The Old-Time Herald Volume 10, Number 4

Feature

Searching for the Roots of the Banjo
By Peter Szego

The last three decades have produced . . . vigorous scholarship on the African-American roots of the banjo, which is transforming our understanding of the place of the banjo in American history and culture. What follows (and will be continued in the next issue) is the story of this scholarship—and the people, insights and debates that shaped it.

This research has addressed several basic questions about the roots of the banjo: What were its African ancestors? What do we know about the early banjo in America? When and how did the African-American banjo pass on to white musicians?

Print after William Sidney Mount's painting, “The Banjo Player,” 1857, . Peter Szego Collection

In this two-part article I intend to discuss the history of this scholarship rather than the chronological history of the banjo. In this issue we’ll explore what we’ve learned from research on the early minstrel banjo and the last of the elder black banjo players. In the next we’ll review the scholarship on the banjo’s African roots, the gourd banza, and books, exhibitions, conferences, collectors and makers that have had a major impact on our understanding of the roots of the banjo.

Since I am focusing on the early roots of the banjo, I will not be discussing such later developments as classic banjo; banjos in bluegrass, jug bands, blues or jazz; or 4-, 6-, and 8-string banjos.

While much of the early research was conducted and reported by professional academics, some of the most insightful and enriching contributions have come from nonprofessional scholars, a few of whom have directly identified with participants in early banjo history through race, class, or region.

Like all research, the search for the roots of the banjo includes personal agendas, biases, professional ambitions, and preconceptions on issues of race and class. For example, virtually all scholarship to date has focused on the roots of the banjo in the South—even though there are many references to the early banjo in the North and more than half of the approximately 160 known examples of antebellum banjos have been found in the North and Midwest rather than the South. . . .

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