The banjo, widely considered a quintessential symbol of the United States (along with square dancing), is an instrument that tends to conjure up images of white rural life in the Appalachian mountains, or memories of the dueling banjos from the 1972 film “Deliverance” or TV shows like “The Beverly Hillbillies“.
Well, for those who have been keeping up with the True American mini-series, it will come as no surprise that there is a forgotten history of the banjo that complicates this idea. In fact, the banjo has a rich and multicultural history. For those who are just joining us, click the following links for part I and part II.
Quintessentially “American” musical genres including jazz, blues, hip hop, and RnB are undeniably linked to Black communities in the US. And, while the average American likely wouldn’t link country and folk music to the African diaspora, these genres are also deeply influenced by the same African roots.
A brief banjo timeline
There are many different kinds of banjos, but essentially a banjo is a stringed instrument that has a round body and a long neck with four to six strings stretched tight across it.
Music in and of itself is difficult to pinpoint a precise origin for. This is because it’s an aspect of culture that has always been shared, exchanged, and intermingled amongst different people. That said, there are certainly various “ancestors” of the banjo that come from West Africa. These instruments are related to those that came out of the Middle East, which are then connected to the Far East… and it goes on.
That said, we can say with certainty that the banjo’s deepest (traceable) roots come from the earliest lutes in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iran). These lutes made their way into Egypt around 1500 BC, and from there, spread across the Mediterranean and North Africa, and eventually to the Sahara. The banjo that we know and love today would have come from the spike gourd lutes that Africans who were captured and sold into slavery would have remembered or perhaps brought with them to the New World.
Spiked lutes were made of hollowed gourds covered in animal hide, then punched through with a stick (essentially the neck of the instrument). Strings were attached to the far end of the stick and then stretched across to the other side. When plucked or strummed, the strings’ vibrations would resonate across the skin. West Africa has more than 60 variations of lute instruments like this—and it’s impossible to declare which one of these is the direct ancestor of the banjo.
This is in part because of the mass mixing of different African cultures, musical traditions, and religions that happened when Europeans brought captured peoples from different places to the New World. The millions of Africans who were forcibly brought over needed to communicate with each other, and this resulted in the rapid birth of a brand new culture particular to the Americas.
One of the most effective ways humans communicate with each other and record history is through music. Perhaps this is why, despite having lost their freedom and their possessions, the enslaved peoples’ memories of lute instruments and musical traditions survived. Soon enough, gourd banjos were heard at plantations and port towns in the Caribbean, where the majority of enslaved peoples passed through. Later, these musical traditions were also heard in the American South.
European immigrants, who were on the outside looking in on this African-derived cultural exchange, began to notice the instruments and music proliferating among the enslaved. All of these factors led to new terms surrounding this kind of musical expression in the 1600s. To refer to the banjo or banjo-esque instruments, terms like the banza, the banjer, and the banjo were in circulation.
The banjo and Black life
Within the instrument of the banjo, many displaced people found comfort and familiarity. The instrument and its music were forged by the fragments of multiple African traditions that were forced together. Not one African culture owned it, so it was completely free to become a part of Black life in general in the New World.
Musician and scholar Rhiannon Giddens, who we will read more about later, says it best in an interview with Afropop World:
I like to call the banjo African-American. By American I mean the whole of the Americas, not just the United States, because you have Africa, Africa is a continent, it’s enormous, you have huge variations in people, cultures, music, whatever—it’s too reductive. But, the fact of the matter is, when people were brought to the New World, they maintained their own cultural label and heritage as much as they could, but a different culture starts to form because it has to. People are surviving, they are “creolizing” in a way, and the banjo is from that culture. It’s not a Ghanaian instrument, it’s not a Gambian instrument, it is an African-American instrument. It’s born out of a lot of different people coming together and creating a way to survive. So, I think it’s almost ideological in my mind that it has all of these different pieces about Africa in it. But then it’s also something that doesn’t exist in Africa. It is what an African-American culture is.
