History on Display–From Senegal to Seeger: Stories of the American Banjo


Wade Ward of Bog Trotters Band, Galax, Virginia. 1937

Recently My Own True Love and I had the chance to see Michael Miles’ most recent one-man musical documentary, From Senegal to Seeger: Stories of the American Banjo. It was a last-minute addition to a long-planned small-scale road trip.  It turned out to be one of the highlights.

We both love the banjo. We’d seen Miles work his music-cum-history magic before. It was a no-brainer.

Over the course of 90 minutes, Miles played music from across a 300-year period on seven different banjos, interspersing the music with poetry, historical vignettes, personal anecdotes, and opportunities to sing along.* The result is an impressionistic portrait of American history seen through the lens of the banjo.

My takeaways?

  • A renewed sense of the banjo as America’s instrument of social change (or perhaps just subversion), from slaves dancing in New Orleans’ Congo Square on Sundays to the folk music movement of the 1960s.
  • The courage and clarity of Pete Seegher’s testimony before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, in which he invoked his First Amendment rights to perform for audiences that had ranged from hobo jungles to the Rockefellers.
  • The poetry of Walt Whitman and Wallace Steven is much easier to understand when recited by someone who does it well.

Miles is an extraordinary musician and performer. (Not always the same thing.) If you get a chance to hear him, go for it! In the meantime, check out the clips on his website.

And if you can’t wait to learn more about the history of the banjo, or perhaps the banjo’s role in history, I strongly recommend Karen Linn’s That Half Barbaric Twang: The Banjo in American Popular Culture.


*The audience in South Bend, Indiana, did not sing along with the gusto that we’re used to hearing at the Old Town School of Folk Music but they made up for it with wild applause and multiple standing ovations.

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