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History of the Banjo in America


Listen to Old-Time Banjo music


History of the Banjo in America

The story of the banjo itself is a heritage of America and its people: from the black folk in bondage in the South to the forty-niners in the hills of California, from the top hat and tailcoat of Broadway, to the cowboys driving cattle from Texas to Wyoming, from the fraternities of Harvard and Yale in New England, to the cabin in the darkest hollow of the Appalachian Mountains, the banjo has been there, played by our people when our history was being made. The 5-string banjo is our American Heritage.

We all associate the 5-string banjo with songs from Oh! Susanna and Ring, Ring de Banjo, to Foggy Mountain Breakdown and The Beverly Hillbillies, but how did the banjo come to be our American heritage? The natural sound of the banjo is happy, joyous and exciting, but how did the banjo evolve? The banjo has had a big part in performing the popular music of the American people for two hundred years. It has developed from the simple round stick attached through a turtle shell with a groundhog hide and three horsehair strings into the "bluegrass powerhouse" that, as Little Roy Lewis says, "...will peel bark off a tree".

Almost all ancient societies have had some sort of instrument with a vellum stretched over a hollow chamber with string vibrations creating tones, but most research indicates that our American banjo was developed from an instrument the Africans played here which they called banzas, banjars, banias, bangoes. Africans, brought to the new world in bondage and not allowed to play drums, started making their banjars and banzas from a calabash gourd. With the top one third of the gourd cut off, they would cover the hole with a ground hog hide, a goat skin, or sometimes a cat skin. These skins were usually secured with copper tacks or nails. The attached wooden neck was fretless and usually held three or four strings. Some of the first strings used were made of horsehair from the tail, twisted and waxed like a bowstring. Other strings used were made of gut, twine, a hemp fiber, or whatever else was available.

To Americans of European descent, the banjo was a creation of the Africans. The instrument was an oddity and was denied respectability. It was, in fact, a musical outcast, lowlier than the fiddle which many "righteous people" knew was from the devil. According to a 1969 article in "The Iron Worker", a trade publication of the Lynchburg Foundry Co. of Lynchburg, VA, a young man named Joel Walker Sweeney, of Appomattox Court House, VA, learned to play a four- string gourd banjo at age 13, from the black men working on his father's farm. He also learned to play the fiddle, sing, dance, and imitate animal sounds. Until this time, all performances on the banjo seem to have been from black players. Joel started traveling through central Virginia in the early 1830's, playing his five-string banjo, singing, reciting, and imitating animals during county court sessions. At this time he also started blackening his face with the ash of burnt cork as was popular for performers to do. As he played his homemade banjo, which was probably made of a gourd, his popularity and fame grew, so he enlarged his territory, playing in halls, taverns, schools and churches. These performances seem to be the first time that the banjo had been performed in a show, and the novelty of his act charmed both Negro and white spectators. He soon became a star in a circus which toured Virginia and North Carolina for several years. He eventually performed on his banjo in New York City, and even toured England, Scotland, and Ireland performing for Queen Victoria in 1843. Sweeney's introduction of the 5-string banjo to England led to the rise in popularity of the banjo there which has continued to the present.

Facts are few and fables are many about Sweeney. One such story has him playing the banjo with his toes, the violin with his hands, and blowing a mouth harp simultaneously. Later, students of Sweeney showed that he had taught them to strike the string with the back of their fingernail and their thumb. This is still the African way of playing. Today, a simplified version of this style of playing is called "clawhammer" or "frailing", as well as many other regional names such as "knocking down", "old Kentucky knock", "thumb cockin", "rappin", "whammin", "flammin", etc.

It is thought by some, that at an early age Sweeney added the short thumb string to create the five-string banjo. Other evidence seems to indicate that Sweeney did not add the thumb string, but rather added the bass string to create the five-string banjo. The entire time that Joel Sweeney was touring and popularizing the five-string banjo, he was also teaching people to play it, among them, his brother Sam.

