barn, which Mount presumably would have painted in over the background. We do not know just why Mount set it aside but kept it as found. Possibly he did not have a buyer for it; probably he meant to finish it.14

The chalked-in figures were erased after his death, leaving the painting as we see it now. The young man playing the banjo looks cheerful and confident. He is well dressed in rural finery, not farming clothes. In Mount’s other paintings of music-making in this barn (Dancing on the Barn Floor, Dance of the Haymakers, and The Power of Music) all the hay is in storage; here, there is some still on the barn floor. The only prop in the painting, aside from the banjo and the barrel the man sits on, is the pitchfork, ready for use in throwing the rest of the hay, though where it would go is uncertain.

Taking the painting as it is, not as it might have been, and comparing it with the iconic image of the Black banjo player, it is striking that the man the barn is small and very much alone. He is playing for his own amusement, or practicing. The young Black banjo player is extroverted and, possibly, performing for an audience. His is one of the most finely-made and best-sounding banjos of the period. The banjo player in the barn is playing a simply-made instrument. Possibly he is still learning to master it, and that would be congruent with what we know about chronology of banjo playing in the United States, from Black to white.

The banjo, then, is a mediator in terms of its structure. It is also a cultural and historical mediator. The Mount paintings and drawings are but one indication of how it, along with the fiddle and dance, enabled the exchange of music among Africans and Europeans in the first half of the nineteenth century, something that cannot be sufficiently emphasized. My third instance of the banjo as a mediator involves the role of the banjo in the contemporary old-time string band. For thirty years I’ve led an old-time string band ethnomusicology ensemble, first at Tufts, and then at Brown; for part of the time I teach tunes on fiddle, banjo, guitar, and mandolin, but most of our time is spent in playing music or jamming. Contrary to the practice of the usual college music group, we do not rehearse and we do not perform; we simply learn the tunes, play and enjoy the jams.

Today, old time string band music is usually considered a precursor of the better-known music, bluegrass. In bluegrass the banjo is prominent as a lead instrument. Although bluegrass was invented by the vocalist and mandolin player Bill Monroe, aficionados claim that Earl Scruggs’ innovative banjo technique not only established a style for the banjo but also is a definitive marker for the classic bluegrass genre; without Scruggs’ style banjo, it’s not bluegrass.15 In the instrumental hierarchy of old-time music, the banjo ranks second to the fiddle. In today’s old time string band it is played chiefly, though not exclusively, in a down-picking style called clawhammer, sometimes known as frailing. The strings are struck with the first or second finger of the right hand in a downward motion, while the thumb plays the drone string on up-beats, emphasizing an off-beat syncopation. This style derives from the minstrel, or stroke, style and appears to be a direct descendant of African American banjo playing from the early nineteenth century.

The experiential mediation of the banjo takes place most characteristically in the contemporary old-time string band jam session. Old-time string band music is played by fiddles, 5-string banjos, guitars, mandolins, and perhaps an autoharp, a banjo-mandolin, an acoustic bass, and/or a banjo uke. Today’s typical string band lineup is fiddle, banjo, and guitar, often more than one of each, although just fiddle and banjo will do by themselves and a different sound can be achieved without the guitar’s insistent tonal harmonies. The musical texture arises as the fiddle (the same instrument as a violin, often with a flatter bridge) sounds the main melody, sometimes harmonizing it by sounding two strings at once. The banjo typically rings out a melodically simpler version of this same tune, subtracting some notes, perhaps adding a few, emphasizing certain notes, and making slight alternations and syncopations in the rhythm while weaving the banjo sounds with the fiddler’s melody to make a new whole. The guitarist anchors the string band, playing bass notes in the lowest register, alternating these with chords that mark a steady rhythm against which the syncopations of the banjo and off-beat accenting of the fiddle bow make for a pleasant and stimulating listening and playing experience. Some call it “string band music” but most fiddlers just call it “fiddle tunes.” “Arkansas Traveler” and “Turkey in the Straw” are nineteenth century fiddle tunes that just about everyone knows, but there are thousands more, for the fiddle was the dance instrument par excellence in North America from the eighteenth through the early twentieth centuries.

