A Collection Of Negro Traditional & Folk Songs with Sheet Music Lyrics & Commentaries - online book

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The instruments used by the Negroes in early times were crude and for the most part home-made. As one Negro musician of the South said to me recently, "It seems sad to think that the Negro, who so loved music, in the old days had no chance to learn it properly and no suitable instruments to play on." Yet he worked miracles of music with what he could construct himself. He had, first and fore­most, the fiddle, — which he played for the dances at the "great house/' — which was a fiddle and never a violin. Then he had the banjo, a native contrivance dear to his heart. Thomas Jefferson in his " Notes on Virginia " (1774) says that the Negroes are naturally musical. "The instrumental proper to them is the 'banjar/ which they brought hither from Africa." This instrument had four strings (instead of five as now) and the head was covered with rattlesnake skin.
Dr. Wyeth, who spent his childhood and youth on a large planta­tion in the South, said that the banjo was the favorite musical instrument of the Negroes as he knew them. They fashioned this crude device for themselves, out of such materials as they could find. They could make a banjo from a large gourd — that useful growth which served many purposes in old times, and still does in certain country places where it is the drinking cup. The gourd for the banjo must have a long straight neck or handle. The bowl would be cut away level with the handle, the seeds taken out, and a cover of tanned coonskin stretched tightly over it like a drumhead. The strings, of crude material, were passed over a bridge near the centre of the drumhead and attached to the keys on the neck.
An old song given me by Joseph A. Turner, of Hollins, Virginia, mentions a crude banjo. The music to this was written down for me by Ruth Hibbard, of Hollins College.
Brother Ephrum Got de Coon and Gone on
I went down to my pea-patch
To see if my ole hen had hatch.
Ole hen hatch and tellin' of her dream,
And de littie chickens pickin' on de tambourine.
Chorus Brother Ephrum got de coon and gone on and gone on and gone on, Brother Ephrum got de coon and gone on And left me here behind.
I see a rabbit a-runnin' down de fiel'; I say, "Mister Rabbit, whar you gwine?"

E-Book - An Annotated Compendium of Old Time American Songs by James Alverson III