Dink Roberts is everything you could ever want out of a classic old-time banjo player. His style is raw and unpredictable. His singing has character and is full of humor. It sounds like he’s from another time, and he never was recorded in a studio or on a stage. Listening to him sing his versions of songs you get the impression he knows, and has lived, what he’s singing about. He sounds like an old guy singing on his cabin porch out in the middle of the woods, with no running water or electricity. It sounds that way because that’s exactly who Dink is. He’s an authentic banjo-man from North Carolina and he could blow your mind, freak you out, make your belly laugh or your heart cry all in a two minute song.
For those looking for a polished 5-stringer, picking a fancy banjo with a pretty voice, Dink may sound a little unsettling. Other’s will immediately be captured by his genius, knowing that nobody could sound as wild and poignant as Dink even if they spent all their might trying.
Dink Roberts is a fine example of the black banjo tradition which has gained more recognition in recent years. The fact is, banjo-like instruments were brought over by African slaves, and mountain banjos were played by black musicians without any white influence until at least 1840. After minstrel music, vaudeville, and the early white dominated recording industry, the sounds and images of the white banjo player were cemented in our mainstream culture through bluegrass music and the infamous scene in Deliverance. Dink’s music echoes back to an earlier time, a tradition of unadulterated renditions that find a storyteller at play with his instrument, and in tune with a feeling lost in most music of the post-industrial era.
The way Dink plays and sings is almost reminiscent of West-African griots, musical historians who would recite poetry over solo single-line melodies for accompaniment. The songs he sings are “banjo songs.” They are not from the usual repertoire of ballads, blues, or work songs that many folk and old-time banjo players use. Songs like; Roustabout, Fox Chase, Black Annie, and Georgia Buck.
Much has been written about Dink’s style and significance. Most of all in Cecelia Conway’s book African Banjo Echoes in Appalachia. Conway profiles several banjo players in her book, but none more than Dink. Indeed, it is thanks to Cecelia’s work that we have some wonderful documents of Dink’s music, primarily his tracks on the Smithsonian Folkways album Black Banjo Songsters Of North Carolina and Virginia. Her film Dink Roberts: A pre-blues musician won best in show at the first North Carolina Film Festival in 1975. Rumor has it, she is sitting on a stockpile of material gathered from her time with Dink, but so far the book and album are what’s available to the public.
Conway caught some magic on those Folkways tracks, and that’s the recommended way to experience Dink. However, in Boogie Banjo tradition, one video has been selected for this post. This was shot by none other than Alan Lomax: