For most of the population, the sound of a banjo will conjure up a handful of images. Many will recall the iconic “Dueling Banjos” scene from Deliverance. Others, however, see the instrument for what it is: a cornerstone of American music. From old-time hillbilly music to modern bluegrass and beyond, many think of it as a distinctly American instrument. However, the history of the banjo begins long before the instrument landed in the New World.
Recently, I spoke to award-winning educator and Appalachian folklorist, Dr. Ted Olson. Dr. Olson teaches Appalachian Studies as well as Old-Time, Bluegrass, and Country Music Studies at East Tennessee State University. He talked a little about the history of the banjo including how it came to the United States and how it transformed over time.
A Dark Page in American History Brings Us the Banjo
One of the darkest pages in American history brought us the banjo. According to Dr. Olson, current research shows that enslaved Africans brought the earliest banjoes with them in the 18th century. However, it is possible that it made its way to our shores sooner in the earliest days of the American slave trade.
In his book Americana Music: Voices, Visionaries, & Pioneers of an Honest Sound, Lee David Zimmerman talks about where the banjo began. Zimmerman states that the earliest relative of the banjo could be found in Africa. That instrument consisted of animal skins stretched over a hollowed-out half of a gourd and three to five strings. In 1765, Thomas Jefferson made note of his slaves playing an instrument he referred to as a “banjar.”
Dr. Olson notes that the first recorded sighting of the banjo outside of a plantation took place in Knoxville, Tennessee in the 1790s. A roustabout in the area saw a Black riverboat worker playing the instrument.
Minstrel Shows: Introducing the Banjo to the Masses
The early history of the banjo is closely tied to the lives of enslaved Africans in the United States. First, they brought the instrument with them. Then, white performers used it in traveling shows in which white performers would coopt and profit from Black music and culture. At the same time, those minstrel shows spread negative stereotypes of Black people around the country.
Zimmerman credits Joel Walker Sweeney and his group, the Virginia Minstrels with exposing a wider and whiter audience to the banjo in the 1830s. Sweeney picked up the banjo from slaves on his father’s farm. As his blackface-wearing banjo-picking troupe toured the East Coast, the instrument slowly gained popularity with white musicians.
The Civil War: An Important Part of American and Banjo History
When the Civil War kicked off in the 1860s, the banjo was already carving out its place in American musical history. However, the War Between the States pushed the instrument to new heights. Countless soldiers on both sides of the war learned to play the instrument to kill time between battles.
However, this point in history didn’t just see the banjo grow in popularity. It also saw people change the way they approached the instrument. Before the Civil War, most white and Black musicians used it as a rhythm instrument. During this time, though, people began plucking and picking individual strings. This led to the kind of banjo music we hear today.
The Post-War Era
Minstrel shows were hugely popular with Americans. Unfortunately, as Dr. Olson stated in our interview, “Minstrel shows were deeply stereotypical and had the effect of being deeply racist. They had the effect of spreading stereotypes of Black people broadly across America.”
For this reason, after the Civil War and, more importantly, emancipation, Black musicians started to move away from the instrument. For them, the banjo started as an integral part of their musical tradition and history but ended up being just another tool for American whites to use against them.
World War I and the All-American Instrument
In the section of American history between the Civil War and WWI, the banjo grew in popularity. You could hear it on back porches, in jazz clubs, as well as at classical recitals. However, nothing helped the banjo’s reputation like WWI
In his book, Zimmerman notes that there was immense international tension before WWI. This left people looking for anything that seemed wholly American to them. The banjo, with its already shrouded history and connections to Appalachia, seemed like the all-American instrument. It became a key instrument in the big-band scene that thrived both before and after WWI.
The Depression Leaves No Room for Twang
The banjo’s exuberant sound brought it to prominence several times throughout its history. However, when the Stock Market crashed in 1929 and started the Great Depression, no one wanted to hear its bright and shining twang. As a result, the banjo fell out of favor with much of America.
Those who did still want to play the instrument found that strings were increasingly hard to come by. For the next two decades, the banjo would be a footnote in American musical history.
WWII: Another War, Another Important Moment in Banjo History
After WWII many musicians – many of whom were from Appalachia – started to rediscover traditional American music. For them, this meant rediscovering the banjo and the part that it played in our musical history. Before long, Bill Monroe added a banjo to his band, the Blue Grass Boys. This had a huge impact on the instrument in the future.
Over the years, Monroe’s lineup changed several times. As a result, he hosted a number of great banjo pickers. Among them was Earl Scruggs. His style of playing further transformed the instrument. Today, the “Scruggs Roll” is one of the first things an aspiring banjo player learns.
Later, banjo pickers like Scruggs and Pete Seeger brought the banjo to further prominence in the 50s and 60s during the folk revival. Before long, you could hear the banjo in country, bluegrass, and country-rock songs from across America and even in some bands from the UK.
Will the Circle Be Unbroken – The Album that Brought the Banjo to the Mainstream
In 1972, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band released Will the Circle Be Unbroken. Zimmerman said that this album brought “the traditional musical vanguard together with a younger generation of musicians, providing the banjo with further acceptance and appreciation in the musical mainstream.”
In the years since Will the Circle Be Unbroken, bluegrass and old-time music has seen a boom in popularity. As a result, countless country, bluegrass, and Americana performers use the banjo. People like Dolly Parton, Tyler Childers, Charley Crockett, Billy Strings, and countless others continue to make this all-American instrument part of their sound.