The banjo has a popular place in American culture. But few people know of the instrument’s complex roots. In this article, Reed Parker discusses how a banjo-like instrument was originally brought to the US by African slaves - before being remodeled. And the complex cultural interactions between different groups and the banjo…

  The Banjo Player , a painting by William Sidney Mount from 1856.

The Banjo Player, a painting by William Sidney Mount from 1856.

In 2005, the first Black Banjo Gathering took place at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. The purpose of the gathering was to celebrate the tradition of the banjo and bring awareness to the fact that, even though the banjo has become an emblem of white-mountain culture, it is an African instrument at its core. The banjo as we know it today has a decidedly tragic origin story.


From Africa to America

Over the last few centuries, the banjo has secured a spot in the canon of traditional American music. In the time before the American Revolution, minstrels became a popular form of entertainment and they often played an early relative to the banjo known as a banjar.

Other relatives of what would eventually become the banjo existed in many different areas of West Africa. There is the ngoni, which had anywhere from three to nine strings, the konou, which has two strings, and the juru keleni, which has just one string. One of the most elaborate of these variations is the kora which has 21 strings and leather straps tied to the pole neck to hold the strings in place. These predecessors are still being played today in their native lands.

The direct predecessor of the banjo, most commonly known as a banjar, arrived on the slave ships that came from West Africa in the 17th century. The instrument was made from half of a gourd with animal skin stretched over it and a pole that acted as a neck. The strings of the banjar were made from waxed horsehair or from the intestines of animals, most commonly cattle or goat. The intestinal strings were referred to as catgut or simply gut strings. The banjar was easily constructed because the materials required were easy to find. Eventually the instrument evolved to include tuning pegs and a flat fretboard in place of the pole neck. This allowed for notes to be manipulated with slides and bends.


The banjar in the US

In West Africa, “talking drums” were a common method of long distance communication. This tradition was carried across the ocean to the plantations. In 1739, drums and brass horns were outlawed in the colonies as a result of the Stono Insurrection in which slaves on a South Carolina plantation coordinated an uprising against their slave owners. They had used these instruments to communicate the plan. Prior to this, ensembles of brass horns, drums, and banjars were quite popular. Afterward, however, solo banjar acts became more popular.

A sad reality of this time in the banjar’s life is that its burgeoning popularity had a lot to do with traveling white minstrels who would perform in blackface. The banjar acted as a prop for the minstrels to use in their acts, acts that often satirized aspects of African culture that were brought to the US. It is also theorized that some white old time musicians learned the oral tradition directly from black banjo players and merely wanted to continue the tradition, instead of satirizing it.

By the early 1800s, the European fiddle music that settlers brought over with them and African banjar music were beginning to mutually influence each other. The style of banjar play that started to emerge at this time was known as thumping, which would evolve to become the clawhammer or “frailing” style, a style that combines rhythm and melody into one strumming pattern using a claw-shaped hand position.


The arrival of the banjo

Joel Sweeney, a Virginia man of Irish descent, has been credited with either inventing or popularizing the earliest form of the modern banjo which features five strings, an open back, and a wooden rim. His contributions are contested and some claim that it was actually the fourth string that was Sweeney’s invention and that the fifth came later.

Around the middle of the nineteenth century, minstrel groups traveled to Britain, spreading the banjo’s influence over the musical landscape. At the same time, the now booming steamboat travel business put African slaves, on lease from their owners, together with Irish and German immigrant laborers. These marginalized groups would entertain each other with jigs and reels. The mutual influencing continued into the Civil War era and the musical pairing of the banjo and fiddle became and would stay the most popular in the Appalachian region into the twentieth century.

Fortunately, other events outside of blackface minstrel shows were developed to showcase banjo skill. Banjo contests and tournaments were held at a multitude of venues including bars, race tracks, and hotels. Before the Civil War, the contestants were almost exclusively white, but blacks began making an appearance when the war was over.

Further changes to banjo construction were made around this time such as tension rods and wire strings. Tension rods, or truss rods, were implemented to provide the ability to adjust the neck if it warped from dryness or humidity. Wire strings were a cheaper alternative to gut strings, but they were largely dismissed at first for the buzzing they produced.

In the early 1900s, full string bands began to emerge. These groups added a fuller sound to the banjo/fiddle duos with the addition of guitar, upright bass, mandolin, and sometimes other instruments. That is not to say that banjo/fiddle duos were replaced entirely though. Many loyal traditionalist Appalachian banjo players, such as Roscoe Holcomb and Fred Cockerham, continued to play solo or with fiddle accompaniment. Also around this time, different playing styles emerged that were starkly different than the Appalachian clawhammer style. Where clawhammer used thumb and index finger, these styles used three finger picking patterns that allow for a higher volume of notes to be played in a short amount of time. These picking styles are collectively referred to as bluegrass style.

Through the mid-1900s, the banjo was used to evoke Appalachian imagery in contemporary folk and country music as well as pop culture. For example, the theme songs to the television show The Beverly Hillbillies and the film Deliverance became earworms that spread to a mainstream audience, even though their appeal was somewhat of a novelty.


The modern age

According to Robert Lloyd Webb, author of Ring the Banjar!, a major turning point for the banjo came in 2000 with the release of the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? The film’s Grammy-winning soundtrack was full of traditional music and was able to garner a more universal appeal. Among those captivated by the soundtrack were members of the band Mumford & Sons who, when they formed, began featuring the banjo in their Pop-Americana sound.

Additionally, celebrities such as Steve Martin and Ed Helms, whether inadvertently or not, have given mainstream credibility to the instrument. Martin, who has been playing the banjo for more than fifty years, has been touring extensively recently in support of his bluegrass albums. Helms recently put out a record with his group The Lonesome Trio and during his time on the sitcom The Office, his character Andy Bernard was shown playing the banjo.

The story of the banjo is a bitter one because of its slavery and racism-laden roots. Lately efforts have emerged for the history to come full circle. In addition to the Black Banjo Gathering, bands like The Carolina Chocolate Drops are reviving old minstrel-style music that consists of a banjo, a fiddle, and a set of bones (a percussion instrument traditionally made from animal bones, but now more often from wood).

The banjo has proven itself to be a versatile instrument appearing in the genres of folk, bluegrass, country, and traditional, as well as jazz, swing, and blues. Deering banjos, one of the most popular manufacturers in the United States, has reported a surge in sales since 2011. Hopefully the growth in the banjo’s popularity will lead to a further fleshing out of its history.


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AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones