Part 6:


“What else don’t we know about our own culture, about our own history?”

I didn’t know this history. This is my story of the discovery of this whole part of American history that’s been hidden from us.

I bought a really cheap banjo and I started learning from the all white musicians that I was surrounded by in North Carolina. And then, somebody told me about this musician who lived in Mebane. And this is where I used to go for family reunions. So, I was like, I was very familiar with the town, but I’d never heard of this guy, a guy named Joe Thompson and he was African-American, he was 86 years old and he played the fiddle. That his brother had played banjo with him and it was this long family tradition that had been passed down from his father. And I was like, what? You know, an elder in this tradition, I couldn’t believe it.

And Joe Thompson was a living link to the black string band past. I’ll play a little ditty I learned from Joe Thompson.

There were two fellows who also used to go down to Joe Thompson’s house and through Joe we formed a modern black string band. You know, through Joe, the Carolina Chocolate Drops.


I was actually picking up the mantle of a very, very old black tradition, I didn’t know this history of the banjo and now this is part of my mission, is to bring it to as many people as possible so that people can get a more sophisticated understanding of where our music comes from, this music, this history, is an important piece of American culture. It tells us that there really isn’t an African-American culture, there’s American culture, right?

This music is the underpinning of everything that has come out of the American musical palette. If something that is so huge is not known to me and the majority of Americans, what else don’t we know about our own culture, about our own history?

Check Your Perspective

Along with Rhiannon Giddens, you’ve learned about the influences of the banjo, through it’s long and surprising journey.

It’s likely that learning about this instrument’s influences has changed the way you think about it.

Now consider this: what other cultural artifacts might also have hidden histories that are worth exploring?

Pick one of these options or something else as an example and jot down some questions that you’d like to ask about this artifact that has some meaning for you!

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