It was the banjo for me.
When my good friend first introduced me to the musical stylings of Valerie June, I had no interest in country or roots music. I’d rock with the Dixie Chicks on occasion – if pressed – but that was pretty much the extent of it. I was raised on classic soul, gospel, hip hop. I was Motown, not moonshine.
But here was this Black woman, this sister with these free form locs, a grin that went from ear to ear, and the proudest twang I’d ever heard (maybe the first one I’d ever heard, too). She described her sound as ‘organic moonshine roots music’, and I’m a sucker for a turn of phrase. She won me over. I clicked the link.
The first single I heard was “Working Woman Blues.” The title already had me on board, but then that banjo hit and those first lyrics:
I ain’t fit to be no mother
I ain’t fit to be no wife (yeah)
I been workin’ like a man, y’all—
I been workin’ all my life…
It was no doubt a blues, but it had kick. She was pissed, defiant, getting it all done and singing about it at the same time. I watched the video and listened to the song over and over. I was hooked. When June’s album dropped, I bought it. When she came to Kansas City, I saw her – twice. (That twang is otherworldly in concert, btw.)
Valerie June primed me for more incredible musicians. Then, Brittany Howard and Alabama Shakes happened to me. Rhiannon Giddens and the Carolina Chocolate Drops happened to me. With powerful voices that could call you home, instrumentation that echoed old, favorite cartoons, and harmonies that reminded me of my childhood Baptist church, I had to listen. But it’s a complicated listening experience. I was having trouble negotiating my growing affinity for folk music.
It doesn’t escape me that all the musicians I’ve been drawn to are Black women. As a general rule, I feel safe with us – even in this genre that doesn’t always want us there. If I couldn’t look at those artists and see some semblance of similar ancestry, I might never have listened in the first place.
See, I’m a “Northerner” (a second or third generation Northerner, at that). My parents are from the Northeast and Midwest, but I was born in New York and raised in Jersey. Growing up I was unexposed to anything below the Mason Dixon line, so much so that in grade school when my classmates said they were going down South for the summer, I literally thought they were all going to the exact same place.
As a Black Yankee (is that a thing?), I’m suspicious of most nostalgia for down-home ways or good ol’ days. I have trouble divorcing the culture from the conditions that created it. So, the twang of a banjo doesn’t bode well. Porch swings and washboards and mason jars and overalls all swirl into a great, big amalgamation of caution. And yet, there’s something so lovely, so honest and direct about ballads of work and leisure, moonshine and murderous love – simple living. I find myself charmed by it.
So, what do I do? We allegedly live in a different time, I know, but I’m not a fan of skimming an aesthetic off the top of its era and context. I’ve seen what happens – folks get amnesia. Remove Flavor Flave from Public Enemy and you get Flavor of Love. Separate dream catchers and headdresses from the historical accuracy of U.S./Indigenous relations, and get music festival “style” and, well, practically everything they sell at Urban Outfitters.
And folk music isn’t the only dilemma. As a Black American woman, if I were to separate myself from everything that has twisted roots or a tainted past, I’m not sure there’d be much left for me. (I’m looking at you, hip hop.)
But just because a genre has some troublesome practitioners or something has been coopted or sanitized, that doesn’t mean I can’t dig in the crates – get into the origins, find the creators or purveyors who subvert what’s problematic and honor the truth. So, I remind myself that those harmonies I love? They were also sung in my home church. The twang in Miss Valerie’s voice? It makes me think of my maternal grandma who migrated to Chicago from Mississippi.
I don’t want to forget that some of these songs (mostly the standards) likely had to be sung on command. I don’t want to ignore that the quirky instruments we see at Bonnaroo or bluegrass festivals had primary uses as domestic tools. Before that jug was a wind instrument, it was just a damn jug.
But, like so many things in U.S. American mainstream culture, the roots of roots music are my roots, too. And I have as much claim to these tunes as anyone else, maybe even more.Leave a Comment