Say the word “banjo,” and the image that pops up in many people’s minds is a couple of toothless rednecks in dirty overhauls playing a banjo on their front porch. Despite its stereotype as a “hillbilly” instrument, the banjo’s history extends far beyond country music. It has traveled from African villages to slave quarters, from war camps to parlors, from bluegrass pickers to indie rockers. Here’s the story of this outcast instrument.
The banjo originated from a variety of West African instruments which were made by stretching strings over a gourd or drum. When large numbers of Africans were brought over to America as slaves, they brought with them their instruments. Over time, the various African string instruments developed into a proto-banjo, called by different names, including, banza, banshaw, banza, and bangoe. Up until the early 1800’s, the banjo was considered a slave instrument—Thomas Jefferson wrote, “The instrument proper to [the slaves] is the Banjar, which they brought hither from Africa.” Because most white Americans in the 1700’s and 1800’s believed that blacks were inferior human beings, the banjo was played primarily by African-Americans until around the 1830’s.
The banjo was co-opted by white American “minstrels” in the 1830’s. Minstrel performers were whites who dressed in blackface and performed burlesqued versions of black music. Joel Sweeney is often credited as the inventor of the minstrel style. He learned to play banjo from his father’s slaves and popularized the use of the five-string banjo and the “clawhammer” style of banjo playing, which uses the thumb and the nail of the forefinger to strum the strings. Although minstrel music expanded the banjo’s popularity, it also promoted racist stereotypes of African-Americans, and associated the banjo with low comedy instead of serious music.
Minstrel bands were popular all across the United States during the 1800’s before and after the Civil War, and since the banjo was easy to transport, it quickly spread all across America. Because of the lack of high-speed transportation and communication, many isolated communities in the U.S. developed their own regional styles of banjo playing. The first banjo contest was held in 1857 in New York City. With five contestants, each representing one of New York’s boroughs, the contest drew over 3,000 attendees. During the Civil War, the banjo was popular among soldiers on both sides because of it was small and lightweight. Sam Sweeney, the brother of Joel Sweeney, spent the entire Civil War playing banjo for Confederate general J.E.B. Stuart and his staff.
Even as the banjo continued to become more and more popular, it retained a reputation as a “low-class” instrument, probably due to its slave origins and associations with minstrelsy. After the Civil War, finger-style banjo playing, similar to classical guitar playing, replaced the clawhammer style in fashionable circles. This change shifted the banjo away from minstrel music, and made it into a “parlor instrument,” suitable for upper-class ladies to play. There were banjo clubs, banjo orchestras, and even banjo soloists who performed classical pieces with orchestra. As jazz music developed in the early twentieth century, the banjo became a rhythm staple of jazz bands. Gradually, however, guitars replaced banjos in jazz and pop music, and by the 1930’s the banjo had faded from national consciousness.
The banjo gained its Southern identity through bluegrass music. The banjo was a part of Southern string band music in the early 1900’s, but it was still associated with comedy rather than serious music. Bill Monroe’s bluegrass brought stringband music into the twentieth century by focusing on technical skill, high-speed playing, and a polished demeanor as opposed to “hillbilly” stereotypes. Despite this, Monroe’s first banjo player, Dave “Stringbean” Akeman, was stuck in the stringband mold—he played clawhammer style and was a comedian.
This was all changed, however, when Monroe brought a young banjo player named Earl Scruggs into his band. Scruggs revolutionized banjo playing the way Monroe had revolutionized the mandolin. Instead of the clawhammer style, Scruggs played using a combination of his thumb and first two fingers in a “rolling” manner. This technique, which was later called the “Scruggs Style,” is the sound most often associated with bluegrass banjo playing. Scruggs later left Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys to form a duo with guitarist Lester Flatt, but almost every bluegrass banjo player after him played in the Scruggs Style.
In the 1960’s and ’70’s, the banjo gained national exposure through movies and TV. Flatt and Scruggs had hits with the theme music to Petticoat Junction and The Beverly Hillbillies, and the song “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” from the movie Bonnie and Clyde, while the “Dueling Banjos” scene from Deliverance became iconic. Although these shows and movies made banjo music famous, they also promoted the stereotype of Southerners as backwards hayseeds. The phrase “Paddle faster: I hear banjo music,” loosely inspired by Deliverance, became a staple of convenience store T-shirts. It seemed that the banjo had once again fallen out of favor.
Fortunately, the banjo has enjoyed another renaissance. The revival of bluegrass and old-time country in the early 2000’s, spearheaded by the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, introduced many young people to the banjo without perpetuating Southern stereotypes. While bluegrass remains popular, many banjo players have expanded their repertoire into other genres. Bela Fleck, for example, blends bluegrass with jazz and experimental music, while Rhiannon Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, on the other hand, continues the tradition of African-American banjo playing. The smash popularity of the banjo-driven British indie band Mumford and Sons (who, it must be noted, borrowed heavily from North Carolina natives the Avett Brothers), helped make the banjo an essential element in indie rock and folk music. And many banjo players have saved the once-dead banjo music of the nineteenth and early twentieth century from undeserved obscurity. From pop to folk to jazz to bluegrass, the banjo has once more made a comeback. Paddle faster, indeed!
Hear Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt Perform “Foggy Mountain Breakdown”