Living History & Reenactment Music

Musical Rambles Through History © by Sara L. Johnson

The Banjo

Although the banjo is often said to be the only native American instrument, its original roots were in a variety of African instruments - an exact prototype unknown. It was associated with blacks, who constructed them in the western hemisphere to accompany singing and dancing, as they had been used in Africa. The bania, banjar, bangoe, bangie, banjer, banza, or banjo came here by way of the West Indies and Caribbean. The first published mention of a banjo instrument, in 1678, was notice of earlier legislation in Martinique, prohibiting dances and assemblies of blacks where they "danced to the sound of a drum and an instrument the blacks called a banza." Early banjos had a gourd body, a head of animal skin, three strings of equal length, and no frets. When the short drone string, or "chanterelle" appeared in the 1700s, banjos only had three strings, so it was actually the fourth string, rather than the "fifth" string, as it is known now.

As early as 1769, white banjo players performed in blackface, but until 1800, the banjo was primarily a black instrument played for black audiences, often with whites observing and enjoying. In 1781, Thomas Jefferson called the banjo a customary, or "proper" instrument of black slaves. Thomas Fairfax described a banjo player in Richmond Virginia in 1799. "After going to bed, I was entertained with an agreeable serenade, by a black man who had taken his stand near the Tavern, and for the amusement of those of his colour, sang and played on the Bangoe." That same year, Gottlieb Graupner, a white performer, appeared in blackface in a Boston theater, playing banjo and performing "The Gay Negro Boy."

The English traveler Thomas Ashe, in Travels in America Performed in the Year 1806, reported that at an inn on the Kentucky side of the Ohio River from Cincinnati: "I entered the ball-room, which was filled with persons at cards, drinking, smoking, dancing &c. The music consisted of two bangies, played by negroes nearly in a state of nudity, and a lute, through which a Chickesaw breathed with much occasional exertion and violent gesticulations. The dancing accorded with the harmony of these instruments ... The clamour of the card tables was so great, that ...the music of Ethiopia was with difficulty heard."

In 1817, a New Orleans law prohibited dancing by blacks except on Sunday before sundown, in areas approved by the mayor. That place came to be known as "Congo Square", where hundreds of blacks came each Sunday to dance, and were watched and often described by white residents and visitors. By this time, sheet music was beginning to be published, such as The Bonja Song, A Negro Air, based on stereotypical " happy blacks and their comical antics", which would form the basis for minstrel shows. This music recreated the music, dancing and storytelling of southern blacks heard by visitors to the south. Some of these musicians had actually grown up listening to slave instrumentalists, and a few early tunes in the 19th century banjo tutors may be transcriptions from their playing. By the 1830s solo blackface performers were popular entertainers, but the real flowering of the minstrel show era occurred after 1843, when Ohio native Dan Emmett and several other unemployed actors and musicians, as the Virginia Minstrels, staged the first documented minstrel show. Joel Walker Sweeney and the Virginia Minstrels toured England, Ireland and France in 1843-45. In fact, the use of the banjo in Irish music is said to date from the Irish exposure to minstrel music during this tour.

Blacks were usually prohibited from performing in or attending minstrel shows, but they continued to play the banjo for dances, both in the black and Anglo traditions, as we know from the narratives of ex-slaves. Some of their favorite tunes, also popular on the minstrel stage, probably originally came from black players, and include Turkey in the Straw, Arkansas Traveller, and Miss Liza Jane.

By the time of the Gold Rush in 1849, minstrels were in such demand that entire troupes set out overland or by way of Cape Hope to entertain prospectors. The first minstrels appeared in San Francisco in October of 1849. By the Civil War, banjos were everywhere, and it was said that in Texas, the people didn't know the National Anthem, but they all knew Turkey in the Straw.

This information is from Ring the Banjar, Robert Lloyd Webb (1984), and Acoustic Guitars and Other Fretted Instruments, George Gruhn & Walter Carter (1993). For more banjo information, check Wayne Erbsen's site at Native Ground Music, Inc. For early banjo recordings available from the Kitchen Musician, click here.