Around 1845 Joe Sweeney organized a minstrel troupe called "Old Joes Minstrels", using his younger brothers Sam on the banjo and Dick on the bass. He also used his cousin Bob Sweeney, a left handed fiddler, and some Negro dancers he knew from his area. Playing to thousands of people in their minstrel shows they became an overnight sensation. Joel Sweeney died of "dropsy" at Appomattox on October 29, 1860, at the age of 50. Sam Sweeney became the famous banjo player with General J.E.B. Stuart's headquarters staff in the Army of Northern Virginia. Sam died January 13, 1864, of smallpox. Billy Whitlock, another famous banjoist who learned from Joel in 1838 while traveling through Lynchburg, VA in a circus. He was the first to bring the banjo to New York City and was the talk of the town until Sweeney came to New York City in 1843. Whitlock was the banjo player who, with Dan Emmett, formed the Virginia Minstrels in 1843 to start the minstrel craze. Whitlock also taught Tom Briggs to play Banjo. Briggs went on to be one of the leading banjoist of the day and wrote the now famous, "Briggs Banjo Instructor". One other student was G. Swain Buckley, who became one of the most proficient five-string banjo players of that time. Buckley was the first professional banjoist to perform in San Francisco in 1852 with his family minstrel troupe, the famous Buckley's Serenaders.

The minstrel show had a very important part in the development of the five-string banjo. As a result of Joel Sweeneys success in touring with his banjo and teaching so many to play, other banjo players began to perform. The circus was a favorite venue for the banjo player, and minstrels carried the flavor of the circus into their minstrel shows. In 1840, the now famous Dan Emmett, who later wrote Dixies Land, Jordan Is A Hard Road to Travel, The Bluetail Fly, Old Dan Tucker , as well as many others, was working for the Cincinnati Circus Company as a drummer. While touring through West Virginia in the spring, he found a banjo player by the name of Ferguson. Emmett wanted to learn the banjo from Ferguson, so he persuaded the reluctant circus management to hire him. By the end of the 1840 season, Emmett had learned to play, and Ferguson was a star in the circus on the banjo.

During the first minstrel shows with Dan Emmett on fiddle and Billy Whitlock on banjo, as well as the shows put on by Joel Sweeney and his brother Sam, the audiences of minstrel music were introduced to the sound of the fiddle and the banjo together as a complimentary duo. In his 1878 autobiography, Billy Whitlock recalled that in Philadelphia in 1840, he played his banjo with a fiddler named Dick Myers. At that time, they performed a show using the fiddle and banjo only. He claimed to remember this novel idea for later use. This sound is still popular today in bluegrass and old-time music. Most people believe this is a sound from the mountains when, in fact, it was first heard on stage in Philadelphia and New York City in the early 1840s, and even earlier by the black musicians on the plantations, whose principal instruments were fiddle and banjo.

Emmett, Whitlock, and a few other boys were having an old time jam session together in the North American Hotel in New York City, when it occurred to them they had discovered something. As a result, they wrote a new chapter in Americas music tradition when they invented the minstrel show, using fiddle, banjo, bones, and tambourine, with dancing. They called their act "The Virginia Minstrels", and opened on February 6, 1843, at the Bowery Theater. They were an instant success, as they launched the minstrel show into the American heart for the next fifty years. Due to the immense popularity of the Virginia Minstrels, the nation was beset with "minstrel mania", with hundreds of professional and amateur minstrel troupes being formed over the next few years. The early bands usually consisted of banjo, fiddle, bones, and tambourine. Other instruments were added, but a minstrel band had to have a banjo and bones to be legitimate. Sometimes a band might have two or three banjos playing at the same time. As a result, hundreds of young men began learning to play banjo.

As a result of hundreds of minstrel troupes traveling by horse and wagon, stagecoach, train, and steamboat, the banjo was taken through the North, the South and out to the western frontier. Mark Twain is quoted as saying about the first minstrel show to play Hannibal, Missouri, in the 1840s, " In our village of Hannibal we had not heard of it (Negro Minstrelsy) before, and it burst upon us as a glad and stunning surprise". In addition, banjo players still performed in the circus, many times as clowns. The "Mabies Brothers Circus", touring between Wisconsin and Texas in the 1840s, used minstrel banjo players during the circus show, and afterwards performed a separate minstrel show for an additional admission fee, thereby doubling their income.

