One of the many cases with priceless banjos

Banjos at the Blue Ridge Music CenterWhen you’re young, life is all about learning: to walk, to use the potty, to drive a car, and to fill out complicated income tax forms. But this summer, it occurred to me that perhaps I’ve reached the point  in life that UNlearning is more important.

Here’s what I mean. As a kid, I rolled my eyes at my grandparents’ country music and their love of the Hee Haw TV show. I had The Who and the Rolling Stones; who needed that old hick stuff? And what’s with the banjo obsession? (Such unkind thoughts).

The Blue Ridge Music Center opens my heart

Visiting the Blue Ridge Music Center on the Blue Ridge Parkway at the Virginia-North Carolina state line, I fell in love with the banjo while learning about Southern history and culture through this African-American instrument.

Before I tell you what I learned that brought about this change, let me ask a question. You’ve seen white musicians like Steve Martin and Béla Fleck playing the banjo, but when’s the last time you saw someone of African descent playing it to acclaim?

With the exception of Carolina Chocolate Drops, not very often.

A quick review of the history tells us why.  When African slaves were forbidden by slave holders to play their drums, they created the banjo. But they abandoned their creation in the mid-1800’s, when minstrel shows featuring white men in black face playing banjos and baffooning in a racist way became the rage.  “Jim Crow” (as in Jim Crow laws) originated with a minstrel performer, whose character, Jim Crow, was devised to reinforce beliefs in white superiority.

Jim Crow played a banjo.

Whoa. How would you like for something of your creation to be used to put you and an entire race of people down?  It made me heartsick to learn that this was the case with the banjo.

“This banjo surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.” ~Pete Seeger

My culture taught me to hear the banjo as noise. The Blue Ridge Music Center taught me to hear it from the heart. I’m unlearning the stigma I placed on Bluegrass music, which is just one of many things I need to unlearn as I mature.

There is a lot to un-learn in this world. What’s on your list? I’d love to hear from you.

New to this series? Here’s the introduction.

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