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* The Ekonting: A Link to the Banjo's West African Heritage *

Please note: This is not a commercial site. I do not sell or appraise musical instruments. Please do not contact me to request that I identify and provide background information on a specific instrument in your possession and/or evaluate its worth. That's a job for an accredited professional appraiser, which I'm not. That said, I'll be glad to answer questions and discuss any subject I present here, so long as that one proviso is respected.  

 

 

The 5-String Banjo


Copyright © 2006 Shlomo Pestcoe. All rights reserved.

The Shepard Family children as a banjo ensemble. Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts, c. early 1890s. They appear to be playing instruments made by the S.S. Stewart Company of Philadelphia: the young ladies are playing American Princess models, while young Master Burton in his Lord Fauntleroy outfit is playing a Pony Concert Banjo. The Shepard sisters are, from left to right: Laura, Lessie, Georgia, and Kittie. (Collection of Shlomo Pestcoe)


The Early Banjo

Sometime in the early 17th century, African slaves in the Caribbean began making lute-type string instruments that we now recognize as the earliest forms of the banjo. European observers documented various regional terms for these slave instruments such as creole bania (Surinam), bangil (Barbados), banshaw (St. Kitts), and strum-strum (Jamaica), to name but a few .

Two of the most common names were banza in the French, Spanish and Portuguese colonies and banjar (also banjer, banjor, banja, banjah, etc.) in the English colonies. Probably the oldest extant reference to the actual term banjo comes from a 1749 notice in The Pennsylvania Gazette for a  runaway slave from Maryland, a "Negroe named Scipio," who "plays on the banjo and can sing." 

While they differed in what they were called, these instruments all shared certain structural characteristics:

  • A drum-like gourd body, topped with a taut head (soundtable) made of animal skin.

  • A "full-spike" stick neck which ran under the head for the length of the gourd body to pierce its tail end.

  • 3 to 4 strings. The most commonly documented string configuration was that of the 4-string instruments. This was 3 long strings with the top 4th string being short drone, akin to the short 5th "thumb string" on the later 5-string banjo.

  • A footed, floating (movable) bridge which stands upright on top of the instrument's "head." 

For more on the first banjos, please visit: Banjