No person living today knows exactly what an 1850s minstrel banjo sounded like; the music that was made on such instruments predates the invention of recorded sound. But we know that the banjo was brought to America by Africans, and that white players, including Thomas F. Briggs—author of the first banjo instruction book, an invaluable resource for historians and musicians—learned from black banjoists. When Giddens composes for or performs on her banjo, she channels both the history and the mystery of early American banjo music: what has been passed down as well as what has been lost.
Ethnomusicologists have continued to do necessary and significant research, both in the field and beyond, but it’s difficult to muster up a modern analogue for Lomax. No other single figure is as invested in the American musical canon, or as influential. In part that’s the result of a global shift towards self-mythologizing: we all maniacally catalogue and broadcast our lives now, ensuring our legacies to both transcendent and humiliating ends. Who needs Lomax when we have YouTube?
Photographs from the Summer 2014 issue.
Drawing from the famous nineteenth century portraits made by Doris Ulmann, Lisa Elmaleh’s project American Folk documents the contemporary development of traditional arts throughout the Appalachian Mountains.
This weekend is the annual tomato festival at the Bells Bend Neighborhood Farm, and the farmers lay out an all-you-can-eat buffet of the many varieties of heirloom tomatoes grown there: Cherokee greens, Cherokee purples, zebras, Japanese black trifeles, Ozark pinks, Pruden’s purples, and best of all, sungolds, which are small and firm tomatoes that taste warm and almost salty, like they were plucked from the vine on a hot afternoon just moments before they made it to this table. And amid all this sweet bounty: a square dance.