Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo


My name is Justin and I am wondering if anyone on this discussion forum may have ideas about the banjo in early Texas. I am writing a paper and have some leads but thought that this site might provide something I have not looked into.



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Of course I am assuming that African Americans brought the instrument to Texas


Thank you for the information.


I did assume that the African American source material would be limited (or even non-existent) and probably theoretical assumptions would be asserted which, with much speculation, could point to perhaps a gourd-like banjos being the first to be played in Texas. Ideally, using anthropology methods to recreate a gourd-banjo from material in Texas would be awesome and worth an effort. I hope to find some archival material about early 1820s banjo playing by blacks, but the minstrel avenue, in prior research is most certainly available and some secondary scholarly material about the travels and exploits of blackface minstrel shows is out there I think. I am assuming that the Steven F. Austin (The Old 300 families) Mexican colony would have some banjos or slaves that knew how to make banjos.

But could Afro-Mexicans of come north during New Spain and the Mexico eras with a banjo? Did it come via NOLA? another port?

Much research must be done,


But thanks for the heads up, that helped a lot! Playbills and Newspapers will be consulted.    

I never thought about WHEN in history our banjo actually became an instrument with a real finger board instead of a stick. Logic would tell us at some period of some length there was an earliest version that had a flat fingerboard that was played often enough and in circumstances that allowed it to become a standard for a locality and then a region. Assuming that instrument had (as assumed) three strings, where (and at what date) did that configuration become the norm? More than that, how did that information (and that instrument) move around the country. What period of time was required to spread the instrument to the rest of the country?
Thank you Dan'l,
What route did that that instrument take to reach New York? I shouldn't be, but I am confused about how Joel and the musicians who wrote the teaching manuals were interrelated. There seems to be some sort of disconnect between them.
Could someone direct me to a link for this info?

The first documentation of the banjo in North America comes from 1737, in a newspaper article describing the African-American Pinkster celebrations that took place just outside New York City, during which people danced to drums, fiddles, and "banjars".  So by the minstrel era, the banjo had been in New York City for over 100 years.  How it got there from the Caribbean, its assumed birthplace, is - as far as I know - not yet completely clear.

I don't know that there is enough solid evidence to determine exactly when the early banjo - the marriage of certain west African plucked lutes with European features such as flat fingerboards and tuning pegs - came into existence.  Most likely sometime in the mid-16th Century, somewhere in the Caribbean.  The first known mention of the instrument - as a "banza" - came in Martinique in 1678, although the context suggests it had been played there for many years at the time.  The first known description of what we would probably now call a banjo came in 1687, when Hans Sloane described the Jamaican strum-strum as a two-string gourd instrument. 

As far as I know, the first clear indications that the early banza/banjo/banjar had a flat fingerboard don't come until the late 1700s, with the Stedman banjo (possibly from the 1770s and probably the oldest extant banjo), and The Old Plantation painting from the 1790s.  That doesn't mean that the flat fingerboard wasn't present a century earlier, just that we have very little reliable documentation of gourd banjo construction before the late 18th Century.   Both the Stedman banjo and the banjo depicted in The Old Plantation have four strings - three long and one short - but with so little evidence it is impossible to say what string configuration was the norm before 1840.

The first recorded appearances of the banza/banjo in what became the United States come in 1737 (New York City) and 1749 (Maryland/Pennsylvania), the latter marking the first known use of the term "banjo".  In 1774, Nicolas Creswell reported seeing the four-string banjo in Georgia and Florida, to my knowledge the first mention of the instrument in the deep south.

Just a correction to my above post - I of course meant mid-17th Century in the first paragraph, not 16th.

Justin, in Bob Carlin's Book The Birth of the Banjo on pg. 9 we read "For the period of 1828 to 1831,  the prominent Texas Jurist, publisher, and statesman Robert McAlpin Williamson (1806-1859) used the song [Coal Black Rose] to entertain his compatriots, 'admirably adapted to the banjo which he handled like a professional'.

Thank y’all so much! Mark that is great information and the Carlin book is on my list. This paper, a master’s thesis, could go anywhere. I loosely take the Dena Epstein Sinful Tunes and Spirituals and her other great paper titled the "Folk Banjo: A Documentary History"  http://www.jstor.org/stable/850790

as the prototype for my Texas study. As I am new to the banjo any and everything is a tremendous help! I will keep y’all posted on my progress.

Justin, Robert McAlpin Williams, aka 3 Legged Willie, was Judge on Texas' first Supreme Court in 1836. He was a pretty interesting character and was known for his banjo playing and singing. Read more about him here:  http://tarlton.law.utexas.edu/justices/profile/view/116.

Thanks Chuck!

that is  key slice of information that would of taken forever to find. Yeah the colony of Steven Austin must of had a lot of personas familiar with the banjo and perhaps with great ability, as Williams shows, to play the instrument.  

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