The banjo is an American instrument with a storied history and roots in West Africa. The five-string instrument found its way into jug band music, bluegrass, country, as well as classical and jazz. Dom Flemons of the Grammy-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops came to WC Handy Park on Beale Street in Memphis this summer to help with the PBS program “Give Me the Banjo.”
Flemons plays his banjo and sings, “It’s A Good Thing,” a Frank Stokes song from the 1920s, at the foot of WC Handy’s statue. Flemons says the banjo came out of African-American culture.
“It’s an African-derived instrument. But it’s actually an African-American instrument,” Flemons explains. “So the banjo itself is an African-American instrument. And it is derived from instruments that came mostly from West Africa, but I mean it’s scattered all over the place. Wherever people were brought over to the States, you’ll find the different instruments being melded together.
Stokes, along with Gus Cannon, is from the Delta region, and both were influential songsters of the time, performing jug band and blues music in the early 1900s.
Flemons discovered Cannon one day while digging through the record bins, “I got familiar with Gus Cannon’s work when I was maybe about 19 or so when I was still in Phoenix, Arizona. And I actually found a copy of the record that they produced at Stax, 'Walk Right In.' So that was the first thing I heard of him. Then later I heard his earlier recordings with the Jug Stompers and then his older stuff as Banjo Joe. I got into his storytelling and talking about his life growing up.”
In many ways, Flemons the musician is an academic paying homage to his ancestry, but with one foot in history and the other looking toward the future. “I don’t think [Cannon] was chained down to a certain way of playing the banjo.” Flemons continues, “So he made up different styles as he went along. Sometimes he’ll be frailing it or strumming all the strings, other times he’ll be picking it with three fingers and then other times he’ll be playing single strings. That’s what I like about it, it’s so free. The spontaneous and the improvisatory nature of his banjo playing is something that absolutely knocks me out.”