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Gourd Banjo / Wood-Rimmed Banjo

Creator
West Africans
Enslaved Africans
White Minstrelsy Entertainers
Date(s)
1740-1880

When West Africans were enslaved and transported to the United States, they maintained, revised, and adapted many past cultural relics in response to their cultural surroundings in the U.S. One such relic is the banjo. Though often stereotyped as an American instrument with its roots in rural Appalachia, the banjo’s story actually begins in Africa. Reports about the existence of a ‘protobanjo’ in West Africa exist as early as 1621, and the first description of a banjo made out of a gourd in the United States shows up in Maryland in 1740.

The gourd was used as a sound chamber, so that when it was covered with animal skin, the vibrations of the skin would be amplified within the gourd. A fretless, wooden neck was connected to the sound chamber and the animal skin, and any number between one and six strings made out of cat gut or vine were strung across the instrument. Enslaved Africans played by thumping, or striking the top string with the right hand and playing the rest in a downward sawing motion. While many laws and white masters denied enslaved Africans the ability to construct and play instruments, many white people enjoyed hearing enslaved people play the banjo, which allowed enslaved people to both entertain and subtly mock white people while entertaining and amusing others and themselves. Thus, banjo playing became a means of resistance and a reaffirmation of one’s historical and cultural values.

Though the banjo’s association with enslaved people placed it on the lower rungs of the social hierarchy., white people fascinated by the banjo began to play the instrument and perform in blackface at minstrel shows as early as the 1840s. By the 1850s, the gourd banjo had been replaced by the wood rimmed banjo, and white banjo enthusiasts began to advocate for the instrument’s “elite” status. While enslaved Africans played fretless gourd banjos and learned songs by ear, white banjoists began to notate songs and publish playing instructions. They continued to campaign for the banjo’s “elite instrument status” by associating it with white people and the acoustic guitar—at that time, the instrument of the middle class— with black people. Simultaneously, the banjo became more ‘guitar-like.’ New banjos were outfitted with frets, and a new practice of up-picking (like one might on the guitar) was associated with proper performance. Thus, the wood-rimmed, fretted banjo became the popular instrument of the middle class by the end of the 19th Century.

Sources

Conway, Cecilia. African Banjo Echoes: A Study of Folk Traditions. Edited by Patrick B. Mullen, Knoxville, U of Tennessee P, 1995. American Folklore Society, New Series.
Noonan, David. Guitar in America: Victorian Era to Jazz Age. Jackson, U P of Mississippi, 2008. ProQuest Ebook Central, ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/nyulibrary-ebooks/detail.action? docID=515633#.
Epstein, Dena J., Jr., and Rosita M. Sands."Secular Folk Music." 2015. African American Music, edited by M. Burnim and P. Maultsby, New York, Routledge, 2015, pp. 34-49.

Images
Gourd Banjo. 10 June 2015. Old Time Party: An Archive of Mostly Southern American Vernacular Music, oldtimeparty.files.wordpress.com/2015/06/ 575a32b4-86d8-4107-9fca-cc726ee3f33f.jpg.
Stewart Five-String Banjo. National Museum of American History, Smithsonian, ids.si.edu/ids/viewTile/A/d75/d7546ce4f59925dc46ddbb0b42567311_files/10/1_1.jpg.

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