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conventional enough person ("He was always so quiet," says the neighbor) and an inexplicable, horrendous act. The implication is thatyou, oryou (or, more particularly , you) could be the next killer. The Annals of Crime stories in The New Yorker often mention the ordinariness of the community, its similarity to yours. After a few ofthese tales, the question is not why so ordinary a person took such an extraordinary step, it's why every one ofus hasn't got a body under our porch. America's Instrument The Banjo in the Nineteenth Century by Philip F. Gura andJames F. Bollman UNC Press, 1999 400 pp. Cloth $45.00 Reviewed by Mark Robert·, the longtime banjoist for the Red Clay Ramblers, who has toured widely across North America and Europe with them and with Touchstone in the 1980s. His flute playing is featured in theJohn Sayles film The Secret ofRoan Innish, and, in addition to the Ramblers, he also appears currendy with the New England Celtic band The Sevens. In America's Instrument Philip Gura and James Bollman take a fascinating look at the banjo, telling die story of how the primitive gourd instrument that was brought here by enslaved Africans captured the imagination ofVictorian America . This beautiful book demonstrates how the changes of the post-Civil War marketplace brought about the evolution of the instrument, and it is most effective in the way various collections of banjo memorabilia illustrate the authors' points. Of particular interest are striking color photographs of some extremely rare instruments and reproductions ofantebellum photographs. The authors begin by describing the earliest African instruments associated widi die banjo. In 1620 came reports from among the peoples of West Africa: "The most commonly found instrument was 'made out of a great gourd, and a necke diereunto fastnd, resembling in some sort our bandora,' and having 'not above sixe strings.'" Another reference comes from Edward Long,Jamaican historian , who "notes that the 'merry-wang' was a 'favorite instrument' and resembled 'a rustic guitar, of four strings' made from a 'calabash' that had been sliced and covered with 'a dried bladder, or skin spread across it.'" An illustrative watercolor , "The Plantation," from mid-eighteendi-century South Carolina, depicts a gourd banjo. Gura and Bollman discuss this early form of the banjo as background for their study ofdie banjo's transformation from a rough lute-like instru80 southern cultures, Fall2000: Reviews ment made by individual folk artisans into one of the most popular instruments in Victorian America. (For those interested in the African connection, I would also recommend Cece Conway's fine workAfrican Banjo Echoes inAppalachia.) The authors then provide perspective for what today seems a bizarre and cruel form of entertainment—black-face minstrelsy—through the use of various period photographs and posters and quotes. "Through minstrelsy's window appeared cultural identifications and hostilities, ethnic satire, and social and political commentary ofa wide ranging and sometimes radical nature." We see that this was a "kind of underground theater in which black-face convention rendered permissible topics thatwere difficult to handle explicidy on the Victorian stage or in print." The exaggerated characters of the minstrel show presumably allowed working class whites to think themselves superior to the African Americans with whom diey were beginning to have to compete for jobs. The show's foundation was the minstrel line: banjo, violin, tambourine and bones. Quite often in their descriptions of early minstrel shows, we hear ofpeople being "fascinated" or "completely taken" with the sound of the banjo. As a banjo player, I find that this continues to happen, and it is intriguing to think of the effect such a new and completely foreign sound would have had in die mid-nineteenth century. When the banjo first traveled to England in the hands of Joel Sweeney, the most famous early banjoist,Joseph Cave gave this description: "On the evening ofhis second performance, and I shall never forget how my ears tingled and my mouth watered when I heard the turn, turn, turn of diat blessed banjo. I thought if I could get one there would be nothing between me and absolute affluence but the learning to play it." The text is superbly aided by...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1488
Print ISSN
1068-8218
Pages
pp. 80-84
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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