Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

Hello everyone,  

I am writing to share a statement-of-purpose I co-wrote with Brooklyn-based researcher and banjo historian, Shlomo Pestcoe. As you know, we are part of a small community of researchers studying the early history and development of the banjo. We invite you to review the following statement to see how it aligns with your own knowledge, research, and experience.

Thanks, as always for your time and consideration,

Exploring the Banjo’s African American Origins & West African Heritage
By Shlomo Pestcoe and Greg C. Adams

The purpose of this statement is to clarify, demythologize, and problematize issues related to the early history and development of the banjo and its African American and multicultural heritage. While reflecting both academic and non-academic scholarship since the 1970s, the findings presented here are largely based on new research performed over the last ten years. Our hope is that this statement will attract other researchers to more deeply engage in banjo-focused lines of inquiry and systematic research to further this work and expand knowledge and understanding of these issues. Our thanks and appreciation to Robert Winans, Ulf Jägfors, Ed Britt, Kerry Blech, Tony Thomas, and Laurent Dubois for their feedback in our preparation of this statement.

BANJO ROOTS RESEARCH is the empirical study of early banjo history (ca. 1620-1870), its origins in the African Diaspora of the Americas, and its deep roots in West Africa, the wellspring of the banjo’s African heritage. Combining multidisciplined, multifaceted investigations of the historical record with cross-cultural explorations of living traditions, banjo roots research is part of the broader spectrum of banjo studies: banjology. In addition to tracing the “banjo genome” through its various “genetic markers,” we study the people who created and played these early instruments, the historic conditions and sociocultural matrices that resulted in their production, and their original performance contexts. A key element of this initiative is increasing knowledge of the many plucked spike lutes still found throughout West Africa today—over sixty culturally distinct traditions. The scholarly infrastructure of our work is founded on modern ethno-organology, a fusion of ethnomusicology (the study of music as culture, or, as Jeff Todd Titon calls it, “the study of people making music”) and organology (the study of the historical development, classification, technology, and use of instruments).

Born in the harsh crucible of slavery, the story of the banjo begins in the Caribbean Basin during the 17th century. At that time, reports first appear in the historical record of enslaved Africans and their descendents making and playing distinctive plucked spike lutes, which we now generally recognize as early gourd banjos. These instruments typically had 1) a drum-like body, made of gourd (Lagenaria siceraria) – or, on occasion, calabash (Crescentia cujete) – and topped with a taut animal hide soundtable; 2) a fretless ‘full-spike’ neck that extended the full length of the body to pass over or through its tail-end; and 3) a ‘floating’ (movable) bridge that sat on the soundtable to raise the strings. The best documented form of the early gourd banjo was a four-string instrument with three long strings and a top short “thumb string,” a feature that can be traced back to West Africa and which was passed down to its offspring, the wood-rimmed early 5-string banjo (ca. 1840-1880).

These lutes, exclusively attributed to black folk musicians, were known by a variety of names. For example:
  • Strum-strump (Jamaica, 1687, the first period account of early gourd banjos),
  • Bangil (Barbados, 1708; Jamaica, 1739 and 1740),
  • Banger (New York City, 1736, the earliest report of the banjo in North America),
  • Banjo (Pennsylvania, 1749; Maryland, St. Mary’s River [Georgia/Florida], and Virginia, 1774; North Carolina, 1787),
  • Banza (French Antilles, 1765),
  • Creole Bania (Suriname, 1773-77), and others.
Recent findings of ongoing research show that the early gourd banjo, while fundamentally West African in its design, was not an exact replica of any known African instrument. Rather, it embodied a synthesis of structural features from several West African traditions with a few innovations most likely inspired by Spanish and Portuguese plucked lutes encountered in the Caribbean, such as the vihuela de manoguitartiple, and cavaquinho. Instead of the sliding tuning rings used on all traditional West African spike lutes, the early gourd banjo had tuning pegs. In place of the typical West African round (cylindrical) stick neck, it had a flat fingerboard. Recognizing these distinctions, it is clear that the early gourd banjo was a folk instrument unique to the African Diaspora. As such, it was the product of creolization (also referred to as interculturation), the same innate “folk process” that combined diverse African and European influences and admixtures in a syncretic fusion to create all other forms and manifestations of early African American culture throughout the Americas.

