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Origins of the Banjo

mactheturk 18 Jun 00 - 10:32 AM
RichM 18 Jun 00 - 10:41 AM
mactheturk 18 Jun 00 - 10:53 AM
Jon Freeman 18 Jun 00 - 10:55 AM
Jeri 18 Jun 00 - 11:19 AM
Noreen 18 Jun 00 - 11:28 AM
Jon Freeman 18 Jun 00 - 11:33 AM
RichM 18 Jun 00 - 04:43 PM
Rollo 18 Jun 00 - 07:49 PM
McGrath of Harlow 18 Jun 00 - 09:02 PM
Mark Clark 18 Jun 00 - 09:03 PM
Crowhugger 19 Jun 00 - 02:53 AM
Brian Hoskin 19 Jun 00 - 07:24 AM
GUEST,The Invisible Blazoona 19 Jun 00 - 10:11 AM
Uncle_DaveO 19 Jun 00 - 11:51 AM
Songster Bob 19 Jun 00 - 12:06 PM
Frankham 19 Jun 00 - 01:18 PM
GUEST,Banjo Johnny 19 Jun 00 - 02:10 PM
Songster Bob 19 Jun 00 - 03:43 PM
Jon Freeman 19 Jun 00 - 05:47 PM
honestfrankie 19 Jun 00 - 06:44 PM
LDave 19 Jun 00 - 08:56 PM
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Subject: Origins of the Banjo
From: mactheturk
Date: 18 Jun 00 - 10:32 AM

Does anyone know about the history of the Banjo? Is it Celtic in origin or did it come from Africa or Asia?

I doubt that it is an American original though.

Does the banjo have it's roots in jazz or bluegrass?

Would appreciate any info.

Thanks, Mac


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Subject: RE: Origins of the Banjo
From: RichM
Date: 18 Jun 00 - 10:41 AM

West Africa, I thought. Came to the USA with slaves. I seem to recall reading about something called a "banjar" (?)


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Subject: RE: Origins of the Banjo
From: mactheturk
Date: 18 Jun 00 - 10:53 AM

That is interesting and makes me wonder if the banjo migrated through "ragtime" an "jazz" paths before reaching the Tennessee and the Carolinas.

MP


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Subject: RE: Origins of the Banjo
From: Jon Freeman
Date: 18 Jun 00 - 10:55 AM

I had a short article on this but I can't find it. From memory, as RichM has said it arrived in the US with slaves and the 5 sting banjo's existed long before the 4 string banjos. I can't rmemer when frets were introduced but that was a later development. More changes occured when steel string's came into being and interest in plectrum styles of playing came about and I think this resulted in the 4 string models being produced.

The tenor banjo which is the most commonly used in celtic music and is popluar in jazz came into being around 1915. I think blue grass has it's own history and starts with Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs sort of defined the bluegrass banjo and the required sound with a Gibson Mastertone.

Jon


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Subject: RE: Origins of the Banjo
From: Jeri
Date: 18 Jun 00 - 11:19 AM

My understanding is that the banjo was created in the US by slaves, based on gourd instruments they were familiar with. I believe it's the only stringed instrument that originated (identifiable as a banjo as opposed to a 5-string "something-else") in the US. The ideas came from Africa, but the instrument first came into being here.


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Subject: RE: Origins of the Banjo
From: Noreen
Date: 18 Jun 00 - 11:28 AM

Some information here with links to other pages.
--Noreen


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Subject: RE: Origins of the Banjo
From: Jon Freeman
Date: 18 Jun 00 - 11:33 AM

Thanks Noreen, that was the article I was looking for - I have the book somewhere in my chaos.

Jon


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Subject: RE: Origins of the Banjo
From: RichM
Date: 18 Jun 00 - 04:43 PM

I checked my now-40 odd year old copy of the 3rd edition (1961) of Pete Seeger's "How to play the 5-String Banjo".

Here's some more information to my initial sketchy offering.

"Negro slaves brought the first banjoes over here: before that the origin is disputed. Possibly the ARabs brought it to the African west coast: possibly the Arabs themselve picked it up from civilizations further east.

Other information offered in this book:

Footnotes to History:

Thomas Jefferson in his "Notes on Virginia" (176?) mentions the "banjar " as being the chief instrument of American Negroes.

2) The instrument is mainly known in Africa in the northern half, the area of Moslem influence.

3)Thoughout all of the Near East and Far East instruments klike the banjo are common. While they might have independently developed on two continents, one is tempted to believe that there was some direct conneciton. Two instruments in India have short strings played by the thumb, just like the banjo. On is the sitar (cousin of the guitar) and the other is know as the sarod- and has a drumskin head! Archeologists tell that the ancient Egyptians had orchestras of 600 instruments, and some of them were plucked and had skin-topped sounding boxes. Who learned what and with which and from whom? We will probably never know the exact prehistory of the instrument. "


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Subject: RE: Origins of the Banjo
From: Rollo
Date: 18 Jun 00 - 07:49 PM

I read somewhere that the five string banjo was invented by steven c. foster.


