The Banjo and African American Musical Culture
Gus Cannon (1883-1979), ca. 1920. (Public domain photo, courtesy of the author.)
The traditional black dances powered by banjos, increasingly joined by fiddles and guitars, did not go away. At the turn of the century, banjoists such as Gus Cannon played music that showed how ragtime lived along with the older dance musics and the new styles of jazz and blues. Born to a Northern Misssissippi musical family, Cannon learned fiddle and banjo as a child. At fifteen, Cannon could make as much playing fiddle and banjo at old-time country "balls" in the Mississippi Delta near Clarksdale as he could in a week's labor in a levee camp. Cannon played down-picking banjo for square dance tunes and picked jigs in the thumb and index finger two-finger style. He strummed ragtime tunes with his whole hand and claimed that this technique replicated tenor banjo. He mastered blues and black ragtime withn the guitar banjo technique using four, and sometimes five, fingers.
While Gus Cannon never worked as a full-time musician, from 1914 to 1930 several months each year he starred as "Banjo Joe" in medicine shows that toured the South and the Midwest. Often in blackface, Cannon played banjo, performed tricks like juggling his banjo and catching it in the middle of a song, and told jokes. He sometimes billed himself as "the colored champion banjo pugilist of the world," and claimed he would give a thousand dollars to anyone who could outplay him.
From 1927 to 1930 Gus Cannon made thirty-four recordings for the Paramount, Victor, and Brunswick companies. Except for one old-time banjo song, they were all blues, ragtime popular songs, and rocking country ragtime, played in the guitar banjo finger picking style. Yet, the high pitch and treble timbre of Cannon's banjo required low pitched rhythm guitar and jug accompaniment to support blues singing and dance. The juke joints at the center of the Deep South blues circuit hired soloists, and guitarists who sang could work these venues. A banjoist who required a band could not, and as a result banjoists disappeared from the country blues.
In 1962 the Rooftop Singers, a folk group led by banjoist Erik Darling, took their version of Cannon's 1929 recording "Walk Right In" to the top of the Billboard "Hot 100" chart. Folk and blues enthusiasts helped Cannon, who by this time was an aging yard man in Memphis and in poverty so deep that he often pawned his banjo, gain some royalties. He appeared at folk venues and at New York's Friends of Old Time Music concerts. In 1963 he cut the Stax album Walk Right In, whose folk oriented selections contain the gusto of his early recordings, if not their vocal or banjo excellence.