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John Snipes

Born John Wesley Snipes, this historic North Carolina banjo player is an important man in musical history, one of the all too rare links between Afro-American musical traditions, the Appalachian style known as old-time music, and of course the music of mother Africa herself. Like his frequent playing partner Dink Roberts, he also provides some kind of a clue about what banjo players used to sound like before fiddlers came along and took over the show. Since the late '70s, three excellent compilation albums have been released featuring Snipes and his contemporaries. These recordings, quite popular among radio programmers specializing in folk, blues, or country, have done much to balance a past in which many record companies and scholars documenting the musical history of the southern United States made it their goal to enforce a color line and try to make it appear as if blacks and whites had had nothing to do with each other musically. Although that really was never true, it certainly was not the case by the time a folk music revival began around the Durham, NC, area in the '60s. Old-timers such as Snipes or Odell Thompson became much-respected local figures at this point among characters such as musician and writer Tommy Thompson, a founding member of the Red Clay Ramblers. He and his colleague, Cecelia Conway, undertook extensive effort documenting the work of the great elderly musicians in the area, including Snipes. This audio and video material is in the permanent collection of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Conway also published the book Banjo Echoes in Appalachia for the University of Tennessee Press in 1995, which argues that the black banjo songs of artists such as Roberts were a distinct musical genre "governed by its own African-American aesthetic standards." Of course, this argument is also made to help counter the past belief that black performers had ripped off this kind of material, sneaking around eavesdropping under "massa's" window. "Pre-fiddle exposure" is a concept that, although sounding like a psychological condition or a new strain of flu, is actually one way to establish the musical importance of these early banjo players without getting into the racial arguments. The music of Snipes, partially learned from slightly older players such as his pal Roberts, represents a style fully formed prior to the fiddle dominating the string band music scene. The alternation sequence of ostinato melodic lines played on banjo and vocals, known as "call and response," has long been considered distinctly African. The most distinctive element to this artist's performances is the sound of his fretless banjo, which once again evokes a strong bond with many similar-sounding instruments from different parts of Africa. ~ Eugene Chadbourne
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Selected Discography

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