Someone overhearing a string band jam session for the first time might be surprised at the music-making’s informality. Two or three people meet and, after playing some tunes they know in common, the fiddler starts a tune that the others may never have heard. After a couple of times through the rest join in, gradually picking up the tune by ear until before very long, if the players are skillful, all are playing it as if they had always known it. The small group plays the tune through several times, sticking closely to the lead fiddler’s melodic setting, and following the fiddler’s small but deliberate melodic variations.16 Tune-swapping like this brings strangers together. You may know nothing about the other people in the session–whether outside the session they are kind or aggressive, generous or greedy, talkative or taciturn, Ph.D. or high school dropout, wealthy or poor, country folks or city–but in a good jam musical bonds lead to social ones. Satisfied smiles appear; complimentary, encouraging words are exchanged. You might even feel a little wonder mingled with the delight. From away, the music seems to arise spontaneously. One fiddler in the session noodles around and seems to draw a tune from the air; others recognize it and soon most everyone is playing it. The tune lasts for a few minutes or even longer, as the musicians draw closer and the playing becomes more tightly integrated. Sometimes (though not always) it feels like more than music is going on here–that good jams model creative and democratic social communities at their best.17

I wish to offer, here, a descriptive account of the experience of banjo mediation as the typical old-time banjo player learns and adapts, to the banjo, the melody that he or she hears from the fiddler.18 In other words, I am giving a phenomenological account of this process, as it is presented to a banjo player’s consciousness, while the tune is being played and during the few minutes that it takes to work out a banjo setting of the melody. The banjo player’s melody is not identical to the fiddler’s because among other things it is scarcely possible, within the clawhammer style, to play the exact same melody; nor do the others expect it. For one thing, the banjoist plays the short string, i.e, the drone string, on the off-beat; and this is something a fiddler cannot do. For another, certain melodic moves typical in fiddlers’ settings are difficult for the banjo player to duplicate while enforcing the rhythmic groove that is so important in this music. The groove is more important, and expert banjo players understand that being faithful to the melodic intricacy of the fiddler’s setting, while it can be delightful, must not come at the expense of the tune’s rhythmic groove, or what some people call drive or swing, for unless all the musicians are locked into the same groove, there is not so much pleasure in the playing.

I wish to emphasize, also, that this hearing and playing is not a more or less instantaneous experience, such as looking at an object, picking up an object, or having a thought. Rather in this learning experience one is aware of time passing, marked by melodic movement as it registers in the brain and the body and is remembered in time as the melody progresses.19 In his early work in phenomenology, around the turn of the twentieth century, Husserl was very much concerned with the human experience of time, which he called “inner time” (Husserl 1991). He wrote about musical listening as a process in which the experience of subsequent melodic notes is contextualized by the memory of earlier ones. This was not a new observation. But he went on to point out something original: that the person remembers the tones without actually re-hearing them; that is, they are not re-presented as musical sounds in the listener’s experience. How, then are they re-presented to consciousness and re-experienced if they are not re-heard? Yet, because the melody of an old-time tune repeats several times during each performance, in the cyclical repetitions of the tune the banjo player who is learning it actually does have the opportunity to re-hear it and, to complicate the experience further, to play along with it each time, and thus to hear two melodies simultaneously—the fiddler’s tune, and the tentatively developing and ever-changing banjo player’s tune.20

Imagine an old-time banjo player hearing a tune for the first time, invited to play along with a fiddler and guitarist. There are many approaches a banjo player may take, but all integrate within the basic clawhammer lick, executed with the right hand, while the fingers of the left hand fret the melody notes. That lick consists, first, of a downstroke executed on a single string, a pause, another downward stroke either on a single string or more than one string, and finally a downward stroke by the thumb on the fifth string. The rhythm is stroke, pause, stroke, stroke. This 1 (pause) 3-4 is often rendered mnemonically as bumm-diddy or boom-chucka; repeated as bumm-diddy, bumm-diddy, bumm-diddy, and so forth. This framework enables the upbeat, the “dy” of the “diddy,” to be accented rhythmically. Not that the banjo player slavishly repeats the bumm-diddy rhythm; certain variations are desirable. For example, the pause may be filled with another note, but this is never a downstroke with the first or second finger of the right hand. It could be a left-hand finger hammer-on or a pull-off21 or a right hand drop thumb, a technique in which the thumb “drops” from its usual playing position on the fifth or drone string to another string, either the second, third, or fourth, to produce the fill note. The rhythm then changes to bapa diddy, bapa diddy, and so forth. Or, the “diddy” may be replaced by “bumm” or “bapa” to get bumm-bumm instead of bumm-diddy or to get bapa-bumm or bapa-bapa, using hammer-ons, pull-offs, and drop thumbs. Or melody notes could be alternated with fifth string drones: bady-bady.

