Banjo For Beginners

The ultimate guide to banjo for beginners.

Banjo History

This is an article that I wrote a year ago on the Path of the banjo. Just a warning, its seven printed pages. Sources are at the bottom.

The Path of the Banjo

The banjo has a rather confusing and complicated path. It has been billed as the only ‘American’ instrument, created and played first by Americans. It has been associated with the African slaves and slaveowners alike. When C Company wanted to justify the My Lai massacre in song, they used a banjo for backup. Now, the banjo is used both by country stars (Garth Brooks), as well as folk-rock groups (Mumford & Sons), and fusion jazz performers (Bela Fleck). The banjo is a African instrument that was adopted by white Americans who claimed it as their own, and in the process prevented blacks from continuing their tradition.

The banjo is a distinctly African instrument. It was not invented by whites in America, but rather by Africans in Africa. The first written mention of a banjo, (banjo is the term for the modern instrument; other terms include banza, strum strum, banshaw, banjor, bangy, and bangil), dates to 1621, which describes a gourd instrument that has less than 6 strings.2 Another mention dates to 1678, when a law was passed in Martinique prohibiting “kalenda, defined as ‘a gathering of Negroes where they dance [. . .] to the sound of a drum and an instrument they call banza’”.2 In 1689 Sir Hans Sloane wrote about a strum-strum which had strings made of horse hair or plants, a hollow body, and a skin head.2 As the slave trade expanded, knowledge of the banjo in popular culture increased as well.

When white minstrel performers began to satirize blacks, they used the banjo to come across as more “authentic”. This started in 1799 a blackface performer named Gottlieb Graupner reportedly performed “The Gay Negro Boy” at the Federal Theatre in Boston, accompanying himself on banjo.3 He received many positive reviews for this, and other blackface performers took notice.4 From here the banjo came more and more into fashion, until banjo players no longer had to use Blackface as an excuse to play the banjo.4 Many serious banjoists realized they had to perform in blackface in order to be accepted.4 Minstrel music was the “pop” music of the day, and was changing rapidly.3 Joey Walker Sweeny and the Virginia Minstrels, a popular minstrel group, toured England, Ireland and France and even had an audience with Queen Victoria.

This huge growth in audience led to professional banjo luthiers. These banjo luthiers sought to appeal to a greater audience, and helped shift the banjo into the public spotlight. At first, Minstrels used handcrafted gourd banjos. Then, as minstrels became more popular, luthiers began manufacturing the gourd banjos on a small scale. These luthiers began to start making various ‘improvements’ to the gourd instruments. It is hard to point out any one luthier who created the modern five string banjo, because many luthiers did not sign their work.3 One of these ‘improvements’ included using wood instead of gourds. Other ‘improvements’ included using brackets to tighten the membrane (animal skin, woodchuck, goat, cat, etc) which allowed the banjo to be played whatever the humidity. Without brackets, the banjo skin (or head) would sometimes sag in humid weather and affect playing negatively. Another supposedly American addition is the fifth string, or the chanternelle3, a fifth string which was open and not fretted. Actually, this was an african invention that was copied by whites.2 This is partially because banjo luthiers wanted to get away from the instruments ‘degraded origins’.2 As the banjo became more popular, banjo factories came into existence, and provided enough banjos so they could be stocked in every corner store As this manufacturing race continued advertisement became a huge part of who was successful in the banjo business. banjo luthiers liked to view themselves as inventors instead of manufactures, even if only for the purpose of advertisement.2 This continued and was adopted by the general public, who came to view the banjo as a White instrument.

