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The Banjo and African American Musical Culture

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Horace Weston

Horace Weston in an S.S. Stewart publicity photo, ca. 1880. (HTC Photographs 1.1073, courtesy of Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University.)

Horace Weston, was born in Derby, Connecticut in 1825 and died in New York 22 May 1890. Weston was billed as "the world's greatest banjoist" and "Champion Banjoist of the World," and toured the United States, Britain, and Germany. S. S. Stewart, the leading contemporary figure of the banjo world, built custom banjos for Weston and published Weston's compositions and arrangements.

After the Civil War, black banjo playing developed through constant interaction with white show business banjoists, European American folk banjoists themselves inspired by black influence and white minstrelsy, and a new commercial banjo industry of banjo manufacturers, entertainers, and the purveyors of music, lessons, and instruction books. Four major banjo techniques emerged. Two had West African roots: down picking, described above, and two-finger picking, which involved striking the strings down with the thumb and pulling up with the index or middle finger. White minstrels first popularized the third technique, "guitar banjo," which borrowed heavily from popular music and parlor guitar playing of the time. In this technique the banjoist hits down on strings with the thumb and pulls up on individual strings with two or three fingers. Influenced by the mandolin's popularity, the fourth major playing technique, flat pick or plectrum playing, emerged toward the end of the century. All sorts of variations and combinations of these techniques appeared among black players. By the end of the nineteenth century, metal either covered or replaced the wooden frame rims on banjos, frets were added, metal strings replaced gut, and a variety of mechanisms were added to banjoes to produce a loud, clear treble sound. Black banjoists welcomed these innovations.

Black minstrel companies emerged after the Civil War offering real black music and humor, not pale imitations. Some white audiences objected that African American minstrels did not behave as the white minstrels did. African American criticized black minstrels for perpetuating racist stereotypes, but many of these minstrels subverted racist stereotypes through satire. Black minstrel banjoists like Weston became show business stars in the United States and beyond. James Bohee (1844-1897) and George Bohee (d. 1930) began performing as banjoists and dancers in Boston in the 1860s. After touring with a minstrel company in the late 1870s, the Bohees remained in Great Britain from the 1880s, where James Bohee ran a banjo instruction studio patronized by London high society. The Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII, took banjo lessons there. Hosea Easton (1854-1899), born in Hartford, Connecticut, arrived in Australia in 1877 with a black show business troupe that called itself the Fisk Jubilee Singers, although they had no connection with Fisk University. Easton became a seminal figure in banjo entertainment in Australia and New Zealand.

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