Portfolio > Oil Paintings/Charcoal Drawings_Old Time Songs & Stories

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Oil on Canvas
69" x 72"

Warning: the ideas in this painting are very complicated and racially charged, so, this entry will be long so that my motives and ideas are clearly understood. It's really important!

I came up with "Communitas" for the title of this painting from the book: "The Creolization of American Culture: William Sidney Mount and the Roots of Blackface Minstrelsy," by Dr. Christopher J. Smith. (See my painting "Arkansas Traveler" to read more about William Sidney Mount). Dr. Smith makes an argument, albeit a complicated and arcane one, that Blackface Minstrelsy banjo and dance were sites of meaningful, interracial interactions.

In the face of so much understandable negativity surrounding Blackface Minstrelsy that I'm sure Professor Smith is aware of and sensitive to, he is a brave and admirable person to examine this racially charged subject matter so objectively. There are quite a few Old Time tunes and songs that come from Minstrelsy that my paintings address; see my paintings: "Arkansas Traveler," "Golden Slippers," and "Turkey in the Straw." On the other hand, I have others in this gallery that are very positive, that celebrate the black contributions to Old Time music: "Reddleman and Green Jeans," "Pumpkin Pie," and "Rya's House."

Dr. Smith defines "Communitas" as a state of being and communion that happens at physiological, pyschological and soul levels, between musicians and those dancing to their music. Communitas can also be between musicians, or between dancers, or between dancers/musicians and their audiences/listeners. There is some historical evidence that early practitioners of Blackface banjo got their first songs and tunes directly from listening to black banjoists, taking these black artists seriously. In my painting, I want to extend this notion of Communitas to include time travel and spirituality.

In this painting, I celebrate the fact that enslaved black people invented the banjo. I am playing a gourd banjo, one that I made. The gourd banjo is the earliest form of the banjo. In fact, there are a few images of the earliest Blackface performers playing gourd banjos, not the hoop form that we today know. It had a much different sound than today's modern banjo, a sound like a stone thrown into a deep well's watery surface: plunky, throaty, and grumbling--soulful.

Across from me is a still life of banjos that refers to the various forms of banjos and banjo cultures over time that have influenced me: an 1850 replica of a Minstrel banjo and two Old Time banjos made locally in North Carolina. (Since I'm a Southerner, I'm influenced much more by Upland South culture than I am by 19thc. and 20thc. banjo uses and expressions from the North). I arranged the banjos on a chair to suggest the presence of another player. This "other" player could be white, black, or a 17thc. enslaved black from the Caribbean. Traditionally, shadows can also indicate the presence of an "other," a dead person's soul or a spiritual entity. I want spiritual communion with these past players, many of whom were poor whites from the South, enslaved Southern blacks, and enslaved Caribbean blacks. I'm trying to conjure them with my playing, inviting them to speak or play with me! (See my entry for my drawing "Gourd Banjo 2" about the possible spiritual significance of the banjo.)

The table between us also suggests that the viewer should interpret the still life of banjos across from me as another human soul because there are two glasses of rum and Coke, one for me one and one for my guest and fellow musician. This tabletop still life includes a bottle of rum from Barbados and a can of Coca Cola. Rum originates from the Caribbean and so does the banjo.