There are few instruments in the world so thoroughly ingrained in the culture of a single country as the banjo is in the United States. A rustic guitar with an unmistakably unique sound, the banjo has a fairly robust history – one made all the more interesting by the fact that its forebears were not found in the United States.
Though the banjo cannot be traced to any single source, it is widely believed that it began life as a derivation of African instruments developed before the United States came into existence. These earlier, gourd-shaped instruments were essentially drums topped with strings, featuring heads covered in stretched animal skin. These older instruments lacked modern fingerboards and did not utilize the same tuning pegs, but their concept and construction was popular enough to travel across the ocean with African slaves bound for the Caribbean in the 17th century. They would eventually turn up in North America in the 18th century.
Though similar to the banjo in concept and build, these instruments were not quite modern banjos, nor were they the original instruments in Africa. They were, instead, close approximations, constructed by African-American slaves and used for entertainment. These instruments typically bore four strings, and continued to utilize old-style gourd bodies, though they were eventually streamlined down to boxier bodies with five strings. The name ‘banjo’ derives from one of the original names for the instruments, which included ‘bangoe’, ‘bangie’ and ‘banshaw’, among others.
The banjo did not receive much notoriety among white Americans until the arrival of Joel Sweeney. The son of a Virginia farmer, Sweeney claimed to have been taught to play the banjo by local slaves, and he soon brought a modified version of the original instrument onto the stage in the earliest American minstrel shows. Often playing the banjo in blackface, Sweeney was highly successful in spreading the popularity of the banjo across North America and parts of Europe as he toured with a circus and, later, solo. Though many claims in Sweeney’s name – that he introduced the fifth string on the banjo, for example, or that he could play with his feet – are probably spurious, he is nevertheless responsible for much of the banjo’s early fame. Soon other musicians took up the instrument, using Sweeney’s performances as benchmarks for their own success.
Though looked down upon as an instrument for ‘lower’ segments of society – or perhaps because of that – the banjo was an extremely-popular instrument by the 1840s, and because it was developed and refined by American musicians most banjo music has roots in American culture. Bluegrass music, which relies heavily on banjos for much of its iconic sound, was developed largely by migrants to the Appalachian regions of the United States during the country’s formative years, and most such songs are rooted in American tradition and culture. Many banjo songs are also inextricably linked with other forms of American media: for example, the song ‘Dueling Banjos’ was included in the popular movie “Deliverance,” which is set in the southern state of Georgia.
The banjo is a part of the United State’s cultural history. It has spread to many other countries in the world, and can be found in the hands of any number of ethnicities, but its development and sound are uniquely American. This is fitting, too, as the banjo was, like the United States, a pastiche project, the amalgamation of several different influences coming together to create a unified, harmonic whole.