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About the Banjo
by Tony Thomas
The banjo is a product of Africa. Africans transported to the Caribbean and Latin America were reported playing banjos in the 17th and 18th centuries, before any banjo was reported in the Americas. Africans in the US were the predominant players of this instrument until the 1840s. Originally the banjos were made out of gourds and skins. The strings numbered between three and nine, with four- and five-string banjos being popular. A distinguishing feature was one or more short drone strings sounded with the thumb.
Banjo playing became an object of popular white culture in the US and later in Britain as a result of the Blackface Minstrel shows that became a popular form of entertainment in the 1830s and 1840s. Minstrels from the South who had actually learned real African-American music like Joel Sweeney popularized the banjo by introducing the clawhammer or frailing style that Blacks had brought from Africa. Commercial banjo makers later claimed that Sweeney invented the banjo in order to cover up its African origin. Sweeney did work with luthiers and drum makers to help perfect drum head banjos, the most common type, and is thought to have popularized the five-string banjo as opposed to the four-string banjo. Banjo playing became widely popular among working class and poor people both urban and rural. While African Americans continued their tradition with the instrument, whites also became fans, makers and manufacturers of the banjo.
Banjos began to be built by fine instrument makers, factory scaled manufacturers, as well as working people and farmers who worked with home-made materials. Gradually, the sturdier drum head style of banjo began to replace the gourd banjos.
Banjo playing expanded in the late 19th Century when classic banjo playing finger-picking styles made the banjo a popular instrument among the upper classes and social elites of the US and Britain. While efforts were made to distance the banjo from its African origins and its continued popularity as the instrument of the poor and the Black, nevertheless the outstanding player of period was Horace Weston, an African-American who excelled at the classic, minstrel, and traditional African-American banjo styles.
In the last 30 years of the 19th Century, manufacturers added frets to banjos to make them easier to play for beginners; these became a standard part for most manufactured banjos while people continued to make their own fretless and gourd banjos. In the same years banjo-based instruments aimed at taking the place of various orchestra instruments such as the banjo cello, banjo-bass, mandolin banjo, and banjo mandolin flourished as banjo orchestras became popular particularly among college students.
The twentieth century saw the emergence of steel strings on the banjos. This meant banjos could be played with a plectrum or pick. This led to the plectrum banjo and the more popular tenor banjo, which were both four-string banjos with the fifth drone string removed. These instruments proved popular for pop, dance, tango, and Jazz bands until they started to be replaced by the guitar in the late 1920s and 1930s.
While five-string banjo playing retained a support among African-Americans and whites in the Piedmont and Appalachian South, five string banjo playing declined until the explosion of Bluegrass in the post war years, powered by Earl Scruggs dynamic style of finger picking, Bluegrass led to the repopularization of the banjo among Southern whites. The Folk Revival that began in the late 1950s popularized the banjo among college youth. A crucial part of that folk revival was the struggle by some young folk players to learn and reproduce traditional Southern white and Black banjo styles played before Bluegrass. This led to a revival among some players of old-time clawhammer and finger picking styles.
The once ignored music of traditional African-American five-string banjoists from Piedmont areas of Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia began to be heard again in the collection and performance of banjoists like Dink Roberts, John Snipes, and Odell Thompson. The publication of Dr. Cece Conways African Banjo Echoes in Appalachia: A Study of Folk Traditions linked these players to the African origins of the banjo as well as to the African origins of clawhammer and other traditional banjo styles among white old-time players. The issue by Dr. Conway and Scott Odell of Black Banjo Songsters of North Carolina & Virginia, a CD of these Black banjoists music, brought the original Black voice of the five-string banjo back to the banjo world. These events helped encourage a layer of African-Americans to take up the banjo and continue and expand the traditions of their elders.
Today Black banjoists are exploring the original Black traditions of clawhammer and finger style five-string banjo, as well as reviving the traditions of Horace Weston in classic banjo, and continuing the great music of the great Black tenor, plectrum, and six-string banjoists of the 20th Century.