[NOTE: Final exams are upon us in full force, so in lieu of posting my typical content, I thought I would dig up an interesting paper I wrote about the banjo from my good ‘ole music history class days in college and release it in three installments over the next week or so. I’ll explore the origin of the banjo and its playing styles, analyze different possibilities of how the banjo was introduced to people in America, and discuss how the African-descent banjo tradition was modified in early mountain music to evolve into what has become known as bluegrass music. Bluegrass music has always been near and dear to my heart, so it was particularly fulfilling for me to research this topic and I’m glad it’s getting re-purposed for my blog. Enjoy!]
The Banjo in Bluegrass: An Early Example of Cross-Cultural Music Fusion
The style of music known as bluegrass, associated with Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson, and Allison Krauss became widely known in the mid twentieth century, and remains popular in our own time. Bluegrass music is noted for its unique combination of instruments and distinctive vocal style, which originated in the Appalachian Mountains. Fiddles combine with banjos, acoustic and resonator guitars, mandolins, and upright basses to produce a distinctive sound now associated with the Appalachian region. The earliest American settlers of the Appalachian Mountain region were immigrants from England, Scotland, and Ireland. Reminded of the highlands back home, they settled in the hills of Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia, and North Carolina, seeking an independent life through subsistence farming and close-knit familial communities.
Because of their geographically isolated location away from the more populated areas of the American South and the nature of their relatively small, culturally homogeneous communities it may be surprising to learn that these people developed a unique style of music that combined the musical traditions of the British Isles with those of Africa. What is more, bluegrass emerges from one of the earliest American examples of cross-cultural music exchange, with its fusion of Scotch-Irish fiddle and folk songs with African banjo and rhythms. How did the white Appalachian people initially acquire and integrate the banjo into their instrumental music tradition?
Origins and Playing Techniques
The banjo is an instrument derived from the family of West African folk lutes. These lutes are made from hollowed-out gourds with animal skins stretched over them, similar to a drum. In Africa, these instruments were played by people from all social classes including professional musicians, called jali, and amateurs alike. One particular type of folk lute is called the akongting, which is played in a down-stroking style similar to the style in which African slaves played banjo in America. Although it is difficult to track the exact evolution of the banjo from these African folk lutes, there is evidence of a four-string banjo in America by the late seventeenth century. It is unclear whether slaves brought the folk lutes over with them or whether they built instruments like them in America. Nonetheless, a painting titled “The Old Plantation,” dated between 1777-1800, depicts a slave playing a five-string banjo, very much like the banjo of today.
The African-style of banjo playing that is also used with African folk lutes is referred to as downstroking, frailing, or clawhammer-style playing. This style of playing is distinctive for its percussive quality which makes it appear as if the player is “thumping or beating the banjo.” This method of playing was also used by the earliest playing technique used by the white mountain people. This method is a single-note playing method, which is used in either creating melody lines or accompaniment lines to vocalists. In the 1860s, after the popularization of the guitar, banjo method books begin teaching a new picking method, called stroke, similar to playing a guitar. This stroke method taught people to pull on the strings rather than “rap” on them. Further adapting this guitar-like style of playing, people began playing in a finger-picking style of two or three fingers, which has come to be known as bluegrass banjo picking style. Earl Scruggs, a famous bluegrass banjo player from the twentieth century, is associated with this three-finger up-picking style.