American History through the Eyes of Four Female, African American Banjo Players: Our Native Daughters

Songs from Our Native Daughters is American history told with dignity, grace and tenderness.

National Museum of African American History and Culture photo by Frank Schulenburg Copyright: CC BY-SA 4.0

For Black History Month 2021, I was more intentional than I normally am to listen to the voices of black people in America and to learn a little black history.

Rhiannon Giddens photo at cropped

I have appreciated the voices of many people, including Rhiannon Giddens, formerly of the musical group, Carolina Chocolate Drop. Throughout Black History Month, she posted many biographies, and I followed her daily posts during the month.

So it was that I came across a project she created with a group of female, African American banjo players that was just released to the public. Yes, all banjo players, all female and all African American.

She set out to do an album of Americana music from the perspective of black history for Smithsonian Folkways. She put out a call for banjo players, like her, but she didn’t originally intend to gather together a group of four African American female banjo players: Allison Russell, Leyla McCalla, Amythyst Kiah and Rhiannon Giddens.

Four black female banjo players?!

It turns out she couldn’t have scripted a better group. The result of this collaboration is captured in song by the album, Songs of Our Native Daughters, and in the form of a documentary, Reclaiming History: Our Native Daughters. Their story, which is the story of their ancestors, and a story of overcoming through struggle, is a poignant one.

They met at Cypress House Studio in Breaux Bridge, LA, an old Creole cabin with “stories in the walls”. Dirk Powell, a longtime collaborator with Giddens, owns the cabin that houses the studio, and he produced the album.

They set out to reinterpret an existing canon of Americana music as part of the black narrative in the Americas, but they found their own voices and creativity in the process. The creative force of their shared history and experience led them to produce mostly original music for the album in the genre of Americana.

Part of that shared experience is the history of the minstrel banjo and slave narratives that are common to their collective ancestry. Giddens discovered her own history through her love for the banjo, which was an instrument brought to the Americas by the African slaves. Giddens commented:

“African American history is American history. It is important to know who the founding fathers were, and it’s also important to know who built the White House…. [I]it’s important to know who built the railroads; and it’s important to know the nameless people….”

Thus, Giddens found her own voice in the process of collaborating, writing and playing music for this project. In telling the African American story through Americana music, the group says the hope to prompt people to ask, “What can we do to be better as a society and as humans?”   

Amythyst Kiah photo found at Flickr creative commons license

I believe many African Americans feel that their history was uprooted and cut off from them. They are largely cut off from it by slavery, the breakup of families and the lack of personal ancestral records.

For Amythyst Kiah, the project brought home to her that she does have a history, and she “stands on the shoulders” of those who went before her.

An interesting theme of the project is the banjo. Most people (including many African Americans) that the banjo has roots in the African diaspora. The oldest banjo still in existence was found in Haiti in 1840. It came to the Americas in the hold a slave ship.

The banjo came to the Americas with people who had been brutalized and enslaved. These people also brought their oral and musical traditions and a sense of self and culture that they carried with them.

The slaves brought instruments with them called bonzas, perhaps derived from the Kimbundu word, mbanza[i], and other similar instruments. These instruments have been in use in the Caribbean since the 17th Century, with references in North America going back to the 18th Century. The variety of African influenced instruments in the Americas eventually merged into what we call the banjo today.

“African-influenced banjos were built around a gourd body and a wooden stick neck.” The number of strings varied.

Slaves in the antebellum south not only played the banjo; they taught their slaveowners to play the banjo.   

The banjo was their instrument, but its history in the Americas took a turn.

Popular ideas about the banjo evoke images of white Appalachia. Most people (me included up to now) don’t picture banjos in the hands of African slaves.

Allison Russell observes that the banjo was initially an instrument of poor, oppressed people – white and black. Historians credit Joel Walker Sweeney with popularized the 5-string banjo we know today. He made a living as a traveling minstrel performer, and those early minstrel performers introduced the banjo into music halls around the country, often playing in black face.

Of course, a person had to be the “right color” to make a living at playing the banjo at that time. As it became a popular instrument in the antebellum south, the banjo lost connection to its black, African roots. As fiddle competitions became popular and the recording industry sprouted, it did so without the involvement of black Americans.

When slaves were emancipated and began moving north, they wanted to leave behind memories of their past like the banjo. Thus, the African connection to the banjo was largely lost. The banjo became known as a “white person’s instrument”.

Leyla McCalla photo by Mario Pires 
Copyright: Mário Pires

Leyla McCalla recalls that her family was horrified that she wanted to play the banjo. In their minds, banjo was “hillbilly, country music” that black women don’t play.

