This exhibit began as a gesture of affection between two academics who were teaching in different states and who wanted to spend some time together. I taught history at Morehead State University in Kentucky. Geoff is the Director of the Art Center at Miami University of Ohio. He also makes and plays the five string banjo. Based on my interest in U.S. women’s history and Geoff’s interest in the banjo, we submitted a joint proposal to study women banjo players at the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Gender in Appalachia (CSEGA) at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia. The center, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, was offering semester long research fellowships. In the fall of 1997 we became their first scholars-in-residence.
Our proposal was entitled “Black Men, White Ladies, and Bluegrass Boys: A Gendered History of the Banjo in West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky.” We knew that the tradition of black male “clawhammer” banjo players in Appalachia had already been documented as had the fact that the “banjer” had been first played in this country by slaves in the South. We also knew that Euro-Appalachians picked up the banjo sometime soon after the Civil War, a period when most African Americans had stopped playing an instrument tarnished by its slave legacy, a legacy literally white-washed by the minstrel show.
Today, of course, the popular imagination associates the banjo with bluegrass music and white men while the sound of Appalachian women banjo pickers is as muted as the music of those early black players. This despite the fact that Pete Seeger (the person most responsible for the folk revival interest in the five string banjo) claims to have first heard “clawhammer” or “frailing” style banjo being played in 1936 by a white woman from North Carolina named Samantha Bumgarner.
Since the history and iconography of the banjo is overwhelmingly male, we initially thought that it would be difficult to find Appalachian women who still played the instrument. We were wrong. In addition to the ten women represented in this exhibit, we have documented over thirty female banjo players in West Virginia and eastern Kentucky alone. These women, like countless others erased from history, have helped to keep alive a musical tradition whose roots represent the best of a multicultural America. Whether playing banjo at a square dance or singing to a cranky child, Appalachian women have preserved and disseminated both ballads and banjo tunes as surely as they saved scraps of cloth to create material memories made of patchwork. Yet these women have remained invisible and voiceless. More than ten years after we began this research, all of these women (at least those still living) continue to play banjo in some fashion: giving workshops, performing at festivals, recording CDs, or playing in nursing homes.
This exhibit gives at least some of them both visibility and voice. They have generously given us their life stories and their music. This show is our gesture of affection for them.
All the photographs were taken by Geoff Eacker — All the text was written by Susan A. Eacker.
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