Hamilton College Library Online Exhibits

Banjo Facts: A Selected History

  • Banjo-like instruments have existed since the days of ancient Egypt [1]. The banjo itself seems to have come to the United States from West Africa via the West Indies, as Dena Epstein found a number of references to the instrument (names for it ranging from banza and banjer to strum-strum and merry-wang) from both regions in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries [2]. Michael Theodore Coolen identifies the xalam tradition of Africa's Senegambia region in particular as having many significant parallels to the banjo and the playing thereof [3].
  • A number of nineteenth and early twentieth century sources credited Joel Walker Sweeney (ca. 1810-1860) with either the invention of the banjo itself or the addition of a short drone string to the banjo. As demonstrated by scholars such as Epstein, however, a number of references to banjos pre-Sweeney are extant. Furthermore, some late-eighteenth century images of banjos or banjo-like instruments portray a short string [4]. William Tallmadge and Cecilia Conway support the theory that Sweeney did add a fifth string, just not the drone [5]. Conway believes it may have been the string tuned lower in pitch than the other four strings, in fourth position (the drone string being in fifth position) [6].
  • Early banjos were handmade, often out of any materials at hand. Frank Converse's first banjo (he began playing at fourteen [7], around 1851) was made with a neck of pine, rim of a flower sieve, and the drum attached to the rim with brass-headed tacks [8]. Earlier banjos were even cruder, having a gourd for the body [9]. In the 1840s and 1850s, however, making banjos became a craft in cities such as Baltimore and New York [10]. William Esperance Boucher, Jr. of Baltimore (1822-1899), for example, seems to have been a significant banjo craftsman [11].
  • The American banjo was initially a black folk instrument; it is not certain when whites began playing banjo. Joel Sweeney, however, was certainly one of the first white banjoists to bring the instrument to a wider audience. Sweeney was considered a famous banjoist by 1838 [12], and the solo blackface banjoist was a familiar character by the late 1830s or 1840s [13].
  • What really brought the banjo into the national consciousness, however, was the minstrel show, which craze began with the Virginia Minstrels' New York City performances in the winter of 1843 [14]. According to Robert Winans's study of minstrel programs in the first decade of minstrelsy (1843-1852) the banjo was "indispensable" to minstrel performances [15]. It was not only part of the "core ensemble" of instruments, but the most common instrument on which solos were performed [16].
  • The banjo and the minstrel music played on it anticipated a number of trends in American popular music. Early minstrel shows were rather rough and rowdy, with audiences of working-class men. Minstrel shows would become more refined, and some music of those shows sung by middle-class whites in parlors instead of on the stage. Like ragtime, jazz, rhythm and blues, and hip-hop, minstrel music was "cutting-edge music played in not so savory places" and the banjo "made the transition from music of the counterculture and black culture to music enjoyed by the white middle class" [17]. Aspects of early minstrel banjo music, in fact, influenced ragtime, jazz, and American dance music [18].
  • The first banjo instruction manual was published in 1848 by Elias Howe [19], though the instruction it provides is quite limited. Sarah Meredith observes that, though Howe's book is the earliest banjo tutor, it is Briggs' Banjo Instructor (1855) and the tutors which followed it that "present the banjo as an instrument requiring (and deserving) study" [20]. These kinds of books were intended for an amateur white audience [21].
  • Though Howe's book gives two tunings for the banjo, cFEGC and dGDF#A [22], most of the tutors in Hamilton's collection provide the eAEG#B tuning ("A tuning") that became standard in nineteenth-century America. In the 1880s or 1890s  the pitch of each string rose a minor third, to "C tuning" [23]. While English banjoists (who became interested in the banjo after seeing American minstrel groups tour their country) changed their notation to reflect the new tuning, Americans continued to publish music in A notation until 1909, when the American Guild of Banjoists, Mandolinists, and Guitarists voted to change banjo music to C notation [24].
  • Beginning in the late 1860s, some banjo players and makers began a movement which Karen Linn calls "elevation" [26]. They attempted to distance the banjo from its African roots, and some even asserted that Joel Walker Sweeney invented the banjo, "whitewashing" the banjo's history. The elevation movement manifested itself in a number of ways.
    • The physical banjo improved, as craftspeople experimented with banjos and patented their innovations. Manufacturers created very high-quality (and expensive) banjos that are as valuable for works of art as instruments to be played. These banjos were usually given names with superior-sounding adjectives like "Victor" or modern-sounding terms like "Electric" (neither the "Electric Banjo" nor "Electric Soap" was actually electric [27]).
    • The interest Sigismond Thalberg, a European concert pianist, showed in the banjo when he visited the United States in the late 1850s had inspired middle-class whites to see the banjo as more than just an instrument for blacks and blackface minstrels. Later Albert Baur observed, "There is a far better way of elevating an instrument than to play difficult music on it. Take it into good company, and keep it there. The more refined and intellectual the company the better it will be, and the longer and firmer hold it will take. The advance of the banjo began when it was taken up by the ladies, and by them introduced into the home circle. Before that it was heard most frequently in bar-rooms and out of the way places, with an occasional glimpse of it on the minstrel stage, coupled with a grotesque impersonation of a plantation negro" [28]. Lotta Crabtree, a comedian and actress, started a banjo fad with society women in New York, which spread throughout the Northeast. Manufacturers also targeted women, advertising "Ladies' Banjos" which were made on a smaller scale than usual.
    • In the 1880s and 1890s, banjo makers created different members of the banjo family such as bass banjo and piccolo banjo. Players formed banjo orchestras out of these family members as well as related instruments like mandolin and guitar. Most colleges had banjo orchestras (sometimes calling them "banjo clubs") by the 1890s [29]. Hamilton College was indeed one such college [30].
    • In the mid-1890s, Alfred A. Farland made a name for himself giving concerts on the banjo of classical European music such as Beethoven sonatas, and the overture to Rossini's William Tell [31].
  • The banjo craze, however, began to pass. By 1903, fervor for the banjo had faded enough that Frank Converse's obituary was titled "'The Father of the Banjo': Frank B. Converse Made That Instrument Popular but Lived to See Its Decline" [32]. By the 1920's, the five-string banjo was replaced by four-string banjos played in jazz bands, but made a come-back after World War II thanks to players such as Pete Seeger and Earl Scruggs [33]. Yet the American Banjo Fraternity keeps the classical banjo tradition of the late nineteenth century alive, over one hundred years later.