S. S. Stewart was banjo luthier who was famous for the advancement of the banjo. He was the first person to send out a banjo catalog3 and was also partially responsible for the increased ornamentation of banjos. One of S. S. Stewarts banjos sold for $125, the equivalent of $2,993 in 2010.5 These banjos were only used by the richest banjoists, but their very existence portrayed the banjo as something for the upper class. In the 1880’s the playing banjo became a fad for young upper-class women.4 Banjo players who were not commercially successful would often teach lessons to whomever would have them, and helped to make the banjo part of popular culture. In the 1890’s, many Colleges (Massachusetts Institute of Technology and University of Wisconsin-Madison included) had “banjo clubs” which performed orchestra fashion.3,4 The banjo enjoyed much popularity and with the turn of the century the banjo turned into more a instrument for the parlor than Black communities. During the Roaring Twenties banjos were a featured part of orchestras, matching the upbeat and decadent attitudes of the time.6 However, along with the Great Depression, the banjo fell dramatically fell out of favor. Orchestras dropped the banjo in exchange for the more mellow guitar to match the times.6

In the movie Throw Down your Heart1 banjoist Bela Fleck tours Africa and finds the banjos tradition that has been lost. He finds an instrument called the akonting in The Gambia, which has many similarities to the modern banjo. The akonting is constructed out of a hollowed out gourd over which a skin is stretched and tacked down. The bridge is a larger version of that found in modern banjos, and the instruments has three strings. One of these is a drone string which is found on five string banjos. Historical accounts2,3,4,6 point out that it was very easy to create a banjo. Generally, all that was needed was a gourd, animal skin, a stick, and some strings which could be fashioned out of horse hair or intestines. As soon as slaves came to the Americas and the West Indies, they created these early banjos. Thomas Jefferson even acknowledged that the banjo was an African instrument copied by Whites.2 Joel Sweeny is often given credit for the fifth string, but he only ‘invented’ something that had been in practice for 300 years.

Playing styles also varied greatly from different time periods. I, for example, play Scruggs style with two fingerpicks and a thumbpick. This style is a fairly modern invention, and came into popularity in the 1950‘s. However, the original playing style is as old as the banjo itself. ‘African style’ of banjo playing includes a lot of syncopation, or offbeat rhythms.7

This style is still used in modern Africa.1 When this style came to America, it was discouraged because it was too ‘African’, and slave owners generally prohibited African music. Faced with this, the banjo players adapted the music they heard from their slaveowners.7,8 This development almost guaranteed the continuation of the banjo through using it in white music. A new style of banjo playing was developed, which had both African and American English musical influences. This Anglo-African style (now called ‘frailing’7) was what was used by the minstrel performers when they did shows in blackface. Because the banjo was removed from its folk roots, it began to take on a more classical style.8 This classical style became more popular, as it appealed to the upper-class much more than the Anglo-African style. From here the banjo playing styles split into two camps: The classical, upper-class northern way of playing the banjo, and the frailing, Anglo-African southern style.4 The classical style was taught by most banjoists and was the “modern” style of playing the banjo. It was used in classical orchestras, and viewed as the “evolved” style over the ‘crude’ Anglo-African style.4 This style died when the Great Depression hit.3 Because classical style was very upbeat and happy sounding, not many people wanted to hear it during a time of national crisis. The classical style of playing banjo died with the Roaring Twenties. The “mountain” style had its origins in Appalachia.8 This style was very close to the Anglo-African style, and very much a natural evolution of it. Mountain style originated from black laborers who traveled through the region searching for work.8 They taught Appalachians how to make the gourd banjos2 and how to play them. Many Appalachian banjoists would then by a factory-made banjo and play on it using the Anglo-African style. 8 This Anglo-African style was changed by Appalachians over time to include other aspects.7 One of these was the dissonant sound created when playing a tune in “mountain” style. Instead of playing the melody with traditional chord changes, the banjoist would stay in open tuning and pick the melody with and open chord as backdrop.8 This caused the “dissonant” sound that permeated “mountain” style. This is the style that evolved into bluegrass today, and what is taught for the most part as the way to play the banjo.

