A Bit of Black History:
The African Origin of the Banjo
By Vincent Carroll
The Denver Post 12/13/2013
It’s been a month of news about race, racial epithets and racial
heroes — from the sublime in Nelson Mandela to the ridiculous in Richie
Incognito and Jonathan Martin.
Mandela’s death reminds us that the overthrow of institutional white
supremacy, whether in its Jim Crow or apartheid forms, was one of the
towering achievements of the 20th century.
The Incognito fiasco cautions us that even after decades of incessant
warnings about the malignant power of speech rooted in bigotry, some
people still don’t appreciate that the N-word is best avoided — whatever
Now, race can be a tiresome subject for some whites, especially when
it is used to leverage social advantage or to silence political
adversaries under the guise of perceived slights. But race will never be
something we entirely leave behind. It’s so central to our history —
even odd strands of history most of us rarely have reason to notice.
That reality was brought home to me with special force some months
ago when I began dabbling in 19th century banjo music — I’ve been
playing the instrument for several years — and particularly the
repertoire of the early minstrels. Anyone who doubts the full ugly
history of the N-word and its message of condescension or contempt need
only cast an eye over the playbills and broadsides for minstrel shows,
or the sheet music of the time. The word is scattered liberally
throughout, as are caricatures of plantation life and black dialect and
White entertainers even performed in blackface, with the disturbing images captured in some cases by early photographers.
As Philip F. Gura and James F. Bollman write in “America’s
instrument: The Banjo in the Nineteenth Century,” many minstrels “were
recent Irish immigrants who melded the music of their home with the
music of the plantation South.”
“Such exaggerated clothing and overall appearance,” the authors
explain, “characterized minstrel shows on both sides of the Atlantic and
presumably allowed working class whites to think of themselves as
superior to the African Americans against whom they often competed for
jobs, particularly in the urban Northeast.”
The banjo may be distinctively American, but its origins go back to
the lute-like instruments of West Africa that were brought to the
Western Hemisphere in the slave trade. In America, these folk
instruments typically were made with gourds.
“The instrument proper to the [slaves] is the Banjar, which they brought hither from Africa,” wrote Thomas Jefferson in 1781.
Whites like Virginia’s Joel Walker Sweeney mastered and refined the
instrument in the 1830s and 1840s, and its popularity took off.
“Sweeney somehow offered a connection to the instrument that
African-Americans, denied access to public venues such as theaters and
circuses, had been previously unable to provide the greater public,”
writes Bob Carlin (a great banjoist in his own right) in “The Birth of
“From our vantage point 150 years later, it is impossible to
know whether it was his interpretations of black playing styles, the
sonic improvements made by himself or others to his instrument, his
charismatic stage presence, or simply his white skin that sold America
on the banjo.”
Eventually the banjo moved into the mainstream, performers dropped
the blackface and the African influence receded in public memory.
So why play early banjo music at all given its baggage? Because
they’re great tunes, because the past is never as pretty as we might
like, and because it’s important to remember the instrument’s origins.
When the old-time string band Carolina Chocolate Drops played at
Denver Botanic Gardens last summer, it confronted the blackface
phenomenon head-on, but that didn’t stop the black group from playing
“Briggs Corn Shucking Jig” and “Camptown Hornpipe,” right out of the
early minstrel playbook.
Perhaps the band realizes that knowledge of the past is not an
invitation to racism; if you’ve got any sort of moral compass, such
knowledge should inoculate you against it.