Since Caribbean Blacks created the banjo in the 17th century and carried it to North America in the 18th century, the banjo has been part of African American heritage. An African New World combination of European and African elements, early banjos resembled plucked full spike folk lutes like the akonting of Gambia, Senegal, and Guinea-Bissau and the bunchundo of Gambia and Guinea-Bissau. Like these instruments, early banjos had gourd or calabash bodies covered by a skin membrane and wood bridges held by string tension. Most early banjos had four gut or fiber strings, often three long and one short drone string, though some had two long strings and one short string. Banjos’ flat fingerboards and tuning pegs, not found on indigenous West African instruments, came from European instruments.
First reported in Jamaica in 1687 and in Martinique in 1698, until the 19th century the banjo was identified exclusively with Black people. Banjos rang in Barbados, Antigua, St. Kitts, St. Croix, Suriname, and Haiti in the 1700s and early 1800s. First reported in North America in Manhattan in 1736, by the early 1800s, Black folk played banjos from New England to Louisiana. The Old Plantation, painted before 1790 by South Carolina planter John Rose, depicts a Black banjoist and a Black drummer playing for Black dancers. By the 1830s, white entertainers wearing black face makeup and singing what they called Black songs adopted the banjo. Known as “minstrels” by the 1840s, they became widely popular, touring the United States, Britain, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand. Though they reflected American racism, their music and dance launched worldwide interest in Black music and the banjo.
By the 1840s five-string banjos with four long strings and one short string one short string, the highest in pitch, but set next to the lowest pitched long string, had developed. Wood frame rims to stretch the skin replaced the gourds. A commercial banjo industry appeared linking entertainers, sellers of banjo music, and manufacturers. By the late 19th century metal covered or replaced the wooden frame rims entirely, frets were added, metal strings replaced gut, and a variety of mechanisms were added to banjos to produce a loud, clear, treble sound. Black banjoists adopted these innovations to make even more powerful music. Black dances powered by banjo persisted into the twentieth century. Though Black banjoists, white show business banjoists, parlor banjoists, and white Southern folk banjoists exchanged tunes and techniques, the drive of Black banjoists to play for African American dancers preserved Black banjo’s distinctive West African musical approaches.
After the Civil War, Black minstrel companies offered real African American music, not pale imitations, eclipsing the white minstrels’ popularity by 1900. African American banjo syncopation helped inspire ragtime, a combination of folk, popular, and art music born in the Black Midwest that became internationally popular in the 1890s and 1900s. Scott Joplin, the great ragtime composer, dedicated compositions to Black banjoists. More ragtime banjo records than piano records appeared in the early 1900s. As banjo playing became a vital part of turn of the century popular music, Black Banjoists like Horace Weston, the Bohee Brothers, Hosea Eason, and James Bland became international stars. Black banjo playing probably reached its height before World War I. Black banjoists swung old time dances and starred in shows from London to Broadway.
Middle class African Americans formed banjo, mandolin, and guitar clubs. The most prominent, Washington’s Aeolians, played for thousands while Black newspapers across the country covered their concerts as society news. Black bandleader James Reese Europe, New York’s foremost bandleader who bridged ragtime and jazz, led a band that featured six banjoists among only ten musicians and formed concert orchestras with scores of banjos. New banjos without drone strings and played with flat picks arose in the 20th Century: tenor banjos, tuned like violas, six-string guitar banjos, mandolin banjos, and plectrum banjos, modeled on the five string banjo without the fifth string. The jazz banjoists that played them included musicians like Elmer Snowden, Zach White, Johnny St. Cyr, Noble Sissle, and Freddie Green, who became major jazz guitarists, band leaders, and composers.
Across the 20th century, the banjo declined. Musicians, white and Black, abandoned the banjo as the old time dances died out. Though Memphis five-string banjoist Gus Cannon made thirty-three blues and rag records from 1927 to 1930, pianos and steel stringed guitars dominated the blues. In jazz the new large arch top and, later, electric guitars replaced banjos. Even in country music, the banjo became chiefly a prop for hayseed comedians until Earl Scruggs changed everything in 1945. Yet, African American traditional banjoists survived even if their music was no longer popular. Folklorists and banjo enthusiasts found and documented surviving Black banjoists like Dink Roberts, Nate and Odell Thompson, Rufus Kasey, Elizabeth Cotton, Lewis Hairston, and Etta Baker. Scholars like Dena Epstein and Cece Conway, reaffirmed the African ancestry, Caribbean origins, and Black American history of the banjo. Starting with 1960s folk blues performers Taj Mahal and Otis Taylor, a new generation revived Black banjo playing.
The 2005 Black Banjo Gathering in Boone, North Carolina brought this revival to a new stage. Featuring scholars and players of West African music; Black banjoists like Jazz banjoist Don Vappie; the Ebony Hillbillies, New York’s Black string band; the young Black musicians who later formed the Grammy-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops; banjo historians like Robert Winans and Cece Conway; and leading banjoists like Mike Seeger and Bela Fleck, the gathering celebrated both African American banjo heritage and the Black banjo revival. Since the gathering, scholars from Africa, Europe, and North America have vastly expanded our knowledge of the banjo’s African roots, Caribbean origin, and African American history. Black banjoists have become a growing feature of both folk music and jazz. Young musicians, Black and white, have even taken up the akonting and other West African instruments that are the banjo’s ancestors. The banjo’s African American heritage is celebrated worldwide.
The article was written by Tony Thomas, the leading African American scholar of the banjo. Thomas organized the 2005 Black Banjo Gathering, served as contributing historian to the PBS documentary Give Me the Banjo, plays banjo and guitar with the Ebony Hillbillies, and has presented on Black banjo history and taught banjo at old time music, blues, and banjo festivals, universities, and public schools in the United States and Europe. His work has been published in periodicals like The Black Scholar and the Old Time Herald and is forthcoming at Illinois and Duke University presses. He can be reached for presentations, performance, and classes at BlackBanjoEducation@outlook.com.