"Steamboats a-comin" was a familiar call from the 1840s through the 1890s. This was another major venue for the minstrel banjo player. Many minstrel troupes would work their way up and down the river. The banjos influence moved all the way to the western frontier, wherever riverboats and circuses traveled. Conversely, the four-string plectrum banjo players would have you to believe that the "Dixieland" style of banjo was played on riverboats. This is not true. Because of historical evidence, we know that the minstrel 5-string banjo was played on riverboats. Most of the riverboats were on the bottom of the river by the time the plectrum banjo was developed around 1910.

With the coming of the California Gold Rush in 1849, the banjo moved to the far west. As it traveled around the Horn and across the continent it became the most prolific musical instrument in the gold fields of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. In the Journals of Alfred Doten, he details how the clipper ship he was on in 1849 stops for supplies in Valpariso, Chile. He and others, including a "darkey band" (minstrel troupe) went a shore to have a party and serenade the senoritas with music from their banjos and fiddles. Doten, a banjo player himself, wrote, "One song in particular is heard everywhere and it is the most popular song of any yet, it is Oh! Susanna." This song by Stephen Foster became the anthem of the "forty niners" and took on a whole new set of words about the gold rush. Im sure old Steve didnt mind. It was one of the first four songs he wrote along with "Uncle Ned" for his quartet. After all, E.P. Christy had already cheated him out of it for five dollars and had assigned his own name to it as the writer. The professional minstrel troupes were close behind Doten to fill San Francisco and the gold fields with music. Despite the tours of professional minstrels, most of the banjo picking was in the gold fields by the music-hungry miners. In his journals, Doten speaks of many occasions where he plays banjo and fiddle all night.

The 1850s and 60s was the high water mark for the banjo in the minstrel show. As a result the popularity of the instrument spread to every corner of the nation and the frontier and even on to Australia. Banjo players competed for the opportunities to perform in the minstrel shows whether amateur or professional. The minstrel troupes with the best banjo player always got the best bookings. The competition by banjo players was intense and they became the heroes and dreams of young boys who literally ran away from home to join the minstrel show. The art of playing the banjo naturally increased in complexity even beyond what we perform today in the clawhammer or frailing style. As a result of all this competition it is only natural that someone should hold the first banjo contest. It was held in October, 1857 in a large hall in New York City. By all accounts it was a knock down, drag out contest with half the city in attendance, or not being able to get in and all shouting for their favorite banjo player.

The afore mentioned Tom Briggs who had been taught by Billy Whitlock was touted as the best banjo player of the day and traveled with the Christy Minstrels troupe to California to perform in San Francisco. Their route took them across the Gulf of Mexico, across the Istmus of Panama and up the west coast. Poor Tom caught the fever crossing the jungles of Panama and died shortly after arriving in port. As a result, his friend James Buckley published his almost finished banjo tutor. We still use this first banjo instructor manual as a standard in learning the minstrel style today.

During the Civil War, thousands of banjo players joined the army on both sides. As a result the banjo found its greatest growth as these banjo players taught others to play. A good example of this is seen in the movie "Andersonville" where Martin, the banjo player teaches one the new prisoner to play. (As a note of encouragement in learning to play, I built the two banjos used in this film and taught Ted Marcou who portrayed Martin to play in in only eight hours.) Every brigade and sometimes companies had their minstrel shows every night not to mention banjo players and fiddlers playing around the fire. A banjo was a prize find among the dead after a battle even if the finder could not play. He usually knew someone who could.

Banjos and fiddles, being the popular musical instruments of the day, moved west with the largest migration ever after the close of the war. Most of the men who became cowboys were from the South, because of reconstruction causing a lack of jobs. Many freed slaves who could not find work also moved west and became cowboys or "pony soldiers" in the United States Cavalry. Since music was such a major part of the recreation of the soldiers and slaves, many brought their banjos and fiddles with them, strapped to their saddle horns, remembering the songs they had known in the army or around the plantation.

The minstrel show, playing the popular music of the day, continued to be the biggest influence on the popularity of the banjo, not only in the West, but in the entire nation, as well as England and Australia. Of course, the most popular minstrel troupes, like Christys Minstrels, Buckleys Serenaders, The Congo Melodists and The Virginia Minstrels, to name a few, remained on Broadway in New York and other big Eastern cities where they reigned for fifty years. A few of them toured to San Francisco during the height of the Gold Rush, but they mostly stayed where the money was in the east coast cities. Lesser known minstrel troupes had to travel to lesser known towns and territories to make a living. Robert Webb points out that the minstrel bands were performing in Portland and Eugene, Oregon as early as 1856, and very frequently after 1869. These minstrel troupes were common in all of the railhead towns in Kansas, as well as the mining communities in Colorado and the Dakotas. Any town a cowboy might go that was large enough to have a theater or a population with money, he most likely would encounter the antics and songs of the black-faced minstrels. These minstrels bands traveled into the heartland of America, cris-crossing the continent, and playing in the desert Southwest regions before the Mexican War.

