Banjo chords connect Africa to Appalachia

Jillean McCommons, a librarian who lives in Berea, posed with her banjo.
Jillean McCommons, a librarian who lives in Berea, posed with her banjo.

The banjo brought me to Kentucky.

It all started in 2007. I was working as an intern at a library in Michigan performing baby storytimes with a local musician: Banjo Betsy Beckerman. Banjo Betsy played songs while I read stories. It was a lovely combination, one I didn’t want to end when I moved away to California to start a full-time professional job as a librarian.

So, one day I walked into a music store and bought a banjo. It didn’t take long to discover that it would take a while to sound like Banjo Betsy. I took workshops and watched YouTube videos but didn’t decide to give serious attention to learning to play until five years later.

I was back in Michigan and decided to go to the Midwest Banjo Camp. I learned how to hold my banjo, how to tune and how to play a song, all the things I struggled to do on my own. That weekend, I tapped into a community of people who had been playing and studying the banjo for years. There were luthiers and bluegrass players.

It was a new culture for me and I was hooked. A teacher recommended I try a week-long camp in West Virginia through the Augusta Heritage Center. I quickly enrolled. Here I was, a Detroit/California girl driving to West Virginia for another banjo experience. My friends thought I was crazy (who ever heard of a banjo camp?) and my family just shook their heads like they always do when I go on another one of my adventures.

In West Virginia, I heard old-time music for the first time. There were dozens of people sitting in a circle with fiddles, banjos and guitars playing the same song over and over again.

It felt like I was back in the church I grew up in where we sang the song until we couldn’t sing anymore, until we got out what we wanted to say. It really did sound like soul music to me. I connected it to Motown, to gospel music and to dance music. To me, it was all there.

In that moment, I decided to make this cult of banjo — with its camps, collectors and luthiers — my new home. After returning from West Virginia, a friend tagged me in a post about a new film called “The Librarian and the Banjo.” Of course, I had to see it. The nearest screening was in a place called Berea, Ky., so I got in my car and drove south on I-75 from Detroit.

When I arrived at the Celebration of Traditional Music at Berea College, the event hosting the film screening, I didn’t know much about the history of the institution or much about the film’s subject, Dena Epstein. I arrived with the expectation to play banjo and make friends, and that was it.

In the span of three days, I learned that the banjo is an instrument brought to the country by enslaved Africans. I learned that black people played old-time music before the Civil War and were responsible for a number of tunes that white players later popularized. I learned that black folks lived in the hills alongside white folks and were Appalachians, too.

Suddenly, the banjo wasn’t just an instrument. I was holding a historical object with a complicated history. I was learning to play an important instrument. I felt like I had a new superpower and I didn’t feel so weird for liking country music.

What started as a curiosity about an instrument I enjoyed hearing, became more. It became a research project, an inquiry into this country’s social history and, eventually, an inquiry into my family’s genealogy.

After learning that African-Americans played the banjo, I decided to search for players who might have come from Franklin County, Va., where my great grandmother was born. I found a 1977 recording of John Lawson Tyree, a black man, playing a banjo. Years later, on a research trip to Franklin County, I would meet and befriend his niece. We are currently trying to determine if we are related.

I hope to encourage more African-Americans to play the banjo and to see this instrument as a bridge into our rich cultural history. I hope to see classrooms of black children learning to play the songs and instruments their ancestors played. They played through a terrible era filled with pain. They did so with a forceful creativity and virtuosity developed through playing these instruments over centuries.

Reach Jilliean McCommons at jilleanmc@gmail.com.