Bluegrass music relies heavily on the banjo to create its distinctive sound. It’s something you’d struggle to find in a concert hall, orchestra or P&O cruise ship balls, but it has a down-to-earth quality not found in classical instruments. But how did this unique instrument with its upbeat, twangy sound come to be? Here is a quick look at the history of the banjo.
Birth of the Banjo
The Banjo is often thought of as a uniquely American instrument, but it actually has its roots in Africa. The African slaves brought over to the US and the Caribbean in the 17th and 18th centuries brought the instrument with them. Originally, it was made of a gourd which was covered in animal skin, with a wooden neck. However, unlike modern banjos, it lacked a fingerboard and tuning pegs. The number of strings on the banjo varied, but four or five strings were the most common, as today. The early banjos also had one shorter drone string, as they do today.
So, the banjo started off as an African slave instrument, but it has since passed into white culture. When asked, most people would say that they associated the banjo with white folk music, including bluegrass. It was the tradition of the travelling minstrel which caused the banjo to become popular outside the black community in America. During the 1830s and 1840s, white minstrels would wear blackface and play for entertainment. The first ever white banjo player is thought to have been Joel Sweeney. He came from Virginia, where he had learned to play the banjo from the local black community. He then took the banjo around the country, and is thought to have been the first to have played it on stage.
This meant that the banjo was moved further and further away from its African roots. Blackface shows caricatured black people, rather than being sympathetic to black culture. Those who played the banjo, including Sweeney, started to try to distance the banjo from its roots. As banjos began to be made by commercial instrument makers, many claimed that Joel Sweeney had invented the instrument, to attempt to cover up its African roots. By this time, the banjo was becoming popular among white people too, particularly poor whites in the American South.
Banjos were an instrument which could be made at home relatively easily, and that perhaps accounts for their popularity: they were highly democratic in that sense. However, commercial instrument makers also made them and provided their own contribution to their development. They made banjos of wooden drums, not of gourds as they had traditionally been made. Over time, they added fretboards to banjos, which made them easier to play. This became standard in manufactured banjos towards the late nineteenth century. In the twentieth century, manufacturers began to make banjos with steel strings, which changed their sound and made it possible to play them with a plectrum. The modern banjo sound was born.
It seemed at this stage as if the banjo might drop in popularity. It had been adopted by some of the early jazz musicians, but it was soon replaced by the guitar as jazz took off in popularity. The African banjo players of the south still continued their own tradition, but among white musicians, the banjo’s popularity seemed to wane. It was the popularity of bluegrass in the post-war period which led to its revival. The banjos used by these bluegrass bands were normally five-string banjos. The black tradition of banjo playing also continues, and has its own distinctive sound. The banjo can also be found in many other forms of modern music. It has been adapted and merged with many other instruments. For example, the banjo-ukulele or banjo-mandolin. Four and six string versions of the banjo are also made. As well as being popular in the US, the banjo found its way to Britain and especially Ireland, where it is commonly used in folk music.
The history of the banjo has many twists and turns. It is a highly versatile instrument which over the years has proved itself to be perfect for many different types of folk and roots music. It is not the kind of instrument you’d expect to hear on board that cruise ship, but in back streets and basement bars. It is a true instrument of the people, regardless of who those people are.