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Why this instrument explains Black American folk music

Jake Blount, a banjo scholar, explains.

Jake Blount has built a career out of understanding the banjo’s connection to Black American folk music. In this video, he walks us through the instrument’s history — from West Africa to enslaved people in the US to the early record industry — to explain how Black folk music has evolved.

For example: The early record industry confined Black musicians to “race records” and white musicians to “hillbilly records.” Hillbilly music would have been early country and string band music. Race records restricted Black musicians to blues and jazz genres. Which meant Black musicians playing bluegrass-style banjo weren’t recorded — even if they were responsible for teaching white musicians.

Using field recordings, their own banjo and fiddle skills, and a deconstructed version of one of their own songs, Blount explains how Black musicians have long been left out of the current canon of folklore recordings and American folk music history. Plus, what he’s doing to keep the tradition alive, with fresh observations and a musical style that looks both forward and backward.

You can find this video and all of Vox’s videos on YouTube.