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Subject: RE: Origins of the Banjo
From: McGrath of Harlow
Date: 18 Jun 00 - 09:02 PM

I sometimes wonder whether the Chinese coming in to work on the railways and so forth mightn't have had some contribution to the banjo.

There are a couple of instruments which have a degree of resemblance to the banjo - see this page for more details, including pictures.

One is the Sanxian:
It actually originated in China and evolved into what it is today during the 13th century, which is when it became known as the sanxian. It uses a long fretless fingerboard. It has a small body and is covered on both sides with snake skin. It is played with a pick, placed on the lap and has three strings. this instrument is also known as the samsien in Japan. That sounds a lot like a description of an early banjo, though the look and tye sound are pretty different.

And the other is the Ruan or Moon Guitar, which, with it's circular body, looks quite like a banjo.

I get this vision of two guys on the railroad, one from China, one from Africa, swopping ideas for this great new musical instrument.


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Subject: RE: Origins of the Banjo
From: Mark Clark
Date: 18 Jun 00 - 09:03 PM

Hey, thanks Noreen and Jon. I had no idea the banjo had any history in Ireland prior to the folk revival of the 50's and 60's. I somehow assumed that Irish players started including the banjo about the same time that many other music forms started incorporating the sound.

      - Mark


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Subject: RE: Origins of the Banjo
From: Crowhugger
Date: 19 Jun 00 - 02:53 AM

re: the notion that such a simple instrument couldn't evolve in different cultures without contact...

Drums are everywhere; some sort of strap to carry it when all the goatskin bags are full of [enter culturally-normal starch here] and it's not much of a leap for my imagination to see many people in many different places using what they have to fool around a bit more with their strap going thwank on the drum once they get where they're going.

CH.


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Subject: RE: Origins of the Banjo
From: Brian Hoskin
Date: 19 Jun 00 - 07:24 AM

Check out Karen Linn's book 'That Half-Barbaric Twang: The Banjo in American Popular Culture' (1991, University of Illinois Press).


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Subject: RE: Origins of the Banjo
From: GUEST,The Invisible Blazoona
Date: 19 Jun 00 - 10:11 AM

There is an excellent history of the banjo at http://www.trussel.com/bti/banjhist.htm


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Subject: RE: Origins of the Banjo
From: Uncle_DaveO
Date: 19 Jun 00 - 11:51 AM

For those REALLY interested in the history of the banjo, I have to recommend a great book called America's Instrument, substitled The Banjo in the Nineteenth Century, by Philip F. Gura and James F. Bollman. 300 pages, about 8-1/2 by 12 or 13. Lots of gorgeous color plates of banjos, and b&w's of old posters and other illustrations.

No, Rollo, Stephen Foster did not invent the five-string. A fellow named Joel Sweeney is often erroneously credited with having added the thumb string, but what he added was the fourth string; previously the usual form of banjo had been three long strings and a short thumbstring. This would have been in the 1850s or thereabouts.

The banjo is what's technically classed as a membranophone, referring to the skin (or plastic) head. It also is grouped as a member of the lute family, the word "lute" here being a much wider concept than what we usually refer to by that name, the European lute.

DAve Oesterreich


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Subject: RE: Origins of the Banjo
From: Songster Bob
Date: 19 Jun 00 - 12:06 PM

I don't know what the links mentioned above say about this, but I'll address the style of music played on the banjo anyway.

The earliest use of the banjo in mainstream America (i.e., white America) came about in the first half of the 19th Century, and coalesced in the minstrel shows, invented in the 1830s by Dan Emmett and three friends. (Dan Emmett wrote "Old Dan Tucker," which is a quintessential banjo piece, for example.) The Minstrel Show featured four instruments: fiddle, banjo, tambourine and bones, and revolutionized American popular music. Minstrel troupes grew, everybody took up the catchy tunes (sung in slave dialect originally, but not always when sung by the man on the street), and the fiddle-banjo combination passed over into white usage, particularly in the mountain south.

The Civil War mixed people from one section of the country with many other sections (it's been argued that the War was what truly changed the country into a nation, in place of a set of States with little to do with each other), and banjo playing was seen in many parts of the country with little or no African population.

In the years after the War, the banjo gained popularity in urban culture, in ensembles where different parts were played by differing banjos (there were bass banjos, tenor banjos with five strings -- more on this later -- lead instruments called banjeaurines, and even piccolo banjos). Banjo orchestras and mandolin orchestras sprang up in colleges and polite urban society in Boston, New York Chicago, St. Louis, etc. The music they played was popular music and light classics, with a few "set pieces" tunes like Spanish Fandango. The height of popularity of this style was 1890-1920. The picking style, by the way, was "guitar style," i.e., finger-picking.

