Banjo

Updated: February 28, 2011

A four- or five-string instrument with a head of hide or plastic stretched over a gourd sound box or a circular wooden rim, the banjo evolved in America from a related family of variously named instruments—banjar, bandora, banza— brought from Africa by slaves.

A four- or five-string instrument with a head of hide or plastic stretched over a gourd sound box or a circular wooden rim, the banjo evolved in America from a related family of variously named instruments—banjar, bandora, banza— brought from Africa by slaves.

In the seventeenth century, West African nomadic musicians brought to the New World an instrument with a long pole neck attached to a gourd and strung with three or four strings of horsehair, hemp, or catgut. Enslaved musicians in the West Indies colonies were playing such an instrument in a “knocking” or “beating” style by the early eighteenth century. The later incorporation of tuning pegs and a flat finger- board facilitated the sliding and bending of notes.

By the mid-eighteenth century, African American musical culture was well established to the east of the Appalachians. In Maryland and Virginia as early as 1740, musicians made and played pole-necked, or sometimes flat-necked, gourd ban- jars with a short thumb string, skin head, and, sometimes, tuning pegs. Blacks played banjars and sang improvised lyric songs into the nineteenth century.

Traditionally, banjar playing incorporated both rhythm and melody and interacted with percussion—especially the African talking drums. Banjar-drum ensembles dominated performances in the lowland South until drums and brass horns were outlawed in the English colonies after the 1739 Stono insurrection, in which slaves on a South Carolina plantation used the beating of drums to coordinate a rebellion against slave owners. Afterward, a solo banjar tradition began to flourish. Some black banjo songs still survive in Appalachia, including songs about animal tricksters (Dink Roberts’s “Fox Chase” and Rufus Kasey’s “Old Rattler”), which recall the plight and strategic subversions of enslaved people.

Written records document the presence of black banjo players on the Appalachian frontier—in Knoxville, Tennessee, by 1800 and in Wheeling, (West) Virginia, by 1806. In early-nineteenth-century Appalachia, African American banjo music began to influence white fiddle music and in turn to be influenced by it. By 1830, white (especially Scots- Irish) musicians had begun to play the gourd banjar in the African American style of playing known as thumping. Shared interest in the instrument among blacks and whites soon resulted in the invention of the five-string, wooden- rimmed, open-back banjo, which replaced the gourd-bodied instruments; this new modification retained the African short-drone thumb string.

Joel Walker Sweeney, a Virginian of Irish descent and an early minstrel performer (c. 1830s), is often credited with the addition of the fifth string to the banjo. Contrary to popular conception, this additional string was not the short drone string but likely a fourth melody string. Sweeney’s role in the invention of this five-string model remains contested, but his role in popularizing the banjo is widely acknowledged. His influence was perpetuated further by minstrel performer Dan Emmett’s group, the Virginia Minstrels, whose banjo player, Billy Whitlock, was tutored by Sweeney. The group traveled to Ireland and England, popularizing the banjo there.

Views differ as to whether blackface minstrelsy was the major source by which Appalachian white musicians learned the banjo. Into the twentieth century, blacks continued to play the banjo in such sections of Appalachia as the North Carolina foothills. With the rise of radio and the commercial recording industry in the 1920s, most Americans began associating the banjo with Appalachian white “hillbilly” musicians. Minstrelsy and subsequent developments in late- nineteenth-century popular music not only influenced the performance styles of early commercial country banjo players from Appalachia but also contributed up-picking banjo techniques to the repertoires of more traditional musicians from or active in the region, such as Charlie Poole (Randolph County, North Carolina) and Dock Boggs (West Norton, Virginia). Jesting and rube outfits—essential parts of the acts of such early commercial country banjo players as Uncle Dave Macon, Stringbean, Lily May Ledford, and Grandpa Jones—also had their roots in minstrelsy.

The other possible mode of transmission of banjo- playing techniques from black mentors to white Appalachian musicians has been inadequately documented. Some white traditional musicians who continued to play homemade, fretless, often gut-stringed instruments into the era of recorded music were likely beneficiaries of an oral tradition that whites had learned from direct contact with black banjo players. By the 1850s, an increase in steamboat travel on rivers had intensified cultural exchange across Appalachia, as blacks (leased out by slave owners) often worked side by side with Irish and German laborers. Blacks and whites entertained each other by performing on the banjo a variety of jigs and reels, breakdowns, and “jump up” songs. On some steamboats traveling in the region, African American cabin boys would play instrumental music on the banjo and would buckdance or cakewalk. Musical crosspollination in Appalachia continued when blacks and whites came into contact during the Civil War. Through the 1870s, black roustabouts and longshoremen interacted with whites in waterfront dancehalls (for example, in Cincinnati) and paired the fiddle and banjo; this particular combination of instruments would remain the most popular musical configuration in Appalachia into the twentieth century.

