The story of America’s instrument
The meek and pluck-twangy sidekick to guitar and fiddle didn’t get its propers before Deliverance ruined an entire generation on banjo music and canoe trips to rural Georgia. The lone ambassador of a spectacular and truly (colonial) American history, the banjo is considered by folk musicologists to be the only original American folk instrument. The guitar and violin already existed in their current forms as did Celtic drums, piano and upright (a.k.a. “double”) bass. But the banjo . . . what’s up with that?
Known to Europeans as a banjar, bangie, banshaw, strum strum or merrywang, the banjo originated in the Gambia region of Senegal and traveled with enslaved Africans to the Caribbean, eventually inching north to the Southern plantations of America when enslaved people built their home instruments from local resources—gourds and animals.
An animal hide stretched over a gourd with three or four gut strings, this instrument, called a xalam in Africa, stayed among the enslaved, buoying their spirits and keeping them musically connected to their homeland and to each other, giving them an outlet for personal expression and propping up their dancing in the absence of traditional drums. (Interesting side note: when slavers took the Africans’ drums away out of fear of rebellion, the enslaved took up a practice called “pattin’ juba,” using their hands and feet for intricate clapping and stamping to hold the polyrhythms.)
Known to be some of the most gifted musicians in the new world, Africans often played for white communities, introducing them to polyrhythmic music and advanced singing techniques. So, the xalam’s American “banjar” form morphed in the 1800s when white folks fell in love with its sound and capabilities. Although “merrywang,” sadly, didn’t catch on as a popular name, it’s easy to see the short linguistic jump from “banjar” or “bangie” to “banjo.”
Thus, the banjo made a rather rickety bridge—but a bridge nonetheless!—across cultures, with this ungainly instrument as an unlikely taproot for diverse American folkways. The Africans trained others in their traditional “down-picking” style, which formed the basis for how to play American banjo. Anglos restructured the gourd design to a wood frame and added metal strings. Somewhere along the line the all-American fifth “drone” string appeared on this frame design with the frame itself shifting from wood to metal. Early historians credited this addition to Joel Sweeny of North Carolina though more recent study casts that claim into doubt, as longtime banjo maker Jim Hartel notes that African designs of xalams or calabash-style African banjos already included a short string similar to the drone. So, we’re not 100% sure how the string appeared, just that it did when the banjo diffused across the race line to be an instrument for everybody. That addition, however, made the contemporary banjo a uniquely American folk instrument—a circular monument to successful cross-pollination of cultural traditions (it’s unfortunate minstrelsy period notwithstanding).
Banjo maker Jim Hartel and Carolina Chocolate Drops frontwoman and ethnomusicologist Rhiannon Giddens give context and history of the minstrel banjo:
With the new sounds emanating from the open-backed, round body and metal strings, what we now recognize as “frailing” or the “claw-hammer” technique mastered by such banjo superstars as Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs evolved from the down-picking style. Banjo players today pull from both techniques, as evidenced by Newgrass legend Bela Fleck and incredible, Louisiana-based roots-musician Cedric Watson.
All hail the merrywang, a singular sound of our complex and important cultural roots.