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The Banjo: A Case Study in Organology and Race

Updated: Dec 5, 2018

The Old Plantation. (John Rose, 1785-90) South Carolina. Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum

By Daniel Wheeldon

In the description of the Banjo, Mandolin and Guitar working group page on the AMIS website I stated my belief that ‘for an organological society such as AMIS, the story of the banjo allows tangible object focused research into important sociological and racial questions.’ As a Society we have enjoyed regular contributions discussing the roles of gender and race in instrumental performance and manufacture and the banjo is unique in the story it can tell. Still, it hasn’t been too often represented at AMIS, and good work is being done elsewhere.

The banjo was born out of musical traditions that were brought to the east coastal regions of the Americas by enslaved Africans. Recent research has highlighted the importance of the development that took place in the Caribbean with the emergence of the banza from its African precedents.[1] Eighteenth century depictions show four-string gourd body instruments with three longer strings the same length and a shorter fourth string. It was almost exclusively played by African Americans until the 1820s or ‘30s when mainstream white musicians began to pay attention to the instrument and made it a popular feature in blackface minstrel entertainment.[2] By the early 1840s blackface minstrelsy was popular across the USA and gained success in London and other major cities in England. It remained in minstrelsy for much of the nineteenth century. Today the banjo has largely been ‘whitewashed’, I would argue that a majority of people today are not aware of the black origins of the banjo.

The banjo is unique, even compared to other instruments with strong narratives of racial histories. The saxophone for example, was associated with Jazz and black music, and was considered in politically extreme societies consequently to be degenerate, notably Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia under Stalin. But today its black history is at the very least acknowledged and for the most part well celebrated. Concerning race, the sax has almost an opposite story to the banjo, having been invented for use in European marching bands, an instrument for the colonizers. In writing histories and informing wider fields we have a different problem with the banjo. Today we still live with the cruel legacy of slavery and then of continued racism which surround the origins and development of the banjo.

Blackface minstrelsy was unabashed appropriation which caricatured black culture, music and dance. These events would introduce and reinforce dehumanizing stereotypes of black people across much of the western world. The practice of appropriating black music for popular culture is nowhere better exemplified than by the banjo. So the burden is on us to consider and represent its black origins, especially in considering its role in the hands of black musicians today. This is most famously being done by Rhiannon Giddens [2] who is enabled by her outstanding virtuosity to gain a platform to discuss both the painful history of the banjo and the and the symbolism it has in society.

On the first week of November, the Banjo Gathering celebrated their twentieth anniversary at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum in Bristol, VA. The most prominent researchers and writers on the banjo over the last twenty years were either part of, or intimately known by this congregation. A few remarks against ‘the academy’ were thrown about in juxtaposition to what otherwise encompassed the cream of the crop of academic object-based thinking on the banjo.

At the 2012 CIMCIM/AMIS conference in New York, Shlomo Pestcoe presented a paper on the earliest known depictions of a gourd banjo in use, The Old Plantation.[3] Since then Pestcoe was one of the leading forces in the development of the book "Banjo Roots and Branches" published earlier this year.[4] The book is in part dedicated to him as he died late September 2015. In Bristol his name was held in high esteem by many there who knew him, not least by the other contributing authors in attendance. This book largely reflects the cutting-edge nature of the papers presented at the gathering, and many of the existential questions that we at AMIS have been asking ourselves about the meaning of organology today were answered in practice as the conference unfolded. Read the full schedule of the Banjo Gathering linked here.

Furthermore, his paper on the gourd banjo was taken forward by Kristina Gaddy and Pete Ross who gave a ground-breaking paper on new found evidence relating to the same painting. After stumbling across a group of dioramas at the Rijksmuseum they were able to establish a compelling link to the Surinamese festival banya prei. This research will be fundamental to our understanding of the early banjo in the Americas with direct implications to Banjo Roots and Branches. Kristina Gaddy will hopefully have this available in print soon.

Kristina Gaddy and Pete Ross – discussing The Old Plantation (John Rose, 1785-1790)

Fifteen papers of object focused research were presented, and the range of focus spanned from the discussion of technical specifications and dimensions of a selection of S.S. Stewart Banjos to the banjo as an object of cultural memory for black performers in contemporary banjo music. It was then a great comfort to me, an outsider looking in, to see such a rich variety of topics sociological and historical with such a firm foundation in organology. In my reckoning, at least eight of the fifteen were object focused and so would have been admissible into an AMIS conference program. In addition, they outdid us in arranging an excellent concert by scholars and experts in banjo performance traditions played on real life musical instruments (recording linked below).

There was a clear feeling of community at the Banjo Gathering, visible sometimes with the immediate feedback system as each paper was live peer reviewed with audience interaction staying on the polite side of heckling, but also visible in the long-standing friendships and collaborations that existed between researchers, players, collectors and makers. It was often repeated that the papers presented at this 2018 gathering had changed the thinking of attendees of various specialisms. I will personally be fostering the connections I made at the Banjo Gathering and I intend to return when possible, and in the meantime, I hope to highlight the call to papers for the upcoming meeting in Greenville, SC.


Daniel Wheeldon is a Ph. D. candidate at the University of Edinburgh and currently chairs the Banjo, Mandolin, and Guitar working group for AMIS. Daniel trained and worked in London building and repairing guitars and developed an interest in early guitars and citterns. After completing his masters at the University of Edinburgh in 2015 he was awarded a Chester Dale Fellowship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York where he documented and catalogued their pre-1900 European guitars.


[1] Robert B. Winans et al., Banjo Roots and Branches, ed. Robert B. Winans (University of Illinois Press, 2018).

[2] The nature of the transmission of the banjo into white culture remains unclear and it is an oversimplification to limit its presence to blackface minstrel shows. In the southern US there is evidence suggesting that some whites may have played the banjo as early as the 1770s. I am grateful to Clifton Hicks for flagging this up for me. For further reading on this point read George Gibson’s chapter in Banjo Roots and Branches: ‘Black Banjo, Fiddle, and Dance in Kentucky and the Amalgamation of African American and Anglo-American Folk Music’ pp.385-406.

[3] Also see: Otis Taylor, Recapturing the Banjo, 2013.

[4] Shlomo Pestcoe, ‘The Banjar Pictured: Considering the Depiction of the African-American Early Gourd Banjo in The Old Plantation’, 2012.

[5] Winans et al., Banjo Roots and Branches. Also available as an e-book.


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