     [1] Jay Bailey, "Historical Origin and Stylistic Developments of the Five-String Banjo," The Journal of American Folklore 85, no. 335 (January-March, 1972): 58, accessed July 25, 2011, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/539129.

     [2] Dena J. Epstein, "The Folk Banjo: A Documentary History," Ethnomusicology 19, no. 3 (1975): 359-60, "Table of References to the Banjo in Chronological Order."

     [3] Michael Theodore Coolen, "Senegambian Archetypes for the American Folk Banjo," Western Folklore 43: no. 2 (April 1984): 117-132, accessed July 25, 2011, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1499864.

     [4] See, for example, The Old Plantation, a late eighteenth-century watercolor, and Musical Instruments of the African Negroes, an etching by William Blake, in John Gabriel Stedman's Narrative of a Five Years' Expedition, Against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam. Both images can be found in Leo G. Mazow's Picturing the Banjo (University Park: Pennsylvania State Univerity Press in association with the Palmer Museum of Art, 2005), 111, fig. 97 and 17, fig. 23. (Full bibliographical entry under References: Bibliography.) Dena Epstein believes that The Old Plantation shows an instrument called molo (Epstein, "Folk Banjo," 351, 354). A banja is found in the upper right corner of Musical Instruments of the African Negroes (Mazow, Picturing the Banjo, 17).

     [5] William Tallmadge, "The Folk Banjo and Clawhammer Performance Practice in the Upper South: A Study of Origins," in The Appalachian Experience: Proceedings of the Sixth Annual Appalachian Studies Conference, edited by Barry M. Buxton, 168-79 (Boone, NC: Appalachian Consortium, 1983), 171; Cecilia Conway, African Banjo Echoes in Appalachia: A Study of Folk Traditions, Publications of the American Folklore Society, New Series (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1995), 187.

     [6] Conway, African Banjo Echoes, 187.

     [7] "Frank B. Converse," New York Clipper, 1865, quoted in Frank B. Converse, "Banjo Reminiscences, I," The Cadenza, accessed July 18, 2011, http://thejoelhooks.com/Site/Instruction_&_Music_Collections_files/Converse_Reminiscences%201.pdf, 1. Since the Cadenza'spage numbers are not always visible in the scans of Converse's "Reminiscences," the page number I give is of the PDF document.

     [8] Frank B. Converse, "Banjo Reminiscences, III," The Cadenza, accessed July 18, 2011, http://thejoelhooks.com/Site/Instruction_&_Music_Collections_files/Converse_Reminiscences%201.pdf, 3. See n. 7 re: page number.

     [9] See, for example, Robert Lloyd Webb, Ring the Banjar! The Banjo in America from Folklore to Factory, 2nd ed. (Anaheim Hills, CA: Centerstream, 1984), plate 22. (Full bibliographic entry under References: Bibliography.)

     [10] Philip F. Gura and James F. Bollman, America's Instrument: The Banjo in the Nineteenth Century (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999), 47.

     [11] Ibid., 55.

     [12] Hans Nathan, Dan Emmett and the Rise of Early Negro Minstrelsy (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1962), 115.

     [13] Ibid., 59.

     [14] Bob Carlin, The Birth of the Banjo: Joel Walker Sweeney and Early Minstrelsy (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2007), 55, 63, 65.

     [15] Robert B. Winans, "Early Minstrel Show Music, 1843-1852," in Musical Theatre in America: Papers and Proceedings of the Conference on the Musical Theatre in America, edited by Glenn Loney, 71-97 (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1984), 71, 73, table 3.

     [16] Ibid., 73, 78, table 4.

