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The Banjo

If the fiddle was the primary contribution to American music from northern Europe, the banjo was the primary contribution from Africa. The banjo has been called "the outstanding American contribution to the music of folklore," and can be traced back in some form to sub-Saharan cultures of the 13th century. It was almost certainly brought to the New World by slaves, and as early as 1781 Thomas Jefferson, writing about slaves on his own plantation, said, "the instrument proper to them is the Banjar, which they brought hither from Africa." Many of these early "banjars" were made from gourds and played with a fretless neck. We have no idea how these sounded, but surviving illustrations suggest they used heavy strings and probably had a deep, mellow sound. By 1847 we have eyewitness accounts of the fiddle and banjo being played together in the South - the origin of the modern string band or bluegrass band.

This early black folk tradition eventually transferred the banjo to whites, especially in the Appalachians. Here, musicians made banjo heads out of groundhog skins and adapted their songs to the instrument's harmonics. A parallel tradition began to develop in the 1840's, with the popularity of minstrel shows, in which professional entertainers performed songs and dances derived from what they interpreted to be black culture. The banjo became the central instrument of these "plantation melodies" and songs like "Old Dan Tucker" entered the pantheon of vernacular music. Early on in the minstrel show era, a Virginian named Joel Sweeny popularized a type of banjo with a fifth, short string and used it to develop a more complex picking style. Billed as "The Banjo King," Sweeny toured widely in the years before the Civil War, and even did a command performance before Queen Victoria.

Long after the minstrel show lost popularity, the 5-string banjo retained popularity with southern whites. An amazing number of regional styles emerged by the 1920s, from the frailing or downstroking style to more ornate 2-and 3-finger up-picking. Some masters, like Uncle Dave Macon, the first star of The Grand Ole Opry and one of the first country musicians top record, could play in as many as 17 styles when he was in his prime. The "banjo entertainer" emerged in the days of vaudeville and early radio, in which the banjo was used by singers who told jokes, did comic songs, and generally "cut up."

In 1945, though, a young man from North Carolina named Earl Scruggs took the banjo in a different direction. He perfected a three-finger "roll" which allowed him to play a rapid-fire cascade of notes that allowed the banjo to hold its own in the driving tempos of the new bluegrass music. Scruggs, who was as much a structural engineer as musical genius, also experimented with ways to improve the instrument's sound, and devices like the "Scruggs tuner" which allowed the player to bend notes by tightening and loosening the strings. Scruggs became probably the single most influential instrumentalist in American roots music, as generations of younger musicians took his style and built on it. By the end of the century, young devotees like Bela Fleck had moved the banjo well into the arena of jazz and even formal music.

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