Culture

Chronicling “America’s African Instrument”: Laurent Dubois on the Cultural History of the Banjo

In The Banjo: America’s African Instrument (Harvard Univ. Press, 2016), Laurent Dubois weaves a narrative of how this instrument was created by enslaved Africans in the midst of bondage in the Caribbean and Americas. He documents its journey from 17th- and 18th-century plantations to 19th-century minstrel shows to the bluegrass of Appalachia to the folk revival of the mid-20th century. In the process, Dubois documents how the banjo came to symbolize community, slavery, resistance, and ultimately America itself. A historian of the Caribbean and a banjo player himself, Dubois relied on the work of academic historians as well as insights from musicians, collectors, and banjo makers to tell this story.

History in Harmony: How I Apply My Historical Training to Music Criticism

By David Allen

Whether critics are interested in painting, sculpture, jazz, fiction, or any other art, they are, or at least can be, engaged in historical work. They root descriptions of, and judgments about, contemporary art in an understanding of the past. They might be more prone than professional historians to treating the past on the terms of the present, granted, but they do work that engages history all the same. 

Far from the Harlem Crowd: Rediscovering the Work and Life of Augusta Savage in Saugerties, New York

By Eric Fitzsimmons and Sarah E. Elia

In 1945, Augusta Savage, a sculptor and a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, traded the hustle of Harlem for a secluded house, 100 miles north, tucked at the end of a dirt drive in Saugerties, New York. For a long time, her story was said to end there in a retreat from society and the Harlem art world—a narrative that ignored her ongoing work and active social life in her adopted town.

Change over Time Written in the Historic Architecture of Barbados

Typical historical research is not sweaty business. In fact, as I began this, I was shivering in the reading room of the Barbados National Archives—an airy, light-filled space inside a 19th-century leper hospital with gorgeous pine floors stained the color of Barbadian mahogany. In contrast to days spent in the archives, fieldwork can come with heat, humidity, and lots of dirt depending on the site. Visiting a manicured historical site that has to conform to visitor expectations about accessibility, for example, is generally less hot, humid, or dirty, whereas pulling off the road to climb around a derelict building can evoke one’s inner Indiana Jones.

Slavery on Film: Why Now?

By Justene G. Hill

Over the past few years, several movies and television shows have delved into the history of slavery in the United States. From the dramatic (12 Years a Slave and Django Unchained) to the comedic (Key & Peele), slavery has been re-introduced as a theme in American popular culture. In January 2015, NBC announced that it would air an eight-hour miniseries called Freedom Run, based on Betty DeRamus’ 2005 book Forbidden Fruit: Love Stories from the Underground Railroad.

Banjos in Baltimore: Using Music to Tell History

In the October 2015 issue of Perspectives on History, I wrote on historically informed performance of medieval, Renaissance, and baroque music. Musicians at the Folger and Newberry Consorts spoke to me about how history informed their music, and in turn how music could help transport listeners to a different time.

At the National Council on Public History annual meeting in Baltimore last month, I once again found myself at the intersection of music and history at a workshop called “Banjos in the Museum: Music as Public History.” Organized by the Stevenson University public history program, this workshop featured archivist and musicologist Greg Adams and instrumentalists Ken and Brad Kolodner.