Monday, June 21, 2010

Well, I've done it now. I made a video of myself playing Louis Moreau Gottschalk's "The Banjo" on the fretless gourd banjo and posted that on YouTube. Then I went to Wikipedia and edited the entry on Gottschalk's "The Banjo," and linked the video to it. Whoever had written the Wikipedia entry on Gottschalk's "Banjo" had cited my article (see below) but apparently not entirely understood it. YouTube seems to have messed with my crisp image somewhat, and the titles are fuzzy too, but...good enough, I say. I will probably record the version of the piece for the CD in the next few weeks, now that it's all sharp and under my fingers. When I play live, I treat it like banjo music and I feel free to mess with things a bit as the mood strikes me, but for these recordings I wanted to follow the piano music as closely as I can.

The article that I published in the early 90's on this explains a lot of what I'm doing here; essentially I back-engineered how the piece would have been played by using what I argue was a kind of piano "sound recording" of an actual (though unnamed) African-American banjo player in New Orleans, c. 1853. I am for the most part following what I outlined in the article, except that since then (I had to take a few years to build the banjo and then figure out how to play it) I came up with a different way to play an important part of the piece. I switch to an up-picking rolling style that sounds more like what the piano is doing, and I think it points out more of a connection to West African plucked lute styles, not unlike fast textures on the ngoni or kora. This switching back and forth between "downstroking," or "frailing," and up-picking is common in West African plucked lute playing, though is not a traditional part of surviving American banjo playing--in fact no other evidence of it survives. Though it really annoyed S. Frederick Starr, the author of the current authoritative biography of Gottschalk, I think the most powerful evidence that Gottschalk made this piece by transcribing the playing of some unnamed African-American banjo player is right here in this recording of the music. No way could he get that close to actual banjo music without sitting down with somebody and copying to the best of his ability everything the musician did. Was poet Gwendolyn Brooks justified in railing against Gottschalk's beginning the great American tradition of white musicians stealing the awesome musical genius of African-Americans (her poem is reprinted in my article)? I think so, that he should have given credit somehow, but still I'm glad he did what he did, or else this tradition would not have been preserved in any other documentary evidence.

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