Saturday, August 24, 2013

Connecting the dots? The bum-ditty dulcimer strum, polyrhythms, a Louisiana creole song and bamboula drummers on Congo Square


So I'm listening to the early 20th-century tenor Roland Hayes singing his classical interpretations of African American spirituals, and all of a sudden he's singing a sprightly little tune in Louisiana creole French to a bouncy little piano rhythm that sounds very familiar, although I can't quite place it.

Curious, I get out the liner notes -- I'm playing the old Smithsonian collection of Hayes' art songs and spirituals -- and I read the song is "Mister Banjo (Michieu Banjo)," first recorded Feb. 20, 1941. Gardez piti Millate la, Mister Banjo / Comment li insolent! (Look at that little mulatto / He's so insolent). "It is a song of good-natured satire," says Ulysses Ricard of Tulane, who translated it. "The Creole folk songs of Louisisans originated in much the same manner as the spirituals and work songs of the African-American slaves of the English-speaking South." Here's Hayes' version:

Micheu Banjo (Creole Folksong) -- with Xango - MB begins at 1:57

(Xango is an arrangement of a chant in honor of a West African god that Villa-Lobos set to a Brazilian folk tune. Some interesting stuff here.)

I'm getting really intrigued now, so I go on line and I track down a notated version of "Mister Banjo" on the website. And as I look at the dots, I recognize that elusive little rhythm. It's the "bum-ditty." Of course in this case, it sounds more like "bum-d'ditty" the way Hayes plays it, than a class of beginning dulcimer players plodding through "Bile 'em Cabbage Down." I'm reminded of when I used to wear out my cassette tape of I.D. Stamper trying to figure out his strum. ... Stamper has always sounded kind of black to me, and not just on "Reuben's Train."

Question, and it's one I've asked before: Can we connect the dots? Does the bum-ditty have anything to do with the influence of African-American music in Appalachia? Does the lilt in old-time string band music, especially down home and over in North Carolina, have a measure of syncopation to it? Do the Anglo-Celtic and African=American rhythms interact with each other?

Connecting the dots. I believe we can do it, but it's subtle. Alan Jabbour of the Library of Congress, whom I've linked to elsewhere on the blog, has this outline sketch: "Characteristic American bowing pattern: sixteenth-note grouping of two groups of three followed by two notes - produces shifting syncopation, occurs from Texas to Virginia, considered Appalachian but is used in both black and white fiddling and is African American contribution." It's not quite bum-ditty, the way I count it out, but it's not that far away from it, either.

And I remember watching a video this summer in the minstrel shows class at Common Ground on the Hill, where Robert Winans was saying Joe Sweeney's basic banjo stroke was a "bum-ditty" clawhammer style. So I'm off and running -- call it mindful surfing instead of mindless surfing.

Winans, an emeritus professor at Gettysburg College who plays minstrel-style banjo, has an important post on bum-ditty to the Black Banjo Then & Now list designed to "help those expressing an interest in learning to play in the manner of black banjo players, a style which includes syncopation." -- linked below

And Winans says the ante-bellum minstrel tutors he has consulted strongly suggest that "their white authors have picked up as the core of pre-existing black banjo playing is “bum-diddy” (i.e., in 2/4 time, an 8th note followed by two 16th notes)."

Cf. discussion on Banjo Hangout list at including this: "Its the great American shuffle. The four potatoes, the Georgia bow, Jo Jones' high-hat cymbal, Maybelle's boom-chicka, Hank Williams' "crack rhythm," and the sound of the little piece of paper Johnny Cash stuck in his guitar strings to imitate a snare on the original recording of 'I Walk The Line.'"

Some printed sources:

The Power of Black Music: Interpreting Its History from Africa to the United ... By Samuel A. Floyd. Google Books

Dorothy Scarborough , On the Trail of Negro Folk-Songs (19___) 119-20 - -- "The dance-songs of the Creoles are mostly nonsensical, but the music is haunting and wild, with a sensuous appeal appropriate to their dances. ... In 'Slave Songs of the United States' is printed a Creole slave song from Louisiana, making fun of a dandy Negro, which is also a bamboula."

Scarborough, a "song catcher" who was insufferably patronizing at least in her book about Appalachian music, has pix, from "Slave Songs" ... so at least she's got the dots.

Some YouTube clips:

Fisk Jubilee Singers - Recorded live from Elmina Castle in Ghana, West Africa, the Fisk Jubilee Singers perform "Mister Banjo"

Gottschalk, "Bamboula." Piano Solo with introduction by Frank French, music composed by ... Bamboula, danse des nègres for piano, Op. 2, D. - Louis Moreau Gottschalk

Bamboula 2000 drum & dance troupe at Xavier University

Bamboula 2000, Ben Hunter and special guest do a "father's day" drum circle at Congo Square - New Orleans. African, New Orleans drumming, dancing, poetry and singing. Open mic.

Bamboula 2000 is a dance and music ensemble that draws on multicultural roots that reach deep into the soil of Congo Square in the City of New Orleans. For hundreds of years, the town square played host to dance and music rituals performed by people of Caribbean and West African descent. The word bamboula refers to a love dance that was performed to the beat of drums and either a female or male traditionally performed the sensuous movements. The bamboula passed down its syncopated rhythm to strains of music found today in Martinique, Haiti, Jamaica, Trinidad, and New Orleans, including calypso, zouk, and dancehall music. Bamboula 2000 takes its heritage and updates it with its original numbers, blending elements of reggae, jazz, funk, urban, and other genres. ...

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