But how can we be sure that the banjo was a Black instrument? Especially since this image goes against the concept of what a banjo player looks like to most people today. Well, even though Black musicians were not given credit where it was due in an official capacity, there are other clues left behind in America’s history.
For instance, we know that enslaved Black Americans in the South played the banjo because notices looking for escaped slaves would include descriptions of the missing persons’ musical abilities. Also, string bands were so often comprised of Black musicians that written sources such as performance adverts will specify when a band is made up of white musicians. So, from the 1600s to the 1800s, the average American’s default image of a banjoist would have been a Black musician playing a homemade instrument.
In the 1820s and 30s, the banjo’s audience began changing. Black music started gaining popularity across the country, even though Black people were still enslaved in the South, and were treated with hostility in the North.
This mean that Black performers were not usually permitted on American stages. So, how did Black music grow its following on commercial stages? Via white performers who were often in blackface, a performance tradition known as minstrelsy. Though one might think that these types of performances only reaffirm the banjo’s link to Black culture, they actually offered an opportunity for the banjo and folk music to be reimagined as something that white culture could claim.
What is minstrelsy?
Minstrel shows, also called minstrelsy, were briefly mentioned in part II of this series but were not expanded upon. Minstrelsy was developed in the 1800s as a form of entertainment that consisted of comedy skits, dancing, and music performances that presented racist depictions of people of African descent. Black Americans weren’t allowed to perform, so the shows were mostly played by white people in blackface, and relied on harmful or vilified caricatures of Black people as lazy, dumb, and the like.
Minstrelsy and the minstrel band, which consisted of the banjo, fiddle, tambourine, and bones, were a huge success and swept the nation up by storm in the mid-1800s. Soon after, banjo tutors appear in the white community, along with sheet music being sold for the instrument, which was how most music was disseminated before the time of recordings.
Minstrel shows depicted plantation life as easy and idyllic, and functioned as a way for the idea of slavery to be upheld, even though on moral grounds, slavery had been condemned by the nation. The harmful caricatures of Black people became only more extreme as emancipation approached and finally arrived in the US.
The integration of Black music and instruments into the commercial scene also made for a great market for banjo manufacturers. Banjos were not only homemade now, and this shift changed the instrument quickly. Instead of a gourd, banjos were made with a round wooden body, metal strings and frets were added, and the skin was kept tight with techniques borrowed from drum makers. This is when the banjo took on the form that we know today.
The banjo: A distinctly American sound
In the 19th century, banjos were being widely made which meant they were cheap. Plus, more and more sheet music and banjo books were being sold, making it easier for white musicians to access Black music without learning from a Black musician.
Suddenly, the banjo was being played by everyone and taking on different sounds, styles, and genres in the process. This was especially true in the waterways of the nation, where many cultures would mix in a sort of egalitarian way. On the waterways and in the ocean, there tended to be less racial or class hierarchy and different people from different places were able to exchange culture and communicate on more or less the same level.
By the late 19th century, the banjo was seen as America’s instrument—something that broke away from the European tradition and was specifically suited to the New World’s modes of musical expression. However, as the banjo continued to proliferate in the Americas, white banjo manufacturers and sheet music vendors began spreading the idea that the commercially produced iteration of the banjo is the instrument in its truest form. This effectively disregarded its Black origins, and from there, the banjo’s history was steadily forgotten.
The recording industry also played a big role in the reimagining of the banjo as a white instrument by trying to categorize and segregate music. Recording companies would perceive that Black communities were more interested in genres like blues and that hillbillies were more interested in folk music which is now called “hillbilly music.” They would record different genres on different days, with “race records” being only one genre. This resulted in many recording companies Turing away Black string bands that played folk music who would show up on hillbilly days, and tell them to change their sound and come back when they were recording “Black music.” This reinforced a cultural shift that dictates what is “Black music” and what is “white music”— a shift that is then recorded and remembered.
