American music didn’t start with rock, jazz, blues, or even gospel.
At the beginning is the banjo.
“It is the perfect instrument to describe what American music is,” says Rhiannon Giddens, Grammy– and MacArthur-Award–winning musician, and the 2019-2021 Frank Sinatra Chair in the Performing Arts at SCU.
She was speaking to lecturer Anthony Rivera’s class on western music in Fall 2020. In her talk, she lays out how the banjo—or a similar instrument—moved from Africa on slave ships to the Caribbean to the shores of the U.S.
“Once you start digging into the history of the banjo, you start digging into the musical subculture from which everything came musically,” she says.
The music transforms over time as musicians played for white audiences, plantation owners, and white working-class musicians.
“They also played in their own house. There was all of this information that was going back and forth constantly,” she says.
By taking these influences and melding them into something new, these Black musicians laid the groundwork for American folk music, and from that wellspring jazz, blues, rock, rap, and more were born.
Giddens held forth for over an hour, sharing clips of music, videos of dances, and taking questions. As part of her ongoing residency, Giddens will perform and give talks on women in the blues, opera, the globalization of music, and more.