Banjo History

A "Thumbnail Version" on History of Banjo
    by: Banjo Historian - Lowell H. Schreyer

A book could and should be written about the history of the banjo, so any thumbnail version must by space limitations be at a general level skimming only the highlights.

Published articles on the banjo can be like a description of an elephant by three blind men, each knowing only the part closest to him--the bluegrass player describing a five-string instrument, the Dixieland jazz player describing a four-string banjo, and the classic player describing a nylon-strung variety. The fact is the banjo has become a family of instruments--including the five-string banjo, the plectrum banjo and the tenor banjo--played in many musical idioms.

Banjo-like string instruments with hide-covered bodies have been used on the Asian and African continents going back to ancient times. Little doubt remains that a form of these instruments came to the Americas by way of slave trade victims from West Africa where predecessors to the banjo had names such as the halam, guenbri and bania. Tragic as the circumstances were, American culture owes a great debt to these transplanted Africans who made this major contribution to the melting pot of American music.

The practice of using open drone strings was not unknown on African instruments, but the idea of accomplishing this effect with a short string from a tuning peg on the neck seems to have been a distinguishing feature of the banjo as it developed in America. Just who originated this "thumb string" has never been established. Once identified as the inventor of the banjo, Virginian Joel Sweeney more likely added a bass string and had something to do with the shell construction which replaced the gourd body of the African instruments. Contemporaries said he learned how to play the banjo as a boy from blacks in his hometown neighborhood of Appomattox, Virginia.

Sweeney's greatest contribution to the banjo was putting it on the stage and getting out of town. Playing upon his own homemade five-string banjo, Sweeney appeared on stage in a Richmond, Va., theater in 1836 in the first documented banjo theater performance of any lasting importance. Elated by his successful reception, he took off from his home state and played in major theaters and circuses up and down the Eastern seaboard, introducing the banjo to urban and rural publics alike. He continued his touring to the British Isles in the 1840s and on his return home, said he had performed for Queen Victoria, displaying items identified as gifts from the queen.

Other performers capitalizing on the banjo's entertainment potential after Sweeney's success included Dan Emmett, Billy Whitlock and G. Swaine Buckley in the 1840s, and Tom Briggs,Frank Converse and Hi Rumsey in the 1850s. Performing in minstrel shows and circuses, they continued to spread the popularity of the banjo in the United States and abroad in the years leading up to the American Civil War. The lively playing technique of that period was known as "stroke style," striking the gut strings then used on the banjo with the fingernail of the forefinger alternating with the thumb.

Later in the Nineteenth Century a more genteel manner of playing the five-string banjo, known as "guitar style," came into vogue. Promoted by major banjo maker and publisher S. S. Stewart, who crusaded to elevate the banjo and its music, this style was expressed at its highest level by banjo virtuoso Alfred A. Farland. Appearing in white tie and tails, Farland played recitals of classical music by the great European composers.

Not all the proponents of this banjo style favored the European classics, however. Vess Ossman and Fred Van Eps, two more leading banjoists of the turn of the century (19th to 20th), liked ragtime better. Although a woman, Carrie Cochrane of Buffalo, N. Y., had beaten them as the first recording banjoist (in 1889 tests for Thomas A. Edison), Ossman and Van Eps made their marks by recording ragtime prolifically. They popularized ragtime with their early cylinder and disc banjo recordings long before the music was recorded by piano, the instrument for witch much of it was written.

Early in the 20th century the idea of playing banjo with a flat pick on metal strings, borrowed from mandolinists who had been closely associated with banjoists in banjo, mandolin and guitar clubs of the 1890s, became increasingly popular. This provided more volume and showier presentations in vaudeville houses than the finger-plucked banjo with gut strings. Out of this new concept grew the four-string tenor and plectrum banjos.

These new members of the banjo family blossomed in the jazz bands and bigtime vaudeville circuits of the 1920s. Their leading exponents were Eddie Peabody on the plectrum banjo and Harry Reser on tenor and plectrum banjos.

A parallel development of the banjo had been occurring in Great Britain since the early visits of minstrel banjoists such as Sweeney and Buckley and was nurtured by continuing tours of American banjoists. A variant of the banjo that caught on in Britain was the zither banjo, introduced there in the 1880s by Brooklyn native Alfred Cammeyer who never found a market for it in his home United States. The British excelled in banjo composer performers such as Joe Morley, Emile Grimshaw and Olly Oakley.

Thanks to the growing popularity of the banjo abroad, several American banjoists--such as Pete Mandell and Ken Harvey in England and Mike Danzi in Germany--made major careers for themselves overseas in the 1920s-30s period, although they were relatively unknown in the United States.

When the Great Depression of the 1930s put the banjo into a slump in popular dance band music, the five-string banjo survived in the southern mountains. It was played there in a manner similar to the early minstrel stroke style, called "clawhammer."

After World War II, a more syncopated five-string style called "bluegrass banjo" was introduced by Earl Scruggs and it has continued to develop through the present day.

The four-string plectrum and tenor banjos made a comeback through the Shakey's pizza parlors, Your Father's Moustache places and traditional jazz bands of the 1960s and 1970s and continue in popularity today.

The future of the banjo looks bright with present-day virtuosos such as Buddy Wachter on the plectrum and tenor, Howard Alden on the tenor, Bela Fleck on the bluegrass-based five-string, and Chris Sands on the classic five-string, carrying the instrument to new heights.
(copyright L. H. Schreyer 1992)
Used by permission of L. H. Schreyer.

Banjo historian Lowell Schreyer, a former Delta Queen riverboat banjoist, has written about the banjo and its players in his "Banjo World" column in the FIGA magazine of the Fretted Instrument Guild of America for the past 20 years and previously wrote for BMG, fretted instrument magazine published in London, England.