Eventually, in the early 20th century, with the rise of early jazz and blues, the banjo began feeling old-fashioned. For forward-thinking musicians, this meant that they had to move on to newer, edgier instruments like the electric guitar. But for old-stock white Americans who yearned for simpler days of folk music when there wasn’t so much blatant cultural mixing, or messy-sounding jazz, the banjo (and square dancing!) offered a symbol for an imagined “all-white American past.” A past that doesn’t exist, because, as the lesser known histories of the banjo and the square dance demonstrate, America has always been a meeting place of many cultures and displaced peoples.
Nevertheless, the representation of the banjo and of folk music in movies, radio, and popular culture became whiter and whiter. One of the most notable banjoists of this time is Earl Scruggs, a bluegrass musician who popularized the three-finger picking style in the 1940s. By the 50s and 60s, when folk music experienced a revival, musicians were looking back at a canon of folk and old-time music that was already incomplete. It didn’t matter that the older musicians were vocal about their influences; in two generations, the Black banjo player had been erased from the collective memory and removed from the stage— at least for a while.
Rhiannon Giddens and the banjo
Music scholar, educator, folk artist, and banjoist Rhiannon Giddens was a founding member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a Grammy-winning band that plays country, blues, and old-time music, but she also made (and continues to make) waves as a soloist and in other collaborations.
She has made it her mission to reveal why the banjo, an instrument that has a rich cultural history with deep roots in Africa and the Middle East, is now known as an instrument that belongs to white rural America. Giddens uses art to explore America’s past and present and uses her platform to tell the stories of those who have been excluded from the official history of the US. Her incredible work in this field has earned her a MacArthur genius grant.
Anyone looking in on Giddens’ success as a banjoist and folk band vocalist may think that she had pursued the banjo with the knowledge that it was an integral part of her own multiracial heritage. However, she expresses in multiple interviews that before she picked up the banjo, she was also of the mindset that it was an instrument that belonged to white Appalachian traditions.
Even though she grew up in North Carolina and had close relatives who were bluegrass musicians, the history was lost on her. “I knew none [of the history],” she exclaims. “Not one little piece of it. I just knew what everybody else knows, which is Beverly Hillbillies and bluegrass and white people in the mountains with a banjo, and that’s it.”
With this understanding of folk music and the banjo, Giddens, as one of the only Black people at folk music jams or events, reports feeling as though she needed permission to participate in this genre of music. Now, armed with a deeper understanding of herself, her music, and her nation, she continues to reach more and more people with the individual stories of the disenfranchised and voiceless throughout American history.
Rhiannon Giddens writes historical story ballads from the point of view of the enslaved. The first song she wrote in this style is “Julie,” which was inspired by a story in Andrew Ward’s book The Slaves’ War that recounts an overheard conversation between an enslaved woman and her mistress during Civil War times.
In an interview with Tom Power on the “Q: The Podcast from CBC Radio,” Giddens says that before writing “Julie,” she couldn’t stop thinking about how story ballads are so common in older British musical traditions, but how for slaves, being so explicit about their lives in their storytelling and music would mean putting themselves at risk of getting punished, or worse, killed, by their masters. So, writing story ballads from the point of view of the voiceless is a way to reconstruct history in a more complete way.
Giddens’ has expanded her storytelling to include her first opera, called “Omar,” a work based on the true story of a Senegalese Quranic scholar who was captured at the age of 37 and sold into slavery. When talking about the historical figure on which this opera is based, Giddens exclaims, “I don’t know how he did it, but he somehow managed to maintain [his Muslim] identity— and this is the whole point of the opera… how do you maintain your identity… how did he get to the point where he could maintain that in a way that kept him alive in this new world?”
As if she wasn’t already impressive enough, Giddens has also recently replaced the legendary Yo-Yo Ma as the creative director of the Silkroad, an ensemble of up to 18 international musicians. Read more about Giddens’ artistic vision for the group’s new phase after Yo-Yo Ma here.
In the last installment of the True American mini-series, we will highlight more of today’s artists that are reclaiming, proclaiming, and owning their histories, all while grappling with the complexities of identity in a globalized world.