A Bit of Banjo History – Part 1

What do you think of when you imagine a banjo? If you’re like most folks, you usually see a picture of a 5-string banjo being played by a white southern man, perhaps in a rural mountain setting or at a bluegrass festival. The banjo-trained ear will also notice the tuning: GDGBD (the usual G tuning), and the banjo is set up to be loud and clear, not deep and mellow.

That’s the current take on the banjo, but we would be amiss to neglect the multitude of other styles, many of which others will think of before the above scenario: Dixieland Jazz, Clawhammer in all its wonderful varieties, Irish folk tunes, classical renditions, etc. But beyond one of these styles, the general population hasn’t gone much farther in thought. Jobs beckon, dinner must be prepared, lawns mowed. Musical history, especially that of a banjo, is easily forgotten.

It seems the banjo has always represented something a bit different from what is currently considered mainstream. Back when it was first introduced to America, it came over (either physically or, more likely, in the minds of its makers) as the primary instrument of African slaves. Necessity is the mother of invention, as the saying goes, and these early American banjos were hobbled together using what was available. Catskin stretched over a hollowed-out gourd, with a suitable wooden neck and gut strings – this is the usual description of a banjo from this time period. If you find these really old-style banjos fascinating, as I do, check out David G. Hyatt’s ‘The Art of GOurd BanjO Construction’ and Jubilee Gourd Banjo. For more links, just google ‘gourd banjos’.

And what did the people of that time think about banjos? Of course you can never lump all of society into one or even two or three viewpoints, but some generalities can be stated. After about 1810, banjos were well-known enough to no longer need a description when writing about them. Starting with  an initial use strictly by slaves, it wasn’t long before traveling minstrel bands, the popular yet low-brow form of entertainment in those days, had included them. You’ll notice that neither of these groups were considered ‘the way to be’ by middle and upper class society.

A curious thing happened next that, upon closer examination, reveals much about how society to this day categorizes the banjo. By about 1890 or 1900, much of society was moving away from Victorian ideals of behavior. Although this ‘official’ culture was still in place, the more sentimental notions of people held sway in ordinary life. As a show of moving from this Victorian lifestyle (the ‘official’ view), upper class ladies began taking up the banjo. So much so, that for the age, the banjo was seen largely as a feminine instrument. If you ever look at newspapers and magazine from 1890 to 1910, you’ll frequently see women playing the banjo. What this teaches us about the long-term view of banjos is that they have always represented, and probably always will represent, an alternative view. Not the ‘official’ view of corporate and industrial endeavors, but rather the idea of a more relaxed and down-home lifestyle.

The southern black slave was still identified with the banjo at this time, although this began to fade, and was more and more replaced with the idea of young white people as banjoists, both ladies of culture as well as young college men.

Ironically, my own chores beckon now. More later!

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About Phill Gibson

I'm from Huntsville, Alabama where I work as a Systems Engineer and part-time banjo and mandolin instructor. I've been playing various instruments since my teen years. I started mandolin at about age 17 and banjo at 20. I love just about all kinds of music. In terms of banjo styles, I play Scruggs and melodic and am working on becoming more advanced with single string. I'm also working on 4-finger banjo, which is way off the beaten path. I would like to see more jazz techniques integrated into bluegrass situations; counterpoint, especially. So long-term, that's what I'm doing. I'm also very keen on astronomy, ATM (amateur telescope making), birding, christian homeschooling, martial arts, organic gardening and about 30 other distracting hobbies to a (mercifully) lesser extent.
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2 Responses to A Bit of Banjo History – Part 1

  1. Pingback: A Bit of Banjo History - Part 2

  2. Pingback: A Bit of Banjo History – Part 2 | Phill Gibson's Blog

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