The banjo is a stringed musical instrument of African origin. Its African forebearer was constructed of a round or oblong hollow body made from a gourd or calabash used as a resonating chamber. A skin, usually antelope hide, was stretched tightly across the gourd body, covering an opening similar to the body of a drum. The neck, often made from a wooden pole or sometimes a piece of bamboo, was attached to the body of the instrument. Gut strings made from animal intestines were then stretched between the gourd body and the neck. This instrument could have as many as three to five strings that were plucked with the fingers or strummed with one hand, depending on the cultural norms of the community. The other hand was used to dampen the strings up and down the neck to produce different individual or combined pitches. In some African American communities, the banjo included a wooden bridge to raise the strings whose vibrations produced the sound.
While the banjo can be played as a solo instrument, its greatest strength during the period of African enslavement was its value as an expression of cultural identity, community cohesion, and musical innovation. Its role in defining the slave experience is undeniable. Although accounts of blacks playing the fiddle come earlier, its use was not identified or mentioned in conjunction with the black community as often as the banjo. The banjo is among the very few instruments that can claim diasporic roots that began in Africa, moved to other colonies such as Martinique, Jamaica, and Barbados, and then appeared in enslaved communities in the American South.
Many communities claim kinship with the banjo, but its roots originate in the Senegambia of West Africa. Music historians trace the banjo's beginnings to West African lute and harp-like instruments, among them the ngoni (Wasulu), akonting (Jola), and xalam (Wolof). Each community added its unique interpretation and method of playing the instrument. The ngoni traditionally was played by the “jeli,” a combination of musician and storyteller. The akonting comes from the Jola people near the Casamance river in Senegal, West Africa, and the syncopated, rhythmic, drum-inspired traditions that have become part of folk banjo playing can be attributed, in part, to their traditions. The xalam has contributed a rich melodic tradition as well as vocal accompaniment. It was played by griots, or storytellers, at special occasions such as weddings and naming ceremonies.
As enslaved Africans arrived in the Caribbean, their traditions of banjo-like instruments came with them. There, it was known by various names: banza (Martinique), bangil (Jamaica), strum strum (Jamaica), bangelo (Sierra Leone), and banshaw (St. Kitts and Nevis).
Because of the constraints of slavery in the West Indies, the average life span of enslaved Africans averaged 6 to 10 years. Brought to these islands as captives, Africans worked in the many sugar plantations that existed on most of these islands. This constant importation of new Africans resulted in the slave communities of the Caribbean having a more consistent and direct connection to their native land. As a result, their cultural expressions, beliefs, and music were linked more closely to their “African” beginnings, and thus their musical retentions were connected more directly to African traditions and the specific cultures from which they came.
In 1749, slaveholder George Croghan advertised for the return of “a Negroe man, named Scipio, [who] is of short stature, plays on the Banjo, and can sing.” Five years later, in July 1754, a runaway slave advertisement in the Maryland Gazette describes Prince, “a pert lively Fellow and plays well on the Banjer.” Twenty years later, Nicholas Cresswell, a young Englishman who had come to America with the intention of settling there permanently, observed a banjo being played at a “Negro Ball” in Nanjemoy, Maryland, in 1774: “Mr. Bayley and I went to see a Negro Ball, Sundays being the only days these poor Creatures have to themselves, they generally meet together and amuse themselves with Dancing to the Banjor.” Earlier that same year, in Virginia, Philip Vickers Fithian, the tutor to the children of Robert Carter of Nomini Hall, described an incident he witnessed involving the banjo: “This Evening in the School-Room, which is below my Chamber, several Negroes & Ben & Harry are playing on a Banjo & dancing!” Other documentary sources, including travelers' accounts, personal journals, and newspapers, all document the banjo as a principal musical instrument in the black community and a legitimate expression of secular black folk music of the period. Perhaps the best-known mention of the banjo during the 18th century is that made by Thomas Jefferson. In his Notes on the State of Virginia, published in 1781, he stated that “the instrument proper to them [the enslaved] is the banjar, which they brought hither from Africa, and which is the original of the guitar, its chords being precisely the four lower chords of the guitar.” Jefferson, along with other colonial citizens, travelers, and observers of the period, firmly set the banjo, its cultural legitimacy, its construction, its style of playing, and its popularity squarely in the world of the enslaved community.
One of the best-known images of the 18th-century South is a watercolor entitled “The Old Plantation,” found near Columbia, South Carolina. In its depiction of a group of presumably enslaved African Americans, it points to the centrality of the banjo as a representation of musical traditions brought from Africa that found expression in America. Finally, a banjo-like instrument was included in a painting by American artist Samuel Jennings in 1792. The painting, Liberty Displaying the Arts and Sciences, or The Genius of America Encouraging the Emancipation of the Blacks, 1792, which was commissioned by the Library Company of Philadelphia as a symbol of the anti-slavery movement, is among the earliest artistic representations in support of the abolition of slavery. One of the scenes in the painting is of a black man standing on the shore playing a banjo with a black child at his side, and what could be interpreted as slave ships in the background. The musician seems to be playing music for a small group of blacks, some of whom appear to be dancing to its music. The banjo in the painting looks remarkably like a slightly modified akonting.