     [17] Michael Schuman, "Musical Monarch: Museum at St. Louis Home of the 'King of Ragtime,' Scott Joplin, Tells Story of the Life of a Musical Pioneer," Times Union (Albany, NY), July 24, 2011. The quotes, applied to ragtime in the original article, are rather easily applied to the banjo and minstrel music. Though the use of blackface in minstrelsy complicates the issue, some consider blackface to have been prevalent in the other genres as well. Eric Lot, for example, believes Elvis Presley to have put on figurative blackface. Eric Lott, Love & Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 4.

     [18] Hans Nathan, "Early Banjo Tunes and American Syncopation," The Musical Quarterly 42, no. 4 (October 1956): 455-72, accessed July 26, 2011, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/740255, 468-71.

     [19] Gura and Bollman, America's Instrument, 266n55.

     [20] Sarah Meredith, "With a Banjo on her Knee: Gender, Race, Class, and the American Classical Banjo Tradition, 1880-1915" (PhD diss. Florida State University School of Music, 2003), 38.

     [21] Contrast these tutors: Elias Howe, [Gumbo Chaff, pseud.], The Complete Preceptor for the Banjo. Containing All Necessary Instruction, with a Large Collection of Music Adapted to the Instrument, Including Most of the Songs Sung by the Christy Minstrels (Boston: Oliver Ditson, 1851); Frank B. Converse, Frank B. Converse's Banjo Instructor, without a Master. Containing a Choice Collection of Banjo Solos, Jigs, Songs, Reels, Walk Arounds, etc., Progressively Arranged, and Plainly Explained; Enabling the Learner to Become a Proficient Banjoist without the Aid of a Teacher (New York: Dick & Fitzgerald, 1865). While Howe's book advertises itself in the title as a book of minstrel songs, the cover of Converse's book is illustrated with a light-skinned cherub. The advertisements in the (1851) Complete Preceptor are for a variety of other music books from the same publisher, from Ethiopian Flute Instructor to Mozart's Requiem. Without a Master, however, seems to have been published by a company that does not focus on music but produces a number of books aimed at the middle and upper classes such as "How to Shine in Society," "How to Amuse an Evening Party," and "The Art and Etiquette of Making Love: A Manual of Love, Courtship and Matrimony" (see back cover, inside front cover right).

     [22] Howe, Complete Preceptor, 3. The five letters correspond to the pitch of each string of the banjo, beginning with the fifth string. The lowercase letter distinguishes the short drone string from the other strings, and also signals that is andifferent octave above the pitch of the third string.

     [23] Herbert Ellis claims the raising of pitch is due to shorter banjo "handles" and thus shorter strings, while S. S. Stewart claims the banjo strings became thinner. Herbert J. Ellis, Ellis's Thorough School for the Five Stringed Banjo: Containing Popular Banjos, Songs &c. with Banjo Accompts: Full Size Diagram of the Fingerboard: Rudiments of Music: Easy Exercises Diagrams &c, Major & Minor Scales in All Keys: Instructions in All Styles of Playing, Together with a Fine Selection of Solos with Pianoforte Accompaniments Specially Arranged (London: John Alvey Turner, n.d.), 11; Stewart, S. S., The Complete American Banjo School: Part First, 36th ed. (Philadelphia: S. S. Stewart, c1887), 3.

     [24] Jay Scott Odell and Robert B. Winans, "Banjo," in Grove Music Online, Oxford Music Online, accessed July 26, 2011, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/01958, under "1. Structure."

     [25] George C. Dobson, Geo. C. Dobson's Simplified Method and Thorough School for the Banjo, Two Books in One, new and revised ed. (Boston: Ditson, c1874 [1879?]), 8.

     [26] Karen Linn, That Half-Barbaric Twang: The Banjo in American Popular Culture, Music in American Life (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1991), 5-6.

     [27] Ibid., 9.

     [28] Albert Baur, "Reminiscences of a Banjo Player, Seventh Letter," S. S. Stewart's Banjo and Guitar Journal 8, no. 6 (February-March, 1892): 5, accessed July 29, 2011, Sibley Music Library, http://hdl.handle.net/1802/2586.

     [29] Robert B. Winans and Elias J. Kaufman, "Minstrel and Classic Banjo: American and English Connections," American Music 12, no. 1 (Spring 1994): 15.

     [30] Hamilton's banjo club appears on a program with the glee club in "Our Musical Organizations," The Hamilton Literary Monthly 23, no. 1 (1888-1889): 291, Google Books, accessed September 15, 2011.The Half-Century Annalist Letters of 1891, 1892, 1895, and 1904 all recall the banjo club as well.

     [31] Karen Elizabeth Linn, "The 'Elevation' of the Banjo in Late Nineteenth-Century America," American Music 8, no. 4 (Winter 1990): 450.

     [32] "'The Father of the Banjo': Frank B. Converse Made That Instrument Popular but Lived to See Its Decline," Broad Axe (Chicago, IL), October 24, 1903, accessed June 4, 2011, America's Historical Newspapers.

     [33] Jay Scott Odell and Robert B. Winans, "Banjo," in Grove Music Online, Oxford Music Online, accessed July 26, 2011, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/01958.

Banjo Facts: A Selected History