The Banjo: America’s African Instrument,
Laurent DuBois Belknap Press (2016)
A banjo is an instrument that produces a sound formed by strings over skin. That is the defining feature of the array of African predecessors, the distinguishing mark breaking off the hereditary line from some prehistoric ur-string instrument.
Not that instruments develop in such a forward march, evolutional adaptation is towards perfection for an environment not a ladder of increasing complexity or refinement.
The banjo is a New World instrument born early in transatlantic history to suit the needs of a new kind of society based on displacement. One of the interesting ideas Laurent Dubois puts forward in this encyclopedic early history of the instrument is that the reason the recognizable form of the banjo appeared so early, ans spread so widely, was that it could be claimed by no specific ethnic group.
Enslaved peoples brought with them images from home of instruments of strings over skin but the specifics varied. There were round necks, flat necks, even two necks, and anywhere from one string to a multitude. When a functional form familiar enough for everyone, but claimable by no one, was settled on it was rapidly shared along the commercial trade routes of two continents.
By the early 1600’s the banjo had a recognizable form from the settlements of New Amsterdam to the plantations of Brazil and at all ports in between. The neck was flat with one string pegged farther down than the others, and it connected to a hollowed and halved gourd covered by skin. The name itself began to stabilize across languages; Banza, Banjar, Bangie, Banjaw.
It was on the periphery, one of several instruments of a marginalized and largely undocumented society, but those who did turn an eye towards slave culture began to see the banjo as representative of something, and representative of something is what it has been ever since.
Dubois traces both the nuts a bolts physical history of the instrument and its social history. How a gourd instrument ran into commercial popularity and gradually strapped on more and more metal. How an instrument which was widely supposed to be an ancient inheritance black slaves carried from Africa, so intertwined with the idea of plantation life that it became a staple of minstrel shows could within a hundred years be seen as an ancient inheritance of whites in the Appalachian hills. How folk revivalists far removed from those hills transcended all of the histories and cast the instrument as a symbol of America itself, and bluegrass musicians pushed the banjo to its limit.
The pre-sound recording era is largely lost to us. Dubois does a good job of corraling the available evidence about how the instrument was played at various times and in various places, what it looked like, and how audiences reacted to it. He discusses famous drawings and paintings of early banjo’s and their first appearances on stage. He so extensively documents the available information about the early banjo that it seems like he rushes over everything after the ragtime era.
He may have made a decision that readers were likely to be more familiar with modern playing and the immediate roots of their preferred style. Information about most modern players after the era of Vess L. Ossman and the Van Eps Trio is readily available whereas contemporary journal accounts of proto minstrel shows in Haiti prior to the post-revolutionary influx of Haitians to New Orleans are not.
In the last 100 pages, he explains the instruments lack of utility for blues while recognizing its place in jazz. He then introduces a small handful of key 20th-century players and briefly describes their techniques as he follows the instrument into bluegrass and the folk revival.
He gives Pete Seeger’s life story (rather than style) far more pages than it is worth relative to, let’s say, Earl Scruggs. Writing just after Seeger’s death and obviously having followed his path into playing the instrument this is excusable. I’m a lifelong Seeger fan and enjoyed this diversion near the end of the book, I just found it editorially awkward.
If you own a banjo you should probably own this book. But fair warning, it will probably lead you to buy more banjos, maybe even one made from a gourd. If you enjoy history on a grand but approachable scale, like How the Irish Saved Civilization, or want a take on the colonial period that recognizes its transcontinental nature, you will also find the book fascinating.
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