Classic Banjo

The early origins of the instrument, now known as the banjo, are obscure. That its precursors came from Africa to America, probably by the West Indies, is by now well established. Yet, the multitude of African peoples, languages, and music make it very difficult to associate the banjo with any specific African protoype. From various historical references, however, it can be deduced that the banjar, or bangie, or banjer, or banza, or banjo was played in early 17th century America by Africans in slavery who constructed their instruments from gourds, wood, and tanned skins, using hemp or gut for strings. This prototype was eventually to lead to the evolution of the modern banjo in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Until 1800 the banjo remained essentially a black instrument, although at times there was considerable interaction between whites and blacks in enjoying music and dance?whites usually participating as observers. What brought the instrument to the attention of the nation, however, was a grotesque representation of black culture by white performers in minstrel shows.

Minstrel shows usually had a banjo player (in addition to fiddle, tambourine and bones), whose approach to the instrument was usually to strum the strings with the nails of the right hand using a sharp downward motion, creating a somewhat wild, violent sound. This style of banjo playing was referred to as stroke style; and was similar to how slaves are believed to have been playing at the time.

In the mid-1860s, a new style of banjo playing was developed, largely as a reaction to the minstrel’s way of playing. Known as guitar style, because it was similar to the more refined guitar playing techniques of the period, it required that the player pick the strings with the thumb and first two fingers of the right hand. This approach created a more melodious and legato sound than stroke style. In the following 20 years, guitar-style banjo (also known as finger-style, or classic) gained immense popularity in the United States and England, especially in sophisticated, urban white society. Composers and performers sought to transform the banjo from an instrument associated with blacks and minstrels to one which was fit for middle and upper-class men and women.

The most outspoken leader of this musical movement was Samuel Swain Stewart (1855-1898), an instrument maker and music publisher from Philadelphia. In addition to making some of the finest banjos of the time, Stewart published a great deal of material dedicated to elevating the stature of the banjo in American society. His pulpits were his catalogs, his magazine, Stewart’s Banjo and Guitar Journal, and various articles published throughout his lifetime, such as “The Banjo Philosophically, Its Construction, Its Capabilities, Its Evolution, Its Place as a Musical Instrument, Its Possibilities and Its Future.”

In Stewart’s mind, there was no reason at all why the banjo couldn’t be received by musical society with the same respect as the violin or piano. (In his zeal to improve the banjo’s status, Stewart, and many others in the industry, even adopted new spellings, such as the singular banjeau or plural banjeaux.) He worked tirelessly to prove that superior music could and should be played on the banjo, and he sponsored the careers of several banjoists of the time (Horace Weston, George Gregory, Alfred A. Farland and Thomas Armstrong, for example) who promoted his instruments and ideals.

Stewart also insisted that if the banjo was to be taken seriously, its players must know how to read music. Reading from a score helped distance the modern banjo player from the coarse minstrel banjoist, who played strictly by ear.

By the mid-1880s America and England were in the midst of a banjo craze: thousands of pieces for the banjo had been published, from simple marches and dances to arrangements of operatic overtures. Highly paid soloists toured extensively, performing original compositions, popular music of the day and transcriptions of music by Handel, Schumann and Mendelssohn. Banjo teachers were readily available in every city, each professing to teach the true method of playing the banjo.

Many of the students received by these teachers were young women seeking to improve their status in society. Banjo ensembles, ranging from duos and trios to large orchestras containing a variety of banjo hybrids mixed with mandolins and guitars, sprang up everywhere, especially on college campuses.

The popularity of finger-style banjo eventually faded. Shortly before the onset of World War I, it was eclipsed by a new music style, jazz. Dance bands had become popular, and the five-string banjo could not supply the rhythm or volume needed for this style of music. The newly popular four-string tenor and plectrum banjos, played with a flat pick, soon took the place of five-string banjos in the hands and hearts of the public.

Resources:

Epstein, Dena J. Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977

Holmes, Mike I. “John C. Haynes Company”, in Mugwumps v. 4, # ?, 1975

Kaufman, Eli. “S. S. Stewart Banjos.” in Mugwumps, v.2 #3, 1973

Linn, Karen. That Half-Barbaric Twang, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991

Nathan, Hans. Dan Emmett and the Rise of Early Negro Minstrelsy. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1962

Sandberg, Larry. Complete Banjo Repair. New York: Oak Publications, 1979