Johnson City Press: ETSU professor's dig into banjo history nets 7th Grammy nomination

ETSU professor's dig into banjo history nets 7th Grammy nomination

Jessica Fuller • Updated Dec 19, 2018 at 11:44 AM

East Tennessee State University professor Ted Olson got his 7th Grammy nomination, and this time, his work has taken him outside of Appalachian studies. 

The project began with a discovery, Olson said. John Levin, a Los Angeles-based record collector, stumbled across something very special – banjo recordings from the late 1800s, by a mysterious character known as Charles A. Asbury. 

Levin took the discovery to Richard Martin, who owns a record company with his wife, Meagan Hennessey, called Archeophone Records in Illinois. Martin contacted Olson, and work began on producing an album of the four recordings. 

“This stuff is rare,” Olson said. “One copy of each of these (recordings) is all that we know exists.”

Archeophone Records is, as Olson described it, one of the worlds foremost record companies dedicated to archiving historic music. The Asbury recordings span from 1891-1897, in the acoustic area of recording technology – meaning that musicians played into a big horn to record, etching recordings onto wax cylinders. 

The recordings were on one of those wax cylinders, and may be the earliest banjo recordings in the world. The recordings had to be translated to analogue with Levin’s help, and now the Extended Play is available on vinyl on the Archeophone Records website.

“It’s always fun to go back to the very beginning,” Martin said. “Stepping back two centuries, it’s a whole different world.”

In producing the EP, Olson and Martin tasked themselves with learning more about the player. Charles A. Asbury is a name that would pop up in old catalogues, but that’s where knowledge of the mysterious figure ended. 

Throughout their original research, Martin and Olson discovered that Asbury lived his life in Georgia and Florida, and eventually settled in New York City for a time. Matin said he’s confident that, although light-skinned, Asbury was at least mixed race.He appeared in an all-black performance of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” performed with an all-black vocal group and was raised by a black couple in Georgia. 

“Back then, the one-drop rule prevailed,” Martin noted. “If you had one drop of black blood in you, you were legally black.” 

The banjo was born in West Africa, and enslaved Africans perpetuated banjo traditions through the 1800s. International commercialization of the banjo came with the Minstrel Era. 

Asbury also played a style of banjo known as “minstrel style,” which fell out of favor by the turn of the century. Olson describes Asbury’s style as “precise and melodic,”and “a very expressive banjo player with perfect technique.” 

The pair’s research accumulated into a co-authored an essay that serve as the liner notes for the album, and their work earned them a Grammy nomination in the Best Album Notes category. You can pick up your copy at 


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