Info Origin and Early History of the Banjo

The banjo originated in West Africa in various forms, and was brought to America by African slaves. The earliest references to the banjo in America describe an instrument with a gourd body covered in hide or skin, a fretless neck, and strings. It was referred to by many names, including banjar, banjil, banza, bangoe, bangie, and banshaw. The word “banjo” either descends from the West African word “mbanza”, the Portuguese word “bandore,” or the Spanish word “bandurria.” There are more than 60 plucked string instruments resembling the banjo in West Africa, many of which probably influenced its development. The kora, ngoni, xalam, akonting, ubaw-akwala, and gimbri, are the West African instruments that most resemble the banjo. Below is a video of Ekona Diatta playing the akonting.

Early sources describe the banjo as being played mainly by slaves, but also the “lower classes,” which means it was probably picked up by white indentured servants who worked in close quarters with slaves in the 18th century.

The banjo rose to popularity in the 1830’s, largely because of its connection to minstrel shows. Blackface actors began appearing on stage in the late 18th century. Minstrel shows acted as a form of comedy, playing out common and new stories that depicted highly racist stereotypes of slaves. Minstrel characters were often joyful, carefree slaves, who loved servitude and lacked adult mental capabilities, a far cry from the brutal life that slaves actually experienced and the perseverance required to survive it.

Joel Sweeney, a minstrel musician who had learned to play banjo from African Americans in his hometown of Appomattox, Virginia, began incorporating the banjo in his minstrel shows around 1839. He is the earliest documented white banjo player and the earliest known person to have played banjo on the stage. As a member of the highly successful band “The Virginia Minstrels,” Sweeney popularized the banjo, making it into an instrument of the middle class and a key piece of the minstrel show. He also popularized replacing the banjo’s gourd body with the drum-like body commonly used in country music.

The early banjo-playing style had been a clawhammer stroke style created by African slaves. After the civil war, banjoists Frank Converse and James Buckley each released their own finger-picking banjo instruction books, which spread European finger-picking styles like those used on the guitar. The fretboard was also added in around this time. The isolated Appalachian mountains and far West maintained the older clawhammer styles, which resulted in two distinct banjo traditions in the U.S, one of which was much more influenced by classical finger-picking.

Though black banjo players continued to play throughout the 19th century, they would not be recognized until the 20th century. The 20th century banjo styles were also transformed by ragtime and blues. I will revisit 20th century banjo styles in a later post. Below are two videos. The first is one of the earliest recordings of banjo in 1902, depicting the finger-picking style taught in the Converse and Buckley manuals. The second is an example of Appalachian style clawhammer banjo, from Clarence Ashley in 1928.

Enjoy and feel free to chime in with your own thoughts and knowledge!