With this basic right-hand toolkit, employed while noting the tune with the fingers of the left hand, the clawhammer banjo player is able to render much, although not all, of the fiddle melody and to create heterophonic variations on it. Of course, it is possible to learn such a melody on the banjo at one’s leisure, playing alone. All the banjo player needs is to know the melody, have it go through the mind, or hum it, or listen to a recording of it and get it in the mind, so that it can be in the mind when trying it out on the banjo. And alone this way, one can stop the melody and repeat a phrase to try out various ways of reproducing it, or nearly it, or a melody slightly different and more banjo-like than it. That kind of playing, or practicing, and setting a tune, does not take place in “real time,” in a jam, for in a jam the tune goes by at a good clip, from about 100 to 120 beats per minute, one time after another, without stopping. One has to pick it up on the fly. A jam situation can be simulated by playing along with a recording as it goes by.

How, then, in the middle of a jam, as a banjo player is catching a never-heard-before tune on the fly and playing along, is that tune presented to consciousness, and how does the player render it, in time? (With suitable modification, these observations also apply to fiddlers learning a tune on the fly.) The fiddler who knows the tune and leads it injects it, as it were, into the banjo player’s consciousness, with points of the melody standing out and others resolving into phrases. To the banjo player, some are heard as figure and others ground. The figures compete for immediacy with other, similar figures, from other tunes, that suddenly enter in the consciousness; and these latter enter first as the kind of soundless memories that Husserl wrote about, and simultaneously they are there in the fingers and played, serving as place-holders.

As the banjo player makes a stab at translating tune figures to the fingers, bringing them out on the banjo, the tones entering consciousness are measured against all the others for resemblance. At first it is somewhat confusing, but the skillful player knows how to translate the tune in the mind to the tune on the banjo, more or less. As a consequence it is really a matter, first, of hearing the tune and then as the confusion gradually clears up with each cycle in which the tune comes around again, one’s conscious mind hears more “in” the tune and “of” the tune; and, if all goes well, the fingers bring it out ever more accurately on the banjo with each successive tune cycle. It is something like going around and around on a carnival carousel and grasping for the brass rings; each time the tune comes around, one grasps a little bit more of it.22

In this way the banjo player’s consciousness is a kind of mediator between, on the one hand, the fiddler’s melody (and the other versions and variants of this melody), and the melody as it emerges on the banjo, as it comes into being and gradually develops on the banjo from something of a skeleton, with bones missing here and wrong bones–that is, mistakes–there, into a more finely boned realization of the melodic possibilities of this tune, resembling the fiddler’s melody, which may itself be changing a little as the fiddler brings it out and the banjo player becomes aware of the fiddler’s variations and vice versa.

The old-time melody usually comes to the player’s consciousness initially in one of three ways: beats, phrases, or notes. This is true for fiddlers as well as for banjo players learning a tune while it is being played. Based on my conversations with players, and also on my own experience, I divide musicians into “beaters,” “phrasers”, and “noters.” To the beater, the tune presents itself to consciousness as a formal structure, at first in large chunks rather than differentiated into phrases and notes. The beater tries to resolve this undifferentiated structure by dividing it into its largest sections or parts–usually two, but sometimes three and occasionally four; and then how long each part is; and then whether the tune’s structure is regular or “crooked” (that is, irregular). Regularity means that the melody is played over a standard number of beats, usually sixteen, before either repeating or moving on to the next section. To figure this out, the “beater” begins to count the beats as they go by, often using the fingers to count instead of playing; and then with this framework in mind, proceeds to try to grasp the melody itself in the hands and fingers as it proceeds, either as a phraser or as a noter. A “beater” feels more comfortable with a regular tune than with a crooked one, and learns it more quickly.