Noted banjo picker and historian of cowboy lore in the desert southwest, Greg Scott of Nogales, Arizona, told me, "Minstrel music was enormously popular in the mining camps and towns throughout the West." Even as the number of touring companies in the East declined, minstrel troupes remained a mainstay of entertainment in isolated farming, ranching and mining communities. Badger Clark, one of the earliest and finest cowboy poets, worked for the Kendall brothers in Arizona Territory near Tombstone. In addition to the cattle ranch, the Kendalls were noted semi-professional musicians who presented popular minstrel shows in Tombstone in the late 1800s".

In his book, "He Was Singing This Song", Jim Bob Tinsley mentions the fact that some cattle drovers actually hired singers or groups of singers to take part in the cattle drives. One such story involves a Kansas City cattle company by the name of Lang and Ryan who bought thirteen thousand head of cattle from eastern Oregon in 1882. To help keep the cattle quiet at night they hired an entire band of Negro minstrels to sing to the cattle on the long drive eastward to market. The term "Negro minstrel" does not mean they were Negros although they could have been. Minstrel bands were referred to as "Negro Minstrels", or "Darkey Bands", because they "blacked-up" their faces with burnt cork to appear as Negros. This band mentioned was probably either an eastern band stuck in Oregon and trying to get back East or a western band traveling East to try to make it in the big time. This story is a good illustration of the banjos presence on cattle drives, and the movement of the minstrels and their influence on the cowboys.

Don Blaylock of Cody, Wyoming, said his grandfather, Frank Casner along with his brothers, Jess, Porter and Claude, were all working cowboys. They all played banjo, fiddle and harmonica also. Frank, along with two of his brothers and his father, started out from Mills County, Texas in 1893, with eleven hundred head of cattle for the Indian reservation around Fort Benton, Montana. With his banjo thrown in the chuck wagon, Don said his grandfather played the banjo and sang from his horse while night herding around the cattle. From Ft. Benton they traveled to Corvallis, Oregon to drive another herd to their home range in Datil, New Mexico.

Somewhere, sometime, probably in the 1850s, some guitar player probably wanted to play banjo without learning to play the stroke style with the back of the fingernail. Apparently, he learned to pick the banjo European style with the thumb and the fingers picking up just as the guitar was picked. As a result, Frank Converse, a noted minstrel banjoist and technician, started perfecting this style and introduced it in his 1865 banjo instructor book. Together with another instruction book published in 1868 by previously noted minstrel banjoist James Buckley, the finger-picking style was taught and developed. Consequently, at the end of the Civil War there occurred a split in the playing style of the 5-string banjo. While the soldiers returning from the War brought back the banjo and the knowledge to play it, to the seclusion of the Appalachian Mountains and to the far West, people living in areas outside the mountains started turning to finger-picking, as a result of the availability of these banjo instruction books. The people of the mountains and far West were generally too isolated to acquire these books, and continued to play a simplified version of the stroke style on fretless banjos for their dances. Even though the stroke style persisted in the cities on the minstrel stage, it had mostly died out by the turn of the century. Again, because of their isolation, the cowboys, miners, and professional performers of the West also were slow in turning to the finger-picking style.

As a result of the finger-picking guitar style of playing, the banjo in the cities and outside the Appalachian Mountain region started moving away from the "crass" minstrel music to the more sophisticated classical style of music. Even though the guitar had been fretted since long before the development of the banjo, the banjo had always been, with few exceptions, fretless from the beginning. In the 1870s strips of wood or bone were installed flush in the fingerboards to represent where frets would be for those who were finger-picking up the neck in the higher positions. In his 1860s banjo tutor, "Buckleys New Banjo Book", Buckley describes how to install frets in a fingerboard and then notes, "The wire, made expressly for frets, can be obtained only of the publishers of this book". Around 1880, the first one to manufacturer banjos with frets was Henry Dobson, a famous banjoist from New York City and one of the famous Dobson brothers who were all involved in making or playing banjos. The idea of adding frets was to increase the accuracy of the notes when playing up the neck. Of course, the old stroke style banjo players shunned the frets as being unnecessary.

