The Banjo

Q: Since I retired, I've had a lot of time to listen to jazz, bluegrass, blues, folk music et al. Given all the images in the museum of Americans of African descent and banjos, I've heard nary a single American musician of African descent perform on the banjo. Is my sample size too small that I'm just missing performers? Or are there none?

~John Thorp
Former Jim Crow Museum Director

A: Thank you for the question John,

We thought we would answer this Question to the Museum a little differently. We decided to provide links to other resources that give insight on the topic of the banjo and its historic connection with Africa and the African American community.

As a start, one of my favorite Apple playlists features Rhiannon Giddens. She is an amazing musician! She has done solo work and performed in a three-person group called the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Giddens lectures about the history of the banjo and the lack of African American musicians in the bluegrass/folk/Americana genres because of mainstream stereotypes and/or misinformation about the genres. Some listeners may not seek out diversity in these genres based on mainstream stereotypes and/or misinformation about the histories.

Here is a video of an interview with Rhiannon Giddens as she talks about the lost history of the banjo in African American culture.

Rhiannon Giddens: On the Lost History of the Black Banjo

Dom Flemons was also a member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops and offers his perspective on the history of the banjo and African American culture. 

Dom Flemons: On What Happened to the Black Banjo?

 

In February, The JCM created a Black History Month Calendar post with a brief history of the banjo since we have a few in the museum collection:

Within the American plantation context, the banjo carried spiritual and cultural symbolism rooted in African traditions. By the 1800s, the banjo is emblematic of the institution of slavery itself, and by the late 19th century, it was presented as an instrument of Appalachian folk music. The banjo connects different traditions, but there have been attempts to forget or break the identification with black culture and unhinge it from its African roots. There were efforts by banjo supporters to present it as a respectable instrument that whites could embrace. The 150 plus years of African American banjo playing is diminished by connecting the instrument to the emergence of minstrelsy and blackface in the 1830s. Playing music and creating a space of cultural autonomy helped African Americans imagine themselves and their communities in ways that were radically different from the white, mainstream stories of enslavement.

Although I haven’t seen it yet, I would guess that Ken Burns PBS series on Country Music covers a bit of banjo history, as well as the Latin American influence on country music and may be worth checking out.

In the meantime, some my colleagues have compiled more resources that may be of interest:

Here is the Adungu being played.

Another video of the Adungu.

news photoThe Banjo Lesson, by Henry Ossawa Tanner

As a closing to this conversation, I will leave you with my favorite banjo painting and a beautiful piece of American art, The Banjo Lesson, by Henry Ossawa Tanner created in 1893. I enjoy this oil painting immensely, both aesthetically and thematically. The soft fire light and tender teaching moment captured between the old man and young boy reminds me of the different types of knowledge and compassion imparted from one generation to another. Growing up as a minister’s son, spirituality had a strong influence on Tanner’s work. A realist painter who lived in both the United States and France, a reverence for reflection inhabits both his religious and secular works. This painting is part of the collection at Hampton University.

 

Jennifer Hasso and the Jim Crow Museum staff 
Jim Crow Museum 
2020

Additional Resources:
Allen, G. (2011, August 23). The Banjo's Roots, Reconsidered. Retrieved May 6, 2020, from https://www.npr.org/2011/08/23/139880625/the-banjos-roots-reconsidered

Davidson, J. (n.d.). Rhiannon Giddens' 21st-Century Sound Has a Long History. Retrieved May 6, 2020, from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/rhiannon-giddens-american-music-history-21st-century-sound-180971449/

Khalid, Farisa. “Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Banjo Lesson (Article).” Khan Academy, Khan Academy, www.khanacademy.org/humanities/art-1010/american-art-to-wwii/symbolism-america/a/tanner-banjo-lesson.

Kingsley , S. (2017, July 19). Chronicling "America's African Instrument": Laurent Dubois on the Cultural History of the Banjo: Perspectives on History: AHA. Retrieved May 6, 2020, from https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/summer-2017/chronicling-americas-african-instrument-laurent-dubois-on-the-cultural-history-of-the-banjo