A “phraser” does not count beats. Instead, the tune reveals itself to consciousness one melodic phrase (a phrase generally runs through one or two beats) at a time, as the musician compares these phrases to others he or she may have heard before and stored somewhere in a phrase-memory (both pitch and rhythm) that is both in the brain and, seemingly, in the hands and fingers. The rhythmic figures are fewer in number and often predominate. Tentatively at first, the phraser will bring out these remembered melodic phrases or something like them on the banjo, and then proceed to test them against the phrases that are heard as the melody goes by. Gradually the phrases combine and come more and more to resemble the fiddler’s melody, but they retain the character of a banjo realization. At some point the phraser also becomes a noter and adjusts a note here and there to get a more satisfying rendition. Usually the phraser is barely aware of whether the tune is regular or crooked; it is in the mind primarily as a sequence of phrases.

A “noter” does not count beats and does not hear the melody in phrases at first. What presents itself to the noter’s consciousness is an unphrased skeletal outline of the melody, consisting chiefly of stressed notes that come at particular points in tune–the downbeat notes, and not all of these, either. The player finds these on the banjo, and often plays them in bumm-diddy style, the bumm bringing out the stressed note on the downbeat. Sometimes the noter also encases these in chordal or part-chordal formations with the right hand, to fill out the sound. Gradually, the noter finds more of the melodic core and rhythmic figures, some on weak beats and some on offbeats. Certain tones and tone combinations turn out to be easy to play, others more difficult, and a few impossible–these latter are left alone. Licks emerge from the noter’s fingers through a kind of rhythmic hand-and-finger memory that sets the melody in a banjo-like way. The noter tends to accentuate the downbeat melody notes that coincide with the fiddler’s melody.

Of course, to some extent this separation between noters, phrasers, and counters is artificial. Noters become phrasers as they grasp the melodic outline; phrasers become noters as they realize the finer points of the tune; and beaters become both phrasers and noters as they gradually bring out the tune. But the way the tune presents itself initially to consciousness, is different; and the melodic realizations are also likely to be different, although in the end these differences result chiefly from the player’s skills in hearing, in understanding what can and cannot be done well on the banjo in the player’s particular style, and in having the techniques to bring off what one wants to play.23

As I have been suggesting all along, fiddlers and guitarists as well as banjo players learn tunes on the fly in jam sessions, as long as one or more others “know” a version (have a setting) of the tune. Old-time string band musicians seek jams for peak, intense experiences. The feeling of creativity and integration in the accomplishment gives pleasure and satisfaction, and keeps players coming back for more. That is one reason old-time string band jam sessions have grown in popularity. The same can be said of the Irish traditional music session and many others in oral tradition where creativity and integration are left to the musicians.

A folklorist inclined toward romanticism might think that the old time string band jam as we know it today enacts an ancient communal ritual, but the evidence suggests that it is not much older than about sixty years. Observe that all Mount’s musicians are playing solo, and that is corroborated by other evidence. This is not to say that musicians never played together. And certainly the jam session in jazz is older than sixty years. But let us leave the past and think about the future. One of the things that music can bring to the discourse concerning sustainability, to music’s role in sustaining life on this planet, is embodied in the jam session: everyday expressive culture raised to peak performance: constructive, creative and integrating. Rather than thinking of the tune as a fixed melody, in the interaction with the fiddler, real or imagined, the banjo player always brings out something new each time, creating various settings, until the idea of playing the tune is just that: realizing the different possibilities of the idea of the tune every time it comes into being. This is a profound change in concept: from a fixed or predetermined structure, such as one provided by a nineteenth century composer’s definitive musical score, to a fluid one, lacking a score yet full of possibilities. Many advanced banjo players, after many years of playing, do not bother to “learn” tunes; they just bring them out this way, when needed, putting oral/aural tradition to use. This constructive, creative, and integrative faculty is expressive culture’s principal act of resilience. It may be its main contribution to sustaining life on planet Earth.

Works cited:

Buffet, Edward P. 1923. “William Sidney Mount: A Biography.” Port Jefferson [Long Island, NY] Times, Dec. 1, 1923.

Cassedy, David and Gail Schrott. 1983. William Sidney Mount: Works in the Collection of the Museums at Stony Brook. Stony Brook, NY: The Museums at Stony Brook.

