On Black Banjo Songsters of North Carolina and Virginia, Cece Conway and Scott Odell have compiled 32 tracks spanning roughly 25 years from some those states’ finest banjoists. The collection—which includes beautiful, detailed liner notes with pictures—is a reminder not only that the banjo is a west African instrument, but that old-time and hillbilly music are equally (if not more) influenced by African-American expressive culture as they are by Scottish and English traditions.
Black Banjo Songsters features more well-known figures in the world of old-time music—particularly Joe Thompson, Odell Thompson, and Dink Roberts—as well as lesser known musicians like John Snipes and Rufus Kasey. One of this collection’s greatest strengths is that it features multiple versions of particular songs, thereby comparing differences in style from region to region, and community to community. Often, the tracks are placed one after the other, allowing listeners to follow the thread between versions and see how a song becomes a living, breathing entity as it moves across time and space. Songs like “Coo Coo” (also listed later as “Coo Coo Bird”), “Old Corn Liquor,” “John Henry,” and “Georgie Buck” (or “Georgia Buck”) are among the most exciting examples of this kind of musical mapping.
The liner notes on Black Banjo Songsters go far beyond rounding out the album; they interpret, explain, and shape its structure and contents. They also go into great detail about the social and historical context in which the musicians and these songs developed, including the still under-written history of Black banjo music in the United States. Cece Conway and Scott Odell are, after all, two of the most important historians of the banjo, and Conway in particular focuses on Black vernacular music in Appalachia. Ultimately, Black Banjo Songsters is one of the fullest pictures of the contributions of Black banjoists to the folk and popular music of the southeast.