Katelyn Holub

blogging about music, art, and creativity

The Banjo in Bluegrass Part II: Acquisition of the Banjo

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Knowing that the earliest banjo playing technique used by the white mountain people is the same technique the African slaves used implies that the mountain people acquired the banjo directly from the slaves, which is one of three main theories as to how the banjo became integrated into mountain music.  Since there is no historical documentation of the transmission of the banjo to the white mountain people, scholars continue to debate three main theories of acquisition.  The first theory is that the mountain people learned how to play banjo directly from African slaves in the early nineteenth century.  The second theory proposes that they learned from white minstrels who performed in traveling blackface minstrel shows.  The third theory suggests that during the Civil War, mountain people fighting on both sides were introduced to the banjo from both fellow soldiers and musicians who traveled with the troops.  After considering these three theories this paper offers a theory that attempts to synthesize the efforts of several scholars.

The first theory uses several different sources in order to claim that the mountain people acquired the banjo directly from African slaves.  The evidence for this claim includes historical documents indicating that there were black banjo players in Knoxville by 1798, which is a gateway city into the Smoky Mountain chain of the Appalachians.   Further, residents of mountainous regions in Kentucky recalled that there were still some slaves in these mountainous regions even though there weren’t large slave owning plantations nearby.   The junction between Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia contained migration routes for people traveling and safe havens for runaway slaves with “blacks and whites liv[ing] in close proximity,” all of which could have provided circumstances for the mountain people acquiring the banjo.   Some sociologists, historians, and folklorists, including Allen Farmelo, suggest that “class distinctions often outweighed racial ones for ‘poor whites’,” living in the mountains, and that these two races of people “were united in one respect—their dispossession and their alienation from those who [had] access to power and control of property.”   Not only did these two races of people harmoniously live together, but they bonded through shared activities in their communities, churches, and parties; thus, it seems plausible that the mountain people learned how to play the banjo directly from the African people.

Demonstration of early banjo style of playing: Pompey Ran Away c. 1775

Even more compelling is the account given by a famous minstrel named Dan Emmet, who learned to play the banjo in 1840 from a white mountain man in West Virginia by the name of Ferguson while he was traveling with the Cincinnati Circus Company.   The manager of the circus company, C. J. Rodgers,  described Ferguson as “a very ignorant person, and ‘nigger all over’ except in color.”   It is typically thought that minstrels learned to play banjo directly from African slaves, but this personal account from one of the most famous minstrel banjo players reveals that at least one white mountain man knew how to play the banjo before 1840, and most likely learned it directly from a slave.  Banjo historian, Robert Winans has expressed doubts that the mountain people learned the banjo this early on in the nineteenth century because this account is the only reference to a white mountain man playing banjo this early, and there is no other reference to any white person playing the banjo before the 1830s.

A second theory suggests that mountain people learned how to play the banjo from traveling blackface minstrels between the years 1865-1880.  Blackface minstrelsy gained large popularity in the 1840s, after the first full length blackface minstrel show was presented by the “Virginia Minstrels” in New York City in 1843, with banjo players Dan Emmett and Billy Whitlock.   Though minstrel shows “enjoyed [their] greatest popularity in the Northeastern cities before the Civil War,” by the 1860s, several minstrel companies were playing in the “rural sections of the country” including tiny towns and villages in the south.   Some scholars purport that mountain people could have seen a minstrel show while on an occasional trip into a town in the valley.  Scholar Cecilia Conway suggests that if mountain people learned banjo playing from minstrels, they most likely learned from riverboat minstrels traveling the Mississippi, Cumberland, Ohio, and Tennessee Rivers.

Black banjo player and fiddler with Rebel troops going from Lynchburg to Buchanan.  View of the James River Canal near Balcony Falls.  Harper’s Weekly (Sept. 25, 1861).

Black banjo player and fiddler with Rebel troops going from Lynchburg to Buchanan. View of the James River Canal near Balcony Falls. Harper’s Weekly (Sept. 25, 1861).

Those who have argued against this theory emphasize issues of different playing techniques and timing to show that this was not the original acquisition of the banjo by the mountain people.  They note that first, early mountain music incorporates the soloistic, clawhammer style of playing, which was not used by banjoists in minstrel shows, where the banjo was played in an accompaniment-fashion with lots of other instruments.   Second, mountain people most likely did not come down into towns and villages to watch minstrel shows often enough to learn to play the banjo.  Third, the minstrel shows in the 1860s occurred at a time in which mountain people, or at least one documented mountain man who taught Dan Emmett, already had exposure to the banjo.  Thus, it seems to them that the only possibility of minstrelsy causing the mountain people to learn the banjo would had to have been from early minstrel shows, which did not extensively travel the south.

Demonstration by Billy Wilson of Soloistic, Clawhammer Mountain Style Banjo Playing:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3grTp-AK6Ho

Demonstration of Accompaniment Minstrel Banjo Playing:  http://minstrelbanjo.ning.com/video/gettysburg-banjo-12-buffalo

A third theory explaining the presence of the banjo in white Appalachia suggests that during the Civil War, mountain people fighting on both sides were introduced to the banjo from both fellow soldiers and musicians who traveled with the troops.  There are several accounts of “soldiers of both armies [being] entertained [by] their comrades with fiddles, banjos, guitars, and other instruments” during non-combatant times to act as a diversion for the men.   “In 1862, D. P. Hopkins, a banjo-player, noted in his diary that he and a fiddle-playing sergeant had played a concert and a stag dance” for a number of soldiers.   The painting titled “Night Amusements in a Confederate Camp” from 1863, depicts a scene in which an African man dances in front of a fire while a white man plays a banjo to entertain Confederate troops.  Though there are not records of mountain people discovering the banjo for the first time from their experience in the Civil War, it is reasonable to believe that veterans from the mountains could have learned how to play it and brought it back home with them after the war.

After examining these three theories as to how the mountain people acquired the banjo, it is fair to say that this transmission occurred by the 1870s, after the Civil War.  Trying to pinpoint a specific time or place for this event is nearly impossible, but from the few historical documents and accounts remaining, it seems that acquisitions of banjo playing occurred in the early 1800s through a combination of run-away slaves in the mountains introducing the instrument to the mountain people and mountain people coming down into towns and meeting banjo-playing slaves.  Even though some scholars want to dismiss the fact that an early minstrel performer learned banjo playing from a mountain man as a rarity, it still remains that one mountain man was a good enough banjo player to teach another.  Whenever the mountain people acquired the banjo, the number of early players would be small and increase over time, so dismissing the account of a mountain man teaching minstrel performer Dan Emmett to play the banjo merely because it is a single account seems misguided.  After the first few mountain people learned to play banjo, it seems only logical that the knowledge would spread to more and more mountain people through a combination of the people’s travels across the mountains and to nearby villages hosting minstrel shows and experiences from the Civil War, so that by the time the Civil War is over, a large number of mountain people have learned how to play the banjo and have incorporated it into their own music.

"Night Amusements in the Confederate Camp" from a Sketch by Our Special Artist.  1863.

“Night Amusements in the Confederate Camp” from a Sketch by Our Special Artist. 1863.

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Author: katelynholub

I'm a law school graduate, singer-songwriter, believer, blogger, and general adventurer.

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