Frankenstein, Alfred. 1975. William Sidney Mount. New York: Abrams.

Husserl, Edmund. 1991. On the Phenomenology of the Consciousness of Internal Time, 1893-1917. Trans. John Barnett Brough. Norwell, MA: Kluwer.

Malone, Bill C., and Jocelyn R. Neal. 2010. Country Music, U.S.A. 3rd revised edition. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

Sudnow, David. 2001 (1978). Ways of the Hand: A Rewritten Account. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Titon, Jeff Todd. 1977. Early Downhome Blues: A Musical and Cultural Analysis. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

———. 2001. Old-Time Kentucky Fiddle Tunes. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.

Turino, Thomas. 2008. Music as Social Life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


1 The fourth annual Indiana University-Ohio State University folklore and ethnomusicology graduate student conference, held March 25-26, 2011, and sponsored by The Folklore Institute, Indiana University, Bloomington. I am grateful to the graduate students for their invitation to deliver the keynote address; this essay is a revised version of that address. The topics related to mediation seem endless and would include media studies as well as intellectual property rights, digital commons, and intangible cultural heritage, not to mention ethnographers and public culture workers as mediators.

2Since 2008, I have been discussing these and related ideas on my research blog on music and sustainability: visit http://sustainablemusic.blogspot.com

3 See Titon 1977, p. 247, for a reproduction of Mount’s painting, “Dancing on the Barn Floor.” In the past few years the musicologist Christopher J. Smith has been working on a project involving Mount, minstrelsy, and the black-white musical interchange; I have seen some of his important work and I acknowledge its influence upon my own.

4 It is uncertain whether Nelson sat for this portrait.

5 Mount was among the generation already embarked on a painting career when daguerreotypes revolutionized portraiture. On one hand, the painter faced competition from the photographer; on the other hand, painters made portraits using daguerreotype images as models, which saved sitting time for the subject. Mount mentions daguerreotypes occasionally in his diaries, usually disparaging them in comparison to paintings. Mount did not intend, in his work, to imitate the photographic realism of the daguerreotype.

6 A diary entry from January 1846 reads, “I must fiddle less and paint more” (Frankenstein 1975, p. 141).

7 Letter from Mount to William Schaus, 3 Mar 1850 (Frankenstein 1975, p. 160).

8 Letter from Schaus to Mount, 8 Mar 1850 (Frankenstein 1975, p. 160).

9 See Titon 2001, p. 201.

10 The title is taken from the Wordsworth poem.

11 Buffet 1923.

12 Mount’s section of Long Island was home to a celebrated Black fiddler, Anthony Hannibal Clapp (1749-1816). Mount acknowledged hearing him as a boy: “I have sat by Anthony when I was a child, to hear him play his jigs and hornpipes. He was a master in that way. . . “ Letter from Mount to C.M. Cady, 24 Nov, 1853, quoted in Frankenstein 1975, p. 91.

13 Presentation at the annual conference of the Society for Ethnomusicology, Honolulu, HI, 2006.

14 Offered for sale along with other Mount paintings at his death, it did not find a buyer (Frankenstein 1975, p. 462). Probably the reserve price was too high. Most of these paintings were later dispersed among Mount’s relatives.

15 Monroe’s recordings from the fall of 1946, which for the first time include Scruggs on banjo,  are generally considered the beginning of classic bluegrass (Malone and Neal 2010:328).

16 A small minority of contemporary old-time musicians prefer to improvise on the melodies.

17 Adapted from Titon 2001:10.

18The ethnomusicologist Thomas Turino, himself a banjo player, writes that his way of playing differs from the usual way, in that rather than attempt to learn the fiddler’s melody, he prefers to improvise with formulaic patterns that complement the melody. He acknowledges that typical old-time fiddlers, expecting him to learn and then follow their melodic setting, become “annoyed” with his approach, so he performs regularly with more sympathetic and like-minded musicians, including his son (Turino 2008:182). In what follows, I consider the usual way of learning and playing tunes in an old-time jam. However, certain young old-time string band musicians do improvise as Turino does.

19 Yet once learned, and locked into the groove, one’s time-awareness changes: both time and the sounds appear to be flowing through oneself into the stream of sound, as a stream both flows and remains the same. This gives the player the sense of stepping out of the passage of time, or instantiating it.