The retelling of the history of the banjo, however, is a rediscovery of the history of African Americans and their struggles.

The music of Our Native Daughters is about struggle and the will to overcome adversity through the stories of poor, black woman. Giddens says that black women are on “the bottom rung of American history”. They are “always working harder than anyone else, only to be swept aside by others”.

Polly Ann’s Hammer is a song written by the group that retells the story of John Henry. When John Henry can no longer swing the hammer and continue on, Polly Ann picks up the hammer and carries on. She symbolizes to the group the resiliency of humanity through the eyes of poor black women who carried on despite their terrible circumstances

These four women, phenomenal musicians each one of them, put together a project that would not have been possible at other times in American history. The wrote a song, I knew I Could Fly, about Etta Baker, that recognizes this realty. Though she was “a master at Piedmont blues guitar playing” her whole life, she didn’t release a record until she was in her 60’s – after her husband passed.  

Leyla McCalla explains how she grew up feeling comfortable with her own ambition, but a woman like Etta Baker only felt the freedom to stray beyond her dutiful role as a housewife when her husband died.

Allison Russell Po' Girl photo from Wikipedia Commons

Allisson Russell’s mother was of Scottish descent and her father was from Grenada in the Caribbean. She was born and raised in Montreal. Her aunt found a matriarch in Allison’s family who had been sold into slavery in Ghana and bought by a plantation owner in Trinidad. Quasheba, Quasheba is a song Allison wrote of her. For Russell, Quasheba was a survivor, and Allison is her legacy.

Allison, herself, suffered sexual, physical and psychological abuse at the hands of her adoptive white, father. He went to jail as the result of her testimony. The story of Quasheba, and her ability to rise above her circumstances, is Russell’s story too. She said,

“Being able to escape into books kept me alive, and being able to escape into music kept me alive, and that is a very direct connection for me with the diaspora and the history of the banjo…. I understand … on a very deep level how important music and storytelling was for our ancestors to survive.”

Amythyst Kiah talks about music as a way of disarming the defensiveness people feel about these uncomfortable stories. Music is also a way of overcoming the feeling of being overwhelmed by the stories. Leyla McCalla describes the tour and performances they did as “deeply emotional”. Confronting and telling the stories was healing.

The great emotional connection and success of the collaboration led Russell to suggest that “playing music together is a model for how to do business in the world”. For McCalla, [The] music [is] about making something that is bigger than yourself.”

The story is music. Russell observed that music was shared back and forth across the Atlantic. She said,, “There is a lot of Scottish and Irish influence in the roots music here, and that comes back through this new prism blended in with African, indigenous [and other influences and] all of this music has common roots.” Music brings people together and tells stories that might not be known but for the music.

Amythyst Kiah says, “People sometimes will say, ‘I’ll never understand what it feels to be … a black woman…, but let’s also not forget that, when we feel alienated and feel pain, it feels the same. We all have that experience.” Thus, said Amythyst to a crowd at one of the performances, “The song [Black Myself] is a song for you!”

I will end this article by letting the women speak for themselves, beginning with Giddens, who expressed her appreciation that the Smithsonian and others who gave them a platform and resources and “got out of their way” to allow them to tell the story. She added, an important caveat, though,

“We cannot do this alone. American culture came out of cultural collaboration, and it has to be saved by cultural collaboration. Right? We have to work together.”  

Russell similarly said,

“We are all connected. This is not just music for black women…. This is music for everyone. The historic black women’s story is humanity’s story.”

In the end, the story of the African salves’ plight in America is a story of resiliency and triumph. Giddens said,

“There’s all these horrible things that happened to us, but we’re still living. We’re thriving.”

On the importance of music in the story, Kiah said,

“Think about [it]: hip hop is everywhere; and rock and roll is everywhere and blues and minstrel music is everywhere. That’s the story of African American culture. Through all these really heavy, horrible things, we have managed to thrive and affect the culture of the entire world.”

I recommend the short documentary and the album. The music is great. The stories that are told are stories people need to hear. The spirit of dignity, grace and tenderness with which the group approached the project, wrote the sings and performed them shines through the darkness of the tragic past they share in their ancestry and in their own stories and heralds the dawning of renewed hope for all people who struggle in circumstances beyond their own control.

Songs of Our Native Daughters: Our Native Daughters (Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah, Leyla McCalla, Allison Russell)
Purchase the vinyl LP, CD or download at Song of Our American Daughters at
Smithsonian Folkways Recordings

[i] See Wikipedia

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