Meanwhile, back in the mountains, the original down-picking style was still king, and banjo orchestras were few and far between. The music was the traditional fiddle tune, the murder ballad, and so much of what we think of as "Appalachian folk music."

In the 1890s, a revolution in musical style among African-Americans was taking place. The banjo, so long a symbol of Africans, passed out of usage and was replaced by the guitar. And on piano, the rag was being invented. By 1920, a new song style was coming out, called the blues. And guitarists learned quickly enough to play blues and ragtime on their instruments (though the first instances of each of those styles was played on piano). Other orchestral instruments, particularly the trumpet and trombone, were involved in evolving jazz from the threads of ragtime, blues, popular music and African intonation (the so-called "blue notes" of the scale).

So, following the upheaval of WWI, the banjo is suddenly passe, except when played in a brass ensemble. But this instrument is not the five-string, longer-scale instrument from the 1800s, but a newer invention (circa 1910) called the "tenor banjo." It had four strings, tuned in cello fashion, and was/is played with a pick. It was louder than the older banjo, and could be heard over Louis Armstrong's playing.

[Other banjo instruments were invented around 1900, too, including the plectrum banjo, which was a five string without the thumb string, the banjo-guitar and the banjo-mandolin. These were mostly novelty instruments, though all are still played today.]

So, from 1920 till 1935, tenor banjos were the rhythmic mainstay of the jazz band, and accompanied some other kinds of music, such as boogie-woogie piano, and five-string banjos were mostly unseen and unheard. Except on hillbilly records, which most people didn't even know about. Those records were made for the expressed purpose of selling various peoples' music back to them, not for wide-spread popularity. That is, in the mid-1920s, record companies discovered pockets of people whose musical styles were not mainstream ("race records," hillbilly, Slavic, Irish, Chinese, etc.). They'd go into a community, record their music, and press the records for sale among the community. Pop music buyers seldom even learned of these kinds of records, and they were not heavily advertised nor played on the radio, though latter-day folklorists bless the incentive that caused them to be created and (sometimes) preserved.

So, by 1935, even the tenor banjo was falling out of favor, replaced by the guitar in jazz bands and pop orchestras (imagine Benny Goodman's band with Charlie Christian on banjo!?). It wasn't till the invention of bluegrass music in Bill Monroe's 1945 ensemble that the banjo began to come back into popularity, and even then it was in a genre which was decidedly non-mainstream (however much country music is considered "average American" music now, it was not at that time average at all). Fast-forward a dozen years as the rhythm and blues of black society is creating the rock 'n roll of white society, mix in the "do it yourself" craze, and add the left-wing sympathy for the "common man" and you suddenly get the "urban folk revival," and with it the rediscovery of the banjo, particularly the five-string banjo.

And lo and behold, there are still country people playing it, as the revivalists soon learn. Rediscovery of old musicians becomes a subset of the revival, and folks from Boston or New York or San Francisco get to see Roscoe Holcomb, Wade Ward, Dock Boggs, or Frank Proffitt before those masters die off.

That's an encapsulated history of the banjo, very much shorter than in my MA thesis, but more or less intact. I probably overlooked lots found in the links given above, but it's another look at it, anyway.

As for the "inventor" of the banjo, a man named Joel Walker Sweeney claimed to have done that in 1831, but there's no proof of it. There were earlier and contemporary instruments with most of the features of his instrument, including the short thumb string, but no one really knows.

And the banjo in Irish music is a very late-comer indeed, though the use of the tenor in that music has served to keep up the value of that model among collectors.

I've nattered enough (is nattering on the net "nettering?"). TTFN

Bob Clayton


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Subject: RE: Origins of the Banjo
From: Frankham
Date: 19 Jun 00 - 01:18 PM

The Karen Linn book is excellent. Also check Toots of the Blues by Samuel Charters. He mentions the banjo forebear, a five string instrument called the "halam". It's interesting to note that a banjo type instrument is employed the the Griots of Senegal and other parts of Africa. The technique for playing them is a kind of "frailing" or down-picking.

The transfer from the plantation South to the Minstrel Show to the application in the Appalachians is covered well by Karen Linn's book.

Joel Sweeney's original five string banjo can be found in the Los Angeles County Museum. I think it's still there. However, there are pictures of the five strings that predate his supposed invention. He is reputed to have invented the fifth peg, however.

The tenor banjo used in jazz was fashioned when the violin players sought work in jazz bands. The tenor is tuned identically to the viola. The plcetrum style banjo retains the original tuning of the five-string without the fifth string or peg.

