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The Banjo and African American Musical Culture

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Clef Club

James Reese Europe (1881-1919) leading the Clef Club Symphony Orchestra at the Manhattan Casino, New York City, 11 May 1911. (Photo courtesy of the Eubie Blake Collection at the Maryland Historical Society.)

Ragtime dominated American popular music from the late 1890s until the First World War. It included composed piano scores, black country dance music, white and black popular songs, the all black Broadway of the early 1900s, and the early jazz and blues both initially seen as new forms of ragtime. Ragtime brought an explosion of new black-originated dances that swept out of the south, some "cleaned up" for white urban tastes by white dance entrepreneurs like George and Irene Castle, who created the foxtrot in order to make the blues-based slow drag acceptable for white "society."

Banjos were at the center of ragtime, but no American cylinder recordings of black ragtime banjoists have been found. The early recording industry largely shunned black performers. Yet, more white ragtime banjo recordings were made than piano recordings. Top white recording artists such as banjoists Fred Van Eps and Vess Ossman recorded banjo versions of Joplin's piano rags. Most ragtime popular songs were published with banjo arrangements, and ragtime composers like Joplin dedicated scores to black banjoists and annotated their piano scores with instructions for the pianist to play like a banjoist.

In the first decade of the 20th century instruments with heads like banjos, but with fingerboards and strings such as one might find on guitars, mandolins, and mandolas, became popular in dance bands that played ragtime and tangos, as well as the new blues and jazz.

New York-based pianist, arranger, and band leader James Reese Europe's bands reflected the confluence of the banjo and the most sophisticated forms of ragtime. Europe believed banjos and other string instruments like mandolins and fiddles reflected African American heritage. In 1916, his Society Orchestra, then New York's top dance band, contained five banjoists among its nine musicians. The Clef Club Symphony Orchestras that Europe organized for benefit concerts at the Manhattan Casino in 1910 and 1911 and Carnegie Hall in 1912 and 1913 had banjos of every kind: five-string banjos, cello banjos, true mandolin banjos, mandola banjos, and tenor banjos. The concerts featured dance, show tunes, and formal ragtime-influenced compositions by Europe and African American composers such as Fredrick Bryan, Ford Dabney, and Will Marion Cook.

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