20 The banjo player also simultaneously hears a third melody, a head-tune (the ideal tune, the tune the banjo player wants to play but cannot yet play).

21 In a hammer-on, a noting finger forcefully strikes one of the strings down to the fingerboard, the downward force itself producing the sound. In a pull-off, a noting finger plucks one of the strings sideways and up from the fingerboard, the pluck producing the sound.

22Sociologist David Sudnow offered a phenomenological account of how his fingers and hands learned to “go for the jazz” or improvise unconsciously (Sudnow 2001). Jazz musicians are capable of learning melodies on the fly, but they do not work with them as old-time musicians do; rather, the melodies and chord changes implied by their harmonies form the basis for new melodies. While the old-time musician learning a tune tries to get closer and closer to a particular melody, the jazz musician moves away from it.

23 In talking with old-time musicians about how they hear and learn the tunes, I usually start by asking what goes through their mind when they learn. Most players say the tune goes through their mind, and then I ask them how. Sometimes they talk about counting beats and sometimes about phrases. On more than one occasion I’ve asked a few musicians gathered together, and learned that beaters scarcely can imagine how phrasers can learn that way, and vice versa. Noters tend to say things like “I just hear the notes and find them (or play them),” while denying that they count beats or listen for phrases. I am, myself, a phraser.

Jeff Todd Titon is a professor of music at Brown University and a Fellow of the American Folklore Society. This essay was the keynote address at the joint Indiana University – Ohio State University collaborative conference, “Mediating Culture,” in March of 2011.

7 thoughts on “Music, Mediation, Sustainability: A Case Study on the Banjo

  1. Jeff, I too have thought a lot about the process of learning tunes. First, let me tell you that I entertain the wacky idea that ‘music’ as we call it now is a necessary evolutionary step in the development of language, as it emanates from the same parcel of cerebral real estate, the Cingulate Gyrus, usually found on the left side of the head near the temporal lobe. I don’t want to go into all that now, except to say that I found a morsel of confirmation in Stephen Pinker’s ‘Language Instinct’, a passage where he talks about chimpanzee mothers ‘crooning their infants to sleep’ with rhythmic prosody.

    Second, like Big Bill used to say, ‘You play it like you feel it’, to me a reference to the ‘Second Mind’ of Charlie Patton, an unconscious or preconscious process of mentation that goes on unbidden, sort of like my tinnitus, forming a musical subtext to everything I do, all the time.

  2. Banjo-as-mediator suggests that the instrument’s comedic associations may run deep. I’ve attributed banjo jokes to minstrel residue and race discomfort, but perhaps its the instrument’s odd liminal position that confuses the collective unconscious, like pig flesh.

    Not sure about the beater/phraser/noter ternarism, at least for experienced musicians. Often the tune itself demands a particular approach. I recently watched a video clip of Bela Fleck–no stranger to crooked phrasing– learning a tune by counting beats on his fingers. Will have to think on this.

    Interesting essay Jeff. And Mount’s images are compelling. Good to see new banjo literature!

  3. In Fig. 3, Right and Left, the fiddle appears to have a string coming out of the f-hole, and going around underneath the fiddle – where there appears to be a knot in the string to tie it to its other end. I’m assuming the string continues out the other f-hole to go around the violin.

    Any explanations?? As a fiddler, I’m curious – – –

  4. Sarah, when I view an enlargement of this painting, it looks to me like a metal clip attached inside the bass f-hole, to which clip a piece of string is loosely attached at one end, the other end likely attached to the fiddler’s clothing.

  5. The string is almost assuredly attached to the sound post on the inside & used as an adjustment mechanism. I’ve seen this in more than one old fiddle that has come from a farmer’s attic.

    Tom Verdot

  6. Tom: It could very well be what you say, but I am hesitant. The ones I’ve seen have all had shorter adjusting strings, and they were coiled inside the body of the fiddle, to be worked out thru the f-hole occasionally when adjustment was advisable. This one, hanging out, if attached to a sound post, could be dangerous–that is, if it caught on something, the post could move or even topple over: an accident waiting to happen. Regardless, we’re grateful Mount rendered these instruments so accurately. With other artists, we couldn’t even be having this discussion.

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