African Origins of Clawhammer
Editor' Note:For several years, Chris Erswell, a UK folk musician, was active in Internet folk circles, including the "Banjo Hangout." He often shared information, including the content on this page, under the name "Tom Joad," named for the fictitious hero of The Grapes of Wrath. Unfortunately, circumstances caused him to stop updating these pages several years ago, and the site subsequently went down.
We used to link to Chris' pages from this web site, and we have heard the dismay of readers who could no longer access Chris' files. So we sought permission to restore what we could, and this is the result.
Here's an interesting tie-in to this page based on my own experience - in 2015, a fellow presenter at an academic conference proposed that white people who play the banjo "misappropriate" African culture. There's no question in my mind that the 1800's-era blackface "minstrel" performers misappropriated the culture of enslaved people of African descent. On the other hand, the banjo rose to its highest level of prominence during the Jazz age, when there was a legitimate and - for the most part - friendly exchange of musical styles and tropes between black and white musicians.
Some folks are quick to point out that it was a white man who replaced the gourd body of the original African instrument with a drum-style shell. But as far as we can tell, he learned everything he knew about playing the banjo from people of African descent who were playing the gourd-bodied instrument.
Chris Erswell was interested in such questions and did some research on subjects like "Was the banjo really invented in Africa?" To him, it was evident that the popular banjo playing style that is currently called Clawhammer is directly related to a kind of playing style that is still used on the original gourd-bodied instruments in Africa. To demonstrate his point, Chris linked to YouTube videos of African musicians in Africa playing traditional African styles of music on traditional African instruments (Akonting, in particular). The links he used broke, but some of the videos are still up, so we've relinked to them in this version of the page.
If you have any of the other content that Chris generated that we are missing, please let me know.
- Paul Race
All of the text in the white box on this page was created by Chris Erswell and shared under the Creative Commons
Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License. All other illustrations and content on this web page are copyrighted (c) 2016 by Paul D. Race. All rights reserved.
For questions, comments, suggestions, trouble reports, etc. about this page or this site, please contact us.