The Story of the American Banjo

When I first got my Fall issue of The Simple Life magazine I read an article about early banjos. I just like the look of them, help and thought how neat they would look sitting in the corner of a primitive room. Then a couple of weeks ago, while antiquing in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, I found one. I bought it from a dealer that I have been buying from for many years. He always has interesting things, and is very knowledgeable. I loved the look of it, and the decorative fluted tin piece covering where the strings are attached. I turned it over for a closer look, and smiled when I saw some writing in pencil, apparently done by children, Ethyl and Elmer Kulp, Joe, Home Sweet, and Elmer loves ?, not sure. I am told that the small size of this banjo is a rare fine. I am offering it for sale on my website. Here’s a little history of the banjo–

Banjo playing has historical roots that go back 150 years, late 19th century to early 20th. The original banjos were documented in the Caribbean as early as 1689. The first mention of the banjo in the American colonies was in 1734. It was called a banjer in a Maryland newspaper.

When Africans and Europeans came together in North America, they had enough similarity in their ideas about music for a new musical synthesis to occur despite the dramatically unequal status of black and white populations. In large part, the history of American music, from minstrelsy to jazz, rock ‘n’ roll to rap music, is the story of this continuing convergence of musical sensibilities.

The mid-19th-century minstrel banjo is one of the first manifestations of the meeting of these musical worlds. Along with the fiddle, the banjo was the most popular instrument in African-American music in the United States through the 18th and into the 19th century. In the early 1800s, white musicians began to take up the banjo in imitation of southern African-American players. By the mid-1800s, white professional stage performers had popularized the banjo all across the United States and in England and had begun their own banjo traditions as they popularized new songs. Because these musicians usually performed with blackened faces, they came to be known asĀ blackface minstrels.

Because the minstrel stage depicted slaves and southern life in inaccurate and degrading ways, there are many negative aspects to the legacy of blackface minstrelsy. Nevertheless, as part of America’s first nationally popular music, minstrelsy served to popularize the banjo and make it an instrument shared by both white and black populations. With this popularity came the publication of the first instruction manuals for the instrument and the first factory-made banjos in the 1840s. Soon after, five strings became the accepted norm for banjos, and five-string banjos are the norm today.


2 Responses to “The Story of the American Banjo”

  1. Jenny Says:

    Missed you…interesting read as usual! Hugs, Jenny

  2. tj Says:

    …I adore that little banjo in your shop! Every time I visit I have to click on it again, just so sweet. :o )

    …Just wanted to stop by and say “hello” and to extend my thoughts and prayers to you and your family that you all will be safe and sound in the path of this storm. Please be safe.



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