Mountain Grown Music - traditional mountain music of Haywood County North Carolina

A history of the banjo
By Todd Callaway

Tracing the history of the banjo as a musical instrument is a task that can make you want to pull your hair out.

Though hundreds of articles have been written on the subject of banjos, many are contradictory and filled with speculation.

There is, however, one fact most agree on: America's favorite folk instrument was brought to this country from Africa and Jamaica by slaves in the eighteenth century.

How did the banjo get to Africa? Well, Pete Seeger speculates in How to Play the Five String Banjo that Arabs may have brought it to Africa's western coast. There were instruments like the banjo in the Near and Far East, such as the sitar and sarod. Stringed instruments with animal skin heads and wooden shells are known to have existed nearly 4,500 years ago in Egypt.

But what paths the instrument followed through these countries, however, is simply guesswork. The instrument that made it to this country has been refined, evolving into what most recognize today as the banjo.

Early on people associated banjo and fiddle players with the Devil and Hell, believing that those who played the instruments were bound for Hell, thus the old saying, Thick as fiddlers in Hell.

The first banjos in the United States had two, three or four strings made from horsehair, grass or catgut. The head of those first banjos probably were made from animal hide stretched across a gourd.

An article printed in 1888 and reprinted in the March 1974 issue of Mugwumps says: "With rapid strides it improved in form. First a wooden hoop, and then a metal one; first a rough skin for the drum, then the best parchment; first nails to hold it on, then neatly made tension screws. At one time the strings were made of anything that came handy; now they are formed from the 'intestines of the agile cat.'"

Since then, the number of variations tried in creating the banjo is unknown. Generally cited as the most important development in the banjo's history was the addition of the shorter 'chanter,' 'drone,' 'thumb,'or fifth string. Many historians credit Virginian Joel Walker Sweeny, a professional blackface minstrel, with the addition sometime between 1830 and 1845.

All banjos prior to 1880 were fretless. Demand for fretted ones forced several manufacturers to put them on the market.

Though the banjo's popularity lapsed in the early 1940s, players like Earl Scruggs brought them back, and today the five-string, fretted banjo is king again.


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