Accounts of the banjo in early bluegrass music inform us that the mountain people used the banjo primarily as an accompaniment to a “fiddler playing traditional, frequently modal, fiddle tunes” of the Scotch-Irish people. The fiddle-banjo combination was used before the Civil War mainly for personal, family music-making in the home and at informal gatherings like dances, cornhuskings, and auctions. One historical account tells of a great uncle Manly Reese, “who built a five-string banjo in 1852 and played it with the old fiddler Green Leonard before 1860 when Reese left for the Civil War.” Reese was killed, but his banjo still survives and his descendants have it. The first mountain banjos were fretless and tended to be home-made, not factory-made. Some records describe mountain banjos as having been made from “old pie tins or cigar boxes fitted with a neck and fishing line.” People played using the frailing, also called clawhammer, technique as described for the African tradition.
In addition to the banjo-fiddle combination, mountain music began to evolve to include more instruments. Near the end of the nineteenth century, guitars became available and affordable to rural people through Sears mail-order catalogs, and mountain people began incorporating them into their music-making. With the addition of the guitar, mountain people adapted different picking techniques to the banjo, mimicking guitar styles. Around the turn of the century, “. . . railroads and highways [began] snak[ing] into the backwoods, and mountain folk [began] mov[ing] out into urban, industrialized. . .” parts of America and started making recordings of their music. The early recordings of their music in the 1920s were labeled “hillbilly” music, which were most often string ensembles consisting of a fiddle, banjo, guitar, bass, and mandolin. Their “songs came from many sources: traditional ballads, nineteenth-century sentimental Tin Pan Alley creations, old Gospel songs, minstrel tunes, [and] new songs about a recent disaster,” and the banjo remained an accompanying instrument that was rarely heard in solo.
In the 1930s, construction of the banjo changed to create a larger, more durable banjo that could be heard over the sounds of other instruments in ensembles which came to be known as “old time string bands.” These string bands “reflected the democratic ideals of self-sufficiency and cooperative agrarian life” associated with the mountain people. String bands remained popular throughout the 1930s and into the 1940s, when they began to evolve into what is now called bluegrass music. In the 1940s, Bill Monroe, leader of the string band called the “Blue Grass Boys” added Earl Scruggs, a banjo player of the three-finger picking method, to his ensemble. The band grew in popularity because of its innovative fast-paced style which featured the mandolin, banjo, and fiddle in solo improvisation sections for the first time. It was this innovative band’s style which lent its name to a new style of music known as bluegrass.
Listen to the wonderful Earl Scruggs picking away at the banjo in “Fireball Mail” here.
In recognizing the evolution of the African-derived banjo and its integration into the musical culture of the white people of the Appalachian Mountains, we can better appreciate the significance of bluegrass as a uniquely American style of music, which emerged from a cross-cultural music exchange. This musical exchange fused the music of African slaves and Scotch-Irish people during a time of American history which is often identified with racism and the slavery of blacks. Nevertheless, this cross-cultural music exchange of the banjo to the mountain people demonstrates positive cross cultural interaction among the two races which eventually produced bluegrass music. From its origin as a West African folk lute played percussively to its development and integration into white mountain music in the early 1800s, the banjo has evolved into a soloistic instrument with a prominent place in bluegrass music.