I have been studying the history of the banjo and its importance to American musical culture for 40 years. Over the course of this time it has led me on a journey. This instrument is often referred to as the only, true, American instrument. Its music is entwined with the development of American musical genres from Stephen Foster, to Minstrelsy, to Ragtime, to Dixieland, Jazz, Blues, and Folk.

The banjo is the ancestor of the West African instrument called the Akonting. This consists of a skin covered gourd and a long handle with three or four long strings and a short, “chanter”. The short string is what gives the instrument its syncopated rhythm. This is still in use in African today by traveling musicians. In Gambia, the scholar/musician Daniel Jatta has established the Akonting Center for Folk Music Research. Daniel is a fascinating man and one day we hope to bring him to town for a real showing of African music.

The earliest form of the banjo was played by enslaved people in the Americas as early as the 17th Century and this music was their only connection to their homeland. By 1840 the gourd rim was replaced by wooden, drum like body and the neck was given a more modern feel. Joel Sweeney, a white minstrel, is often credited with adding the fifth string but research now shows us the the string he added was really another bass string and the short, “chanter” string is really true to its African ancestors.

Over the years the banjo has sometimes been looked upon in a negative light because of stereotypical images of black faced banjo players, or minstrels. These images can conjure hurtful thoughts of slavery, caricatures, bigotry and racism and not without reason. A look back in history can shed light on this time period and recognize it as the birthplace of popular music which finds its source in the songs of Scotch/Irish settlers and syncopated rhythm and musical ideas of the African tradition.

Minstrelsy evolved in America from existing social trends in the early part of the 19th century.There was a tradition called “shivaree”, a celebratory event found throughout Europe and black West Indian cultures. This was an event much like Halloween in which people paraded through the streets begged for gifts, creating a raucous event turning the world upside down. The tradition followed a set script with a cast of characters including a king, a doctor (or shaman) and their cohorts with “painted” faces... black or white.

At this same time in American history those of the working class found themselves alienated through the advent of industrialization. Gone were the days of the craftsman and apprentice, replaced by a market flooded with unskilled, uneducated and impoverished laborers. The lowest of this stratum were the African-Americans and the newly immigrated Irish. These two groups were often thrown together frequenting the same taverns and vying for the same measly crumbs that fell from the tables of the wealthy. These groups both had musical traditions and often ridiculed each other. Eventually, though, a trade off seeped across the boundaries with Africans imitating the traditional Irish dance and Irish musicians syncopating their tunes to poke fun at the African tradition. After the completion of the Erie canal these groups congregated in New York City, unemployed, often working the streets as buskers playing banjo and fiddle.The musical form of entertainment called minstrelsy evolved from these street performers.

Thomas Rice, one of the early organizers of minstrel troops took stock characters from both European and African tradition. One was the “trickster” who could make people laugh through his bungling and eventual cleverness that kept him from disaster. Across cultures that “trickster” was given a name: in England, “Punch”, in the Muslim world, “Haji Baba”, in Spanish “Juan Babo”. In the Western African culture of the Yoruba he was a black bird, a crow named “Jim”. This was in 1830 long before the name Jim Crow became a pejorative term to oppress Africans. A second stock character was the creation of a biracial Virginian named George Dixon. His character was named “Zip Coon” and often in contrast to “Jim Crow” was a city slicker caught up in his own schemes.

These characters formed the early basis of the minstrel show which played to sell out crowds in New York City music halls. The shows usually followed a three part format with a semi circle of musicians playing as the curtain rose. There was a master of ceremonies, “Mr. Interlocutor” in the center and a banjo player and violin player on the far ends. The dress was a gaudy travesty of ruffled garb. The music and the content was a mostly mockery of “high society” and the politicians of the day though it was not uncommon to parody Shakespeare as well as Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Characters wore a charcoal rubbing made from burnt cork to blacken their faces and deep red coloring around their lips in a highly exaggerated caricature which was used by both black and white performers. There was a “no holds barred” attitude and ridicule was poked at abolitionists, slaveholders, feminists and health quacks. This was followed by a musical and vocal medleys like an early version of the Grand Ole Opry. Many verses of a popular tune, such as “I Wish I were in Dixie” were played and sung to leave the crowd with joyful enthusiasm. Incidentally, this tune was written by Daniel Emmett, an avowed abolitionist whose father helped found the Underground Railroad. It was a favorite of Abraham Lincoln who had it played at his inauguration.

These performances were played before packed houses of black, white and yellow audiences. The garb, the dialect and the content were written to poke fun at all ethnic groups and most of all, to fill the concert hall. The shows were found to be revolting by dignitaries across the lines of contemporary society. Frederick Douglas condemned the performers as filthy scum of white society who have stolen from the black man in order to make money; slaveholders blasted the genre as sympathetic to runnaways and to abolitionist like Emmett who championed them; Unionist found them divisive as they depicted happy slaves and Southerners called minstrelsy a Yankee plot to subvert their way of life; Liberals claimed they slandered the working class; Conservatives found them disrespectful of social institutions; Integrationist claimed they made a mockery of African-Americans and Segregationist claimed they fostered the mingling of races. Yet its popularity endeared the masses and packed the show halls until it was finally replaced by Vaudeville.

In conclusion, we must acknowledge that what seems offensive to us in our 21st Century perspective was actually a money making venture for black and white lower class people. Upon further examination, the real travesty is not giving credit to those African American musicians/banjo players who laid the ground work for all future popular American music.

To quote black scholar Dr. Tony Thomas:

“After the Civil War, Black minstrel companies offered real African American music, not pale imitations, eclipsing the white minstrels’ popularity by 1900. African American banjo syncopation helped inspire ragtime, a combination of folk, popular, and art music born in the Black Midwest that became internationally popular in the 1890s and 1900s. Scott Joplin, the great ragtime composer, dedicated compositions to Black banjoists. More ragtime banjo records than piano records appeared in the early 1900s. As banjo playing became a vital part of turn of the century popular music, Black Banjoists like Horace Weston, the Bohee Brothers, Hosea Eason, and James Bland became international stars. Black banjo playing probably reached its height before World War I. Black banjoists swung old time dances and starred in shows from London to Broadway.”


Bollman, James and Gura, Philip. America’s Instrument: The Banjo in the 19th Century. The University of North Carolina: Chapel Hill, NC USA. 1999

Cockrell, Dale. Demons of Disorder: Early Blackface Minstrels and their World. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University. 1997

Conway, Cecelia. African Banjo Echoes in Appalachia: A Study of Folk Traditions. The University of Tennessee Press: Knoxville, TN USA. 1995

Epstein, Dena. Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War. University of Illinois Press: Chicago, IL USA. 2003.

Linn, Karen. That Half Barbaric Twang: The Banjo in AMerican Popular Culture. The University of Illinois Press: Urbana, Illinois, USA. 1994

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

Sweet, Frank W. The History of the Minstrel Show. Backintyme Publications. Palm Coast FL. USA. 2000.