Short History of the Banjo


by Steve Arkin (excerpted from “Old Time Clawhammer Workshop 2005”)

1) African gourd instruments (especially the Akonting from the Senegambian region of West Africa)—any number of strings.
2) Plantation late 18th century (gourd instruments—“banjar,” “merrywang”)
3) Minstrel Shows: 1843 (Dan Emmett, Joel Walker Sweeney, etc.)

a) The “Minstrel line” consisted of a fiddle, banjo, bones, and a tambourine
b) Banjo played Stroke Style – large rim, fretless, thick neck, gut strings, few brackets, often tuned low      (famous makers: Boucher, Ashborn, and Teed).
c) Blackfaced white people (NY, Philadelphia, etc.) copying traditional black music and dance

d) By the late 1840s black people also performed in minstrel shows (route to stardom for Bessie               Smith, WC Handy, Bert Williams, etc.)

4) 1870ʼs–Converse introduces the “classical” 3-finger style
5) 1880ʼs–SS. Stewart campaigns for “respectability”—banjo becomes a white personʼs parlor instrument
6) 1885-1915–Major makers during golden age (Fairbanks, Cole, Stewart, Washburn, Dobson, Bacon, etc.)
7) Survival of banjo in the south—esp. the mountains
a) In the mountains–stroke style to frailing, (aka dropthumb, clawhammer)
b) 2 and 3-finger styles (up-picking, double-thumbing) in Piedmont
c) Charlie Poole, Snuffy Jenkins, etc.—early three finger players
d) Earl Scruggs and bluegrass banjo- -1945
e) Melodic Bluegrass banjo—1960ʼs (Bill Keith, Bobby Thompson, Bela Fleck)
f) Melodic clawhammer—late ʻ60ʼs (Ken Perlmann, John Burke, Alan Feldman, early Bob Carlin, Reed Martin)
g) Emergence of dynamically complex rhythmic style—late ʻ60ʼs (the current “festival” style) (Al Tharpe, Richie Stearns, Stefan Senders, John Herrmann, Gordie Hinners, Mark Olitsky).


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