Although the banjo was primarily a solo instrument, documentary sources also note the pairing of the banjo and the fiddle at dances, both formal and informal, during harvest season as well as at weddings and gatherings during the colonial period. Because the African American banjo playing tradition was improvisational—not tied to formal musical notation or the level of education or sophistication of the player—it was thus as individual as the person who played it. In 18th-century America, its music provided a temporary escape from the realities of broken families, violence, death, dismemberment, disease, and the loss of freedom that was part of the system of chattel slavery.
But just as there were those who condemned enslaved Africans to the lowest form of humanity during the colonial period, there were those who considered the banjo to be the instrument of the lower class with no redeeming qualities. For an unknown author in Jamaica in 1740, the banjo seemed to insult European sensibilities: “On Sundays … towards the Evening … some hundreds of them will meet together, according to the Custom of their own Country with Strum-Strums and Calabashes, which they beat and make a horrid Noise with.” In French-speaking areas of the Caribbean, the banza (the term used most consistently by the French during the colonial period) was seen as an example of African barbarism: “They play on this instrument tunes composed of three or four notes, which they repeat endlessly; this is what Bishop Grégoire calls sentimental and melancholy music; and which we call the music of savages.” In 1796, English physician George Pinkard was in the West Indies and had the opportunity to see a slaving vessel. He wrote to a friend,
In the day time they were not allowed to remain in the place where they had slept, but were kept mostly upon the open deck, where they were made to exercise, and encouraged, by the music of their beloved banjar, to dancing and cheerfulness.… Their song was a wild and savage yell, devoid of all softness and harmony, and loudly chanted in harsh monotony.
But whether the comments were rife with condescension, racist hyperbole, or uninformed ethnocentricity, all recognized the significant role the banjo played in the lives of Africans and African Americans. Diarists, journalists, travelers, and artists of the period all saw the banjo as the instrument that spoke to and for the African American experience.
By the 19th century, the banjo was moving from the plantations and farms of the South to the minstrel stage, and then finally into “respectable” American homes. In a period during which blacks began the struggle for freedom and American citizenship, the banjo increasingly gained legitimacy as a quintessential American instrument. But that legitimacy would take time to develop. The banjo's form and construction, its methods of being played, its geography, its audience, and ultimately its status all underwent significant change by the end of the 19th century.
In those years, not only did the banjo continue to be associated with the enslaved, but it also became a symbol of Southern culture in general and plantation slavery in particular. But beyond its connections to the enslaved community, it also gained considerable popularity as a folk instrument in the mountains of Appalachia, particularly in Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, and West Virginia. But before it gained respectability in the parlors and living rooms of polite society, it had to become a “white” instrument.
In 1830, a white performer, Thomas Dartmouth Rice (1808–1860), created a character he dubbed “Jim Crow.” Rice wore ragged clothes and performed songs and dances “of the Plantation darky” in makeup known as “blackface.” In blacking their faces, white performers were able to present as authentically black the caricatured facial features, mannerisms, songs, and dance of both enslaved and free blacks. Such performances gave white audiences a glimpse of what they thought was black life and culture, incorporating burlesque, slapstick, pratfalls, and horseplay as its main elements. The popularity of the minstrel show was an example of the great interest white audiences, especially those in the North, had in knowing more about black culture. So popular were these shows, with their primary subjects depicted as self-indulgent, easily misled, thieving, and sexually permissive, that they drew mass audiences and dominated American theater for much of the 19th century. One of its chief musical symbols was the banjo. It was through this genre of entertainment that the banjo began its transfer from the black community to the white community. As newly emancipated blacks left their enslavement behind, the banjo lost much of its influence and popularity.
Joel Walker Sweeney (1810–1860) and Dan Emmett (1815–1904) were the two most prominent and influential white banjo players of the early 19th century, and both learned to play the banjo from blacks. As popular entertainment began to grow in the United States, so, too, did the interest in Southern culture, and in particular, plantation slavery. Sweeney, Emmitt, Bill Whitlock (1813–1878), Thomas Rice, and a host of others took full advantage of that trend.
Sweeney is credited with beginning the transformation of the banjo from an exclusively black instrument to one that was increasingly identified with whites. Daniel Decatur Emmett was an American songwriter and performer who founded the nation's first minstrel troupe, the Virginia Minstrels, who performed for the first time in 1843. Emmett and the Virginia Minstrels launched shows that were so successful they traveled abroad and performed for royalty. So popular were the minstrel shows that many were included as parts of circus entertainment and eventually spawned a new stage genre called “vaudeville.”
See also opening essay “Dance and Music.”
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