By Eugene Chadbourne, All Music Guide
The titles of tunes this historic North Carolina banjo man recorded evoke the rowdy milieu he came out of : “High Sheriff,” “Old Corn Liquor,” “Black Annie,” “Roustabout,” “Fox Chase,” and so forth. But his importance as a link to Afro-American traditions as well as Appalachian styles means his music has been the subject of intense study by archivists and ethnomusicologists. Since the late ’70s, three excellent compilation albums have been released of Roberts and his contemporaries, black American banjo players born at the end of the 19th century. The wonderful banjo style of Elizabeth Cotton descended from this tradition. Just like her, Roberts has a cozy side in which the banjo is used as an accomplice in storytelling about animals. His “Old Blue” is one of the best versions of this dog-lover’s favorite. This is of course something he has in common with white old-time music artists from Appalachia and indeed these musicians have much more in common than just weepy dog ballads. But as if cloaked in white hoods, many record companies and folklore buffs documenting the musical history of the southern United States made a determined effort to enforce the color line, and make it seem like blacks and whites had nothing to do with each other musically.
Those listeners hoping to understand the actual reality of the situation will no doubt cherish the work of Dink Roberts, even if his nickname sounds like something out of a Gidget screenplay. He certainly was cherished by the generation of traditional music enthusiasts out of the Durham, NC, area in the mid-’60s and on. Musician and writer Tommy Thompson, a founding member of the Red Clay Ramblers, was a kingpin of this scene so it is no surprise that he and his colleague Cecelia Conway undertook extensive work documenting the work of Roberts, among other treasured elderly musicians in the area. Roberts was taped in his home in Haw River in 1974, the documentation including video as well as audio. This 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 includes extensive discussion of one of his banjo songs, “Garfield.” Given the established fondness for animals this artist had, a naïve listener might be forgiven for assuming this tune is a tribute to the comic strip cat of the same name, taped late in the artist’s life when an interest in such kitsch sometimes becomes an uncontrolled passion. Nothing could be further from the truth. While the cat Garfield is certainly a bad man, the song’s character is an outlaw, which apparently means this song is characterized as a “man-against-the-law song,” a genre which would naturally include “The Ballad of Jesse James,” “I Fought the Law,” and “F*ck the Police.” Although an old-time music enthusiast such as Conway must have appreciated the link between Roberts and Uncle Dave Macon, her book 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 so-called wisdom of the past, in which it was suggested black performers had ripped off this kind of material from whites. (Now there’s a switch.) Scholars who seek to avoid racial conflicts have completely established another important element of Roberts’ music, in that he was one of the rare banjo players whose style was formed before the fiddle became the dominant force. This aspect of Roberts’ musical psyche is called “pre-fiddle exposure.” It is easily heard in Roberts’ clawhammer banjo style as he alternates ostinato melodic lines in a call and response relation to his vocal, a form of playing considered distinctly African.