Some African American musicians (for example, Virginian Leonard Bowles) and numerous white musicians in Appalachia still play banjos in a down-stroking style known as strumming, thumping, or clawhammer; the style usually involves the right index finger, or index and middle fingers, striking down on the strings, with the right thumb mostly droning on the short fifth string through downstrokes. In the latter half of the twentieth century, black banjo players, including Hardy County, West Virginia, native Clarence Tross and Virginian Josh Thomas, along with such white players as Doc Watson (of Deep Gap, North Carolina), continued to use the older terms—knocking and beating—for this style.

By the early twentieth century, with the addition of the guitar, mandolin, upright acoustic bass, and sometimes other musical instruments, the banjo-and-fiddle configuration was widely expanded into the fuller sound of the string band. Undaunted by the popularity of string bands, many traditional Appalachian banjo players—including Roscoe Holcomb (from Daisy, Kentucky), Wade Ward (Saddle Creek, Virginia), Frank Proffitt Sr. (Reese, North Carolina), Hobart Smith (Saltville, Virginia), Clarence “Tom” Ashley (Mountain City, Tennessee), Kyle Creed (Surry County, North Carolina), and Fred Cockerham (Low Gap, North Carolina)—played primarily solo or with fiddle accompaniment. Some of these musicians were recorded in the 1920s and 1930s, both commercially and by folk music enthusiasts and collectors. Several banjoists from Appalachia—including B. F. Shelton (Corbin, Kentucky), Hayes Shepherd (Jenkins, Kentucky), and Dock Boggs—played with up- picking techniques and favored modal and blues tonalities not typical to the Anglo-American fiddle tune repertoire of the region.

By the 1940s, up-picking styles—for example, the three- finger styles of Rex Brooks and Smith Hammett, and their pupil Snuffy Jenkins (from Harris, North Carolina)—had evolved into the syncopated, bluegrass banjo picking characterized by the intricate three-finger rolls of Flint Hill, North Carolina, native Earl Scruggs, the banjo player for Bill Mon- roe’s Blue Grass Boys; by the simpler yet hard-driving rolls of Ralph Stanley (from Dickenson County, Virginia); and by the complex single-string playing of Don Reno (of Spartanburg, South Carolina). Later banjoists, including Kentuckians Sonny Osborne and J. D. Crowe, from Hyden and Lexington, respectively, expanded the possibilities of Scruggs’s original style, while Don Stover (from Ameagle, West Virginia) strongly influenced the complex melodic and chromatic playing of such younger non-native progressive bluegrass exponents as Bill Keith, Tony Trischka, and Bela Fleck. Bluegrass banjo styles also inspired Appalachian musicians to develop techniques on other instruments that attempted to emulate the cascading sound of the banjo rolls. Buck “Uncle Josh” Graves adapted the rolls to his resophonic guitar and Jesse McReynolds developed a mandolin cross-picking technique, while Doc Watson was a pioneer of cross-picking on the acoustic flat-picked guitar.

Although musicians from the region contributed to its evolution, the banjo was not considered an Appalachian musical instrument in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Three factors that encouraged the association of the banjo with Appalachia were a decline in the popularity of earlier non-Appalachian musical styles that featured the banjo (such as minstrelsy, “classical” banjo styles, medicine shows, vaudeville, and Dixieland jazz); recording industry interest in—and urban folk revivalists’ focus on—Appalachian music and culture; and major innovations in banjo- playing styles by such Appalachian musicians as Earl Scruggs and Don Reno, who helped to make the banjo particularly suited to impressive displays of instrumental virtuosity. By the 1960s, the banjo was the instrument most non- Appalachian people associated with the region’s folk and country music. Not only did urban folk revivalists focus on the banjo (for example, Mike Seeger’s first project as a producer was an album of banjo instrumentals, American Banjo: Three-Finger and Scruggs Style, which featured such Appalachian banjo players as Snuffy Jenkins), but the instrument was also commonly featured in American popular music to evoke Appalachian culture and imagery. The latter trend can be traced through the folk-pop group the Kingston Trio’s 1958 hit version of the Appalachian murder ballad “Tom Dooley” to contemporary alternative country music. Many Hollywood movies and television shows—including Deliverance, Where the Lilies Bloom, and The Beverly Hillbillies—featured banjo instrumentals as theme music. The re- cent mainstream discovery of Appalachian bluegrass banjo pioneer Ralph Stanley’s music (following the success of the soundtrack from the 2000 movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?) has strengthened the popular association of the banjo with Appalachia and Appalachian music.

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MLA Style

"Banjo," Encyclopedia of Appalachia, 2017, Encyclopedia of Appalachia. 23 Feb 2017 <http://www.encyclopediaofappalachia.com/entry.php?rec=32>

APA Style

"Banjo." (2017) In Encyclopedia of Appalachia, Retrieved February 23, 2017, from Encyclopedia of Appalachia: http://www.encyclopediaofappalachia.com/entry.php?rec=32

Joel Sweeney