A Plucky Past
Exhibit reveals the banjo’s surprising history
by Molly Kincaid
A few weeks ago, at the opening of the McClung Museum’s exhibit, The Banjo, From Africa to America and Beyond , there were a lot of dumbfounded looks on the faces of attendees. On entrance, the sweet old-time sounds of Knoxville’s Marble City String Band greeted the ears of the group of primarily East Tennesseans, most of whom had come to the exhibit expecting, despite its title, to learn about the banjo’s Appalachian roots. Trouble was, the instrument now treasured in these hills of ours actually originated in Africa, as is evident by the earliest models in the exhibit’s initial display.
“There are still people that doubt the African origin of the banjo, because it goes against what they want to believe,” says Matt Morelock, curator of the exhibit. “But even a cursory look at the documentation we have debunks that idea.”
Indeed, the earliest banjo prototypes displayed are undeniably ancestors of what we know today. The akonting , a model that has been played in Gambia for centuries and the xalam , a small dark oval-shaped model from Senegal, ca. 1850, are made from tall-stemmed gourds with strings stretched over their lengths. Though similar instruments, with strings attached to a drum were used in other areas, including Asia and the Middle East around the same time, the African model is seen as the grandfather of the banjo because the instrument migrated to the New World via the slave trade. The ensuing history and evolution of the instrument would prove an interesting and historically relevant one.
Early models were brought over on slave ships, as Morelock explains, traders figured out that allowing slaves on deck to play instruments decreased the death toll on the Transatlantic passage. Once on land, the instrument became even more integral to the culture. “In the New World,” Morelock says, “loud drums were banned because they were often used to communicate slave rebellions, so stringed instrument technology progressed.”
The exhibit features several beautiful reproductions based on early paintings, slave documents, and drawings. In America, gourd-stem necks were replaced by the flattened fingerboard—a development attributed to European influence. Still, the early African-American banjos, which took on the different names: banjer, banza, strum-strum, and banjie , were made with gourd drums. “The earlier designs were much more fluid, flexible and subject to the whims of nature, and so was the music,” says Morelock.
Though the first known African-American banjo is dated at 1654, whites didn’t pick it up until the mid-nineteenth century. “At the time, anything coming from slave quarters was considered primitive, even evil,” says Morelock. “So the only way they [whites] could get away with it was to paint their faces black, don a clown costume, and do this overtly racist show.”
Minstrel Shows marked a dark era for the banjo. Morelock points out that it went from a social, communicative instrument in African-American culture to being a theatrical instrument, used to expound on the country’s already rampant racism. “It’s the first of a series of appropriations of black culture by white culture and the subsequent exploitation,” says Morelock. “Later, you’d have blues, jazz, disco and today there’s rap.”
Though shrouded in racist connotation, Morelock calls the Minstrel Show the first American pop music and also the first American musical export. The exhibit features five early broadsides advertising minstrel shows, one of them touting, “Negro Minstrelsy…Darky Glees.” Though such language would be considered appallingly crude today, Morelock says he didn’t even display some of the most offensive material he came across.
While madly popular in many areas, the Minstrel shows did not appeal to the Victorians in the Northeastern states, who eschewed their bawdy comedic elements. Morelock says they sought to “elevate” the societal status of the banjo by designing impossibly ornate models and developing a classical repertoire. “Soon, no Victorian parlor was complete without a fancy banjo,” he says.
While the Minstrel days saw the evolution of the banjo proceed from au natural to manufactured, standardized models, the Victorian era was all about craftsmanship. The models in the exhibit are exquisitely adorned with Mother of Pearl, ivory inlay and detailed carving. Then, in the spirit of innovation of the Industrial Revolution, some rather bizarre models were made using mandolin bodies and other oddities that “met an evolutionary dead end,” says Morelock.
Eventually, the banjo saw a decline in popularity in the Northeast, only to make its most lasting comeback in Appalachia after the Civil War, which served in more than one instance as a forum for cultural cross-pollination. With this development, the banjo’s social role came full circle, having begun as a traditional social instrument in African and African-American societies, then after becoming a racist tool and later a highfalutin symbol, the banjo reclaimed its role as a tool for storytelling, keeping history, and complementing the already established Appalachian traditions of dancing and fiddling.
When most of us think of banjos, we think of old-time music and bluegrass, so Morelock has had to fend off many a frustrated viewer’s complaint that the exhibit leaves out the familiar role of the banjo. Where’s Earl Scruggs, they want to know. “We already know a lot about bluegrass, so my focus on this exhibit was to present the longer, unknown history of the banjo.” He explains. “My purpose is reminding those exposed to the information that every aspect of American culture is influenced by a multitude of world culture.”
What: The Banjo, From Africa to America and Beyond