As finger-picking became more sophisticated in the 1880s, there was a definite effort to "legitimize" the banjo and make it a classical instrument like the violin of Europe. The feeling was that the banjo was a "feeble instrument", not able to be used in all keys and capable of only one, or at the most, two scales of music. As the banjo started to move in this direction, outside the mountains, it moved into high society and more ladies started to play. The new finger-picking style resulted in a change in banjo design from the deep, sonorous tone of the minstrel banjo, with its large twelve inch plus head, to a smaller diameter head, with the designs incorporating metal into the rims, tone-rings, and even casting the entire rim of metal. Outside of the famous S.S. Stewart banjos made in Philadelphia, and the Buckbee banjos made in New York, most of the new generation of banjos made in the 1880s and 1890s were made by ten or so banjo companies in the Boston area. The famous "Electric" and "Whyte Laydie" banjos built in the 1890s by the A.C. Fairbanks Co., that are so popular with todays clawhammer players, were actually designed for finger-picking. Their design was to satisfy the need for volume and tone with gut strings and a calfskin head.

In the 1880s and 90s, entertainment was not available in the home as it is today, so it was common to belong to a social club. These were clubs that would bring people together around a common interest such as poetry, railroads, rowing (boats), bicycling, theater, science and the like. At this time, there were countless numbers of banjo clubs all over the country and in the leading universities and colleges, all of which had their own banjo orchestras. Many of the clubs also presented banjo concerts hosting some of the leading banjoists of the day. The socially elite thought it fashionable to play banjo in these orchestras. The music consisted of anything from classical to marches to waltzes to rags and more. These orchestras were made up of the banjeaurine, a five-string banjo with a short neck and a 12 or 13 inch diameter rim. Tuned a fourth higher than a regular banjo, it played the lead. Next was the piccolo banjo with an 8 or 9 inch diameter rim and a short neck tuned an octave above a regular banjo. Although it looked like a miniature banjo for a child, it was used in the orchestra for the tenor harmony. The regular banjo was used for the baritone harmony. Many bands had a cello banjo with a 15 or 16 inch diameter head for the bass harmony. Sometimes guitars or mandolins were included to round out the sound. Also popular for the parlor was the "mandoline-banjo" built by August Pollmann of New York. It was simply a five-string banjo neck on a flat back mandolin body. Played like a banjo, it had a mellow, ringing mandolin tone.

In addition to these banjo orchestra concerts and the still popular minstrel show, there were some of the great banjo artists of the day that performed solo concerts unassisted, such as Alfred A. Farland, Fred Van Eps, Vess Ossman, and Fred Bacon. Imagine a lone banjoist in concert on a stage playing a banjo with a calfskin head and gut strings with no resonator and no amplification to an audience of 200 to 500 people. Some of these virtuosos performed concertos by Beethoven, Paganini, and Mendelssohn and would use piano accompaniment. Attempting this class of music for the student only exposed the limitations of the banjo and was discouraging. The flood of new popular music written for piano was in C notation and the lack of the banjo's technical characteristics helped this style of banjo playing suffer decline. In addition, the introduction of steel strings did not lend itself to finger-picking and the new jazz dance bands found popularity with the public.

In conclusion, evidence indicates that the clawhammer or frailing style of banjo that we hear today is a direct descendant of the style taught to Joel Sweeney by black banjo players in the 1820s. In the isolation of the Appalachian Mountains, as well as scattered individuals around the country, the old stroke style continued unchanged in anonymity through the years. In the same way, I think there is no argument that the bluegrass or three finger style banjo picking is also a direct descendant of the guitar style developed by Frank Converse, James Buckley, and others during the time of the Civil War.

Yes, the five-string banjo is our American heritage. As was stated, the banjo has been present through Americas history and has had a big part in performing the popular music of the American people for over two hundred years. The next time you are at a concert or a festival and hear that hot banjo break, remember, you are hearing the continuation of a two hundred year old story.

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