The North Carolina approach to banjo playing is exemplified by Snuffy Jenkins, a precursor to Scruggs and also by Obray Ramsay, an early eountry folk singer. Scruggs synthesized his style from earlier folk forms.

The earliest banjos were plantation built, light-weight and often strung with gut strings. The mountain banjos came in much later as gourd instruments and adapted to the changing technology in instrument making to become wire or steel strung with frets added.

The early banjos were without resonators. They were added later probably to enhance the recording or the jazz banjos in the twenties. The early gramophone recordings featured the banjo because it could cut through the primitive recording process. Later, when recording became more sophisticated, the guitar under such players as Eddy Lang changed the instrumentation and the banjo was replaced.

There are other examples of the five-string banjo tuned in the gCGBD tuning found in slaveic Russian guitar tunings and Hungarian as well.

Frank


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Subject: RE: Origins of the Banjo
From: GUEST,Banjo Johnny
Date: 19 Jun 00 - 02:10 PM

I've been reading about this but have made no comment because I have NO IDEA about the origin. As Crow Hugger said, it's like asking about the origin of the drum. There were and are banjoey things everywhere. The real point of this question is in all of the interesting thoughts and information it has brought out. Now how about the future of the banjo? Evidently it has not been entirely replaced by the electric guitar. Will there be an electric banjo? (One shudders at the thought) Will the banjo's popularity again fade? == Johnny in Oklahoma City


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Subject: RE: Origins of the Banjo
From: Songster Bob
Date: 19 Jun 00 - 03:43 PM

From Frank's posting above:

Joel Sweeney's original five string banjo can be found in the Los Angeles County Museum. I think it's still there. However, there are pictures of the five strings that predate his supposed invention. He is reputed to have invented the fifth peg, however.

[How'd he do that if there are precursors with five strings? There was an old banjo player in the classical tradition whose name I can't remember. used to come to Fox Hollow. He said that most of his contemporaries, including Fred Van Eps, late-19th century virtuoso, all agreed that the "fifth" string Sweeney added was most likely the low string, increasing the range of the instrument. ]

The North Carolina approach to banjo playing is exemplified by Snuffy Jenkins, a precursor to Scruggs and also by Obray Ramsay, an early eountry folk singer.

[Obray Ramsey was discovered by a folklorist who said, "You should learn to play banjo to accompany your singing," so Ramsay learned Earl Scruggs' style off of a record, and adapted it to his ballad singing. This happened in the 50s, well after Scruggs style was established. Jenkins, however, did influence Scruggs considerably.]

Scruggs synthesized his style from earlier folk forms.

The earliest banjos were plantation built, light-weight and often strung with gut strings.

[Actually, even commercial banjos were gut-strung till the 1890s, and frets were an option on 1970s banjos but standard by 1880 or so.]

The mountain banjos came in much later as gourd instruments [Hmmm... I haven't seen many mountain-made gourd banjos. The very earliest plantation-made banjos were gourd banjos, until the slaves adapted the bent-band drum of the whites. ] and adapted to the changing technology in instrument making to become wire or steel strung with frets added. [See above -- many mountaineers liked the fretless sound, and would even pull frets out or file 'em down to suit their idea of how the instrument should be set up.]

The early banjos were without resonators. They were added later probably to enhance the recording or the jazz banjos in the twenties. The early gramophone recordings featured the banjo because it could cut through the primitive recording process. Later, when recording became more sophisticated, the guitar under such players as Eddy Lang changed the instrumentation and the banjo was replaced.

[True, and popular song styles also had a hand in this, as swing's 4/4 began to replace the older 2/4 we think of as "dixieland."]

There are other examples of the five-string banjo tuned in the gCGBD tuning found in slaveic Russian guitar tunings and Hungarian as well. [But they wouldn't have had the high-pitched thumb string, would they?]

[By the way, the American Banjo Fraternity, the august body setting standards for "classical" banjo music, didn't adopt C as the tuning standard till 1896. Prior to that, banjo music was written in C but tuned to and sounding in A, three frets lower.]

Bob Clayton


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Subject: RE: Origins of the Banjo
From: Jon Freeman
Date: 19 Jun 00 - 05:47 PM

Electric banjos, Banjo Johnny? What do you think of the Deering Crossfire. Also Swan Accoustics in the UK are making something pretty solid.

Jon


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Subject: RE: Origins of the Banjo
From: honestfrankie
Date: 19 Jun 00 - 06:44 PM

Maybe from SATAN!


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Subject: RE: Origins of the Banjo
From: LDave
Date: 19 Jun 00 - 08:56 PM

This thread has restored my faith in Mudcat. It has been a long time time since I've seen a posting with the knowledge and insight of Songster Bobs'. We could use a lot more like that and a lot less of the crap from the likes of,...well,the usual suspects.


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