The banjo is no longer a black instrument. When people think of the culture associated with the banjo, they generally think of white Appalachians. This is disappointing because the banjo is a distinctly African instrument. It was not invented by Whites in America, but rather by Africans in Africa. The banjo in popular culture became something associated with the stereotype of the ‘happy-go-lucky, watermelon-eating banjo picker’ was too strong for most Black musicians to get past.8 Black artists who played the banjo too often evoked strong racist sentiments in their white or black audience. For the white audience, the musician was expected to be a stereotypical black, who was simple and dumb. For the black audience, the musician was a callback to blackface shows which very negatively portrayed slaves. The banjo was a instrument stuck in time when any racial relations were involved. Black artists directed their attention at other less racially significant instruments, such as guitar, piano, and cornet.3 The Black community for the most part wanted nothing to do with the banjo, the instrument of slaves.8 The banjo was viewed in the same light as slavery, and most blacks and whites could never get over that. This banjo was then adapted by another group, the ‘southern mountaineer’8, and never was revived in the black community.

The journey of the banjo is a fascinating one. The instrument has been transported across continents and subject to various culturural and design changes. It was rejected by blacks in America, but accepted by blacks in Africa. It is shunned by the upper-class that gave it popularity, and accepted by white Appalachians. The banjo now is a white instrument, and is very rarely associated with black culture. Hopefully one day the banjo will be fully accepted by all levels of American musical culture for the trans-cultural instrument it is.

Sources:

1. Fleck, Béla, Perf. Throw Down Your Heart. Dir. Sascha Paladino.” Sony Classical: 2008, Film. <http://www.throwdownyourheart.com/>.

2. Epstein, Dana. “The Folk Banjo: A Documentary History.” Ethnomusicology 19.3 (1975): 347-371. Web. 18 May 2011. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/850790 >.

3. Seamans, Warren, Robert Lloyd Webb, and James Bollman. Ring the Banjar! The Banjo in America from Folklore to Factory. 2nd ed. Anaheim Hills, CA: CENTERSTREAM, 1984. 1-54. Print.

4. Linn, Karen Elizabeth. “The “Elevation” of the Banjo in Late Nineteenth-Century America.” American Music 8.4 (1990): 441-464. Web. 18 May 2011. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/3051763>.

5. Friedman, S. Morgan. “Inflation Calculator.” West Egg. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 May 2011. <http://www.westegg.com/inflation/>.

6.Reece, Bill. “History of the Banjo.” Bluegrass Banjo. Bill Reece, 02/15/1998. Web. 30 Mar 2011. <http://bluegrassbanjo.org/banhist.html>.

7. Bailey, Jay. “Historical Origin and Stylistic Developments of the Five-String Banjo.” Journal of American Folklore 85.335 (1972): 58-65. Web. 18 May 2011. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/539129>.

8. Bluestein, Gene. “America’s Folk Instrument: Notes on the Five-String Banjo.” Western Folklore 23.4 (1964): 241-248. Web. 18 May 2011. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/1520666>.

9. Kenney, William. “Review: The Banjo (And Banjo Players) in American History.” Reviews in American History 28.4 (2000): 547-552. Web. 18 May 2011. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/30031201>.

Additional Sources:
Reece, Bill. “History of the Banjo.” Bluegrass Banjo. Bill Reece, 02/15/1998. Web. 30 Mar 2011. <http://bluegrassbanjo.org/banhist.html>.

Evans, Bill. “A Brief History of the Banjo.” Dummies. Dummies, n.d. Web. 30 Mar 2011. <http://bluegrassbanjo.org/banhist.html>.

Brown, Paul. “‘Picturing the Banjo’ Through American History.” National Public Radio. NPR, 18/2/2006. Web. 30 Mar 2011. <http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5223333>.

Gibson, George. Gourd Banjos: From Africa to the Appalachians. 1st. 2005. <http://www.dhyatt.com/history_9_author.html>

One Response to 'Banjo History'

  1. Myra says:

    The banjo is everybody’s instrument. Anyone who wants to play the banjo should play the banjo.

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