In the United States, the banjo’s narrative continues with the early 5-string banjo, which grew out of professional blackface minstrel performances in the circus ring and on the popular theatre stage during the late 1830s and early 1840s. It was immediately exported to Britain, and, eventually, took its place on the world stage as a major popular instrument. The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw the development of the modern banjo family, which include the standard or regular 5-string banjo, the 4-string tenor banjo, the 4-string plectrum banjo, and banjo hybrids (e.g. banjo-guitarbanjo-mandolin and banjo-ukulele). Today these instruments are most commonly associated with American genres of music, such as folk, bluegrass, country, blues, and jazz. Yet, the banjo, in all of its various forms, has long been heard in contemporary popular music worldwide. It appears in local regional idioms of traditional vernacular music that range from mento (Jamaica), parang (Carriacou), and quelbe (St. Croix and the Virgin Islands) to amarg souss (Morocco), ceili/ceilidh (Ireland/Scotland), and faikava (Pule'anga 'o Tonga [The Kingdom of Tonga]).

For more information, please visit the following websites:
Banjo Roots MySpace Network (Hosted by Shlomo Pestcoe & Greg C. Adams)

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Looks great, Greg. I think that if you seperately speak about the two 4-string variants (tenor & plectrum), you should give mention to the 5-string variants such as the piccolo, banjeaurine, cello-banjo, etc. Alternatively one could simply leave out the specific instrument names: "...which include the 5-string banjo family, the 4-string banjo family and banjo hybrids..."

I would also include "ragtime" into your listing of music genre. It was, after all, the first music the world heard recorded on the banjo.

I'll be holding forth on the early history of the banjo at Jack Hatfield's "Smoky Mountain Banjo Academy" in a few weeks. I talk about this stuff and include your links in my bibliography. Too bad I couldn't make it to Suwannee, or I would be able to better speak about the Akonting, etc.

I did a 20 min standup history a few months ago and afterwards was buttonholed by a local man who had lived in Gambia as a missionary for a few years. He was enthusiastic and happy that I'd "gotten it right" in speaking about the region...all thanks to you, your lectures and websites!
Greg, the statement in and of itself is a great summary of banjo history. I am doing a presentation next year at a civilian conference on the banjo, and plan on referencing it, plus some of your other links. I really appreciate the work you are putting into this.
So, does that makes us all "banjologists"? Never been called one of those before... is it bad?!

It seems to me Greg's work is underlining the argument that the banjo has never had any earlier incarnation outside of the Americas, whether it was South America, the Caribbean or those Yanks up North, because of the unique cultural mixing that occurred during a time of expanding technological discoveries and global markets that involved slave labor. The banjo is yet another unique "American" creation in a long list of creolizations between African, European and Native American cultures. Greg's research becomes even more important when we consider who added what to the banjo and where and when they added it. Current literature leads us to believe banjo-like instruments were played solely by African-Americans until the 1830s, when Sweeney and Ferguson learned their banjo craft directly from Southern African-Americans (whether these African-Americans were free or not would be another interesting tidbit). Over time, the banjo, once synonymous with African-Americans, became overwhelmingly identified with mountain white music. Greg is trying to demystify this interesting tug-of-war from African-American to European-American cultural dominance and possession over the banjo. It all starts with counting strings, how they're attached, analyzing the shape of necks... ethno-organology, indeed. Who added what, where and how... and maybe if there is time (but unfortunately, the most desired answer), why did they do it?

I think connecting banjo's early American and African stories together cannot but greatly benefit the growing band of banjologists, here and around the world. Me, being a "geographer," see this work as integral in attempting to retrace either the diffusion or the invention of banjos across the American sphere.

What will you pull out of your banjo hat next, Greg? A pun?
Lucas Bowman said:
So, does that makes us all "banjologists"? Never been called one of those before...

You're a bangeographer!

Back when there was a SNACS, and a Scratch Atlas and all, this would have been a good "dottable data" project for some grad student under Milton Newton, Terry Jordan or one of those dudes. Can't say I've kept up with that field for, um, 25 or 30 years, or so. But I'm dimly aware that there is, or once was, a field.

Kindly old Dr. Bob signs messages "Banjovially." I don't know if other banjologists should. That might be trade mark infringement, or something.


Kindly old Dr. Dick

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