The History into the Development of the Banjo
America’s music history is interconnected with its overall identity. One particularly important American created instrument is the Banjo. This thrilling five-string instrument was played by many thousands of people and yet, by 1940 many of the secrets of banjo performance had disappeared.
Today, people with a renewed sense of history preservation have brought this old-time instrument into the modern era. This American folk art was preserved by many musicians primarily from the Appalachian Mountains and the Carolinas who viewed banjo playing as a way of life.
The banjo has an amazingly unique sound and a rich history. The ancestor of the banjo is an instrument called the Rebec. The Rebec originated in Arabia about a thousand years ago and can still be purchased in the Middle East. Materials include a skin head stretched over a gourd or hollow body with a neck holding three gut strings. The Rebec was probably carried both east and west with the spread of Islam.
Black slaves brought this instrument to the United States from North and West Africa. In 1785 Thomas Jefferson, publish in an article that the “banjar” was the primary instrument of the American black man. The Banjar was an evolutionary stepping stone towards the creation of the Banjo. At this point in time the instrument had only four strings. However, it is important to note that the true American Banjo was not created until 1831. In 1831, a banjo enthusiast named Joel Sweeney made a small but revolutionary modification. He added a fifth string, higher in pitch than any of the others, right next to the lowest pitched string, and secured by a peg mounted halfway up the neck.
Early Banjo Practices
In the early years people did not necessarily use the same performance method for working in the fifth string of the banjo. In fact, many people used four or five different tunings depending on the song. Little music has ever been written for the banjo. Instead, a tremendous amount of lore developed and was passed on from player to player.
Banjoists played “old time songs” which we now called folk music. The popularity of the banjo was important in perpetuating and preserving many songs that otherwise would have been forgotten. In addition, a genre of “banjo music” began to develop, and this too, is now part of America’s folk music heritage. For the most part, the authors of this music are virtually unknown.
The Turn of the Century
The 19th century was a popular time for Banjo enthusiasts. However, around the turn of the century the instrument’s popularity started to decline. Jazz music’s ascension in popularity was one factor for the banjo’s decline.
Jazz musicians adapted the banjo to play in a style that was conducive to new jazz combos. As a result, Joel Sweeney’s fifth-string was removed and killed the uniqueness of the instrument. In addition, the neck was shortened, the head enlarged and heavier strings were used. This jazz influenced 4-string banjo was strummed rather using the old finger-picking style.
This new jazz styled banjo was expected to be heard through the brass section. Innovations were created and little by little the instrument started to sound less and less of its original self. Despite these changes a few bands in the southern United States kept the old traditions going.
Starting in the 1920’s recording companies were putting out some of the earliest folk music on disc. Some of these recordings included some of the remaining old-time banjo players. These records, once looked upon as beneath the notice of “cultured” people, are now among our most important sources of American Folk music.
Before folk music became highly commercial, these performers played true folk songs in their own native style. Most of the master recordings were destroyed but the records that survived are now rare and precious collectors’ items.
By 1930, the four-string banjo was starting to fade away. Banjos were now rarely used in jazz or popular music bands. Fewer and fewer people even remembered how to play the five-string instrument. America was on the verge of losing one of its most recognizable folk instruments. During these years, a few performers stuck stubbornly by their five-string banjos. A few performers even guest performed on country music radio shows such as the famous WSM’s Grand Ole Opry.
As time progressed even the country music bands were dropping the five-string banjo. The banjo players who remained started performing as solo musicians rather than in groups with other band members. As a result of this shift in popularity the banjo was no longer being made except on special order.
Fortunately, a few folklorists began discovering the five-string banjo again and recognized it as a significant contribution to the world’s music and started using the banjo in bands again after World War II was over.
At around this time period, banjoist Earl Scruggs created a new playing style that would soon be imitated by other musicians throughout the country. This playing style came soon to be known as the “Scruggs Style Picking” when introduced on the Grand Ole Opry in 1945. Scruggs picking style became popular quickly and the demand for new 5-string banjos skyrocketed. As a result, instrument manufacturing companies started producing the instrument again.
The Banjo Today
The United States now values the historical significance that folk music brings to its citizens. In the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., there are huge collections of music literature in their preserved, recorded form. These songs can be heard by music enthusiasts during normal business hours or online.
The Banjo is a fascinating and historically significant instrument to United States citizens. Originally created in 1831 by Joel Sweeney, the Banjo has experienced its rise and fall in popularity however and indubitably has contributed to the world’s stamp on music. Learn more about the Banjo by visiting Washington D.C.’s library of congress online at https://www.loc.gov/visit
Scruggs, E., & Brent, B. (2005). Earl Scruggs and the 5-string banjo. Hal Leonard.
Visiting the library : library of Congress. The Library of Congress. (n.d.). Retrieved September 3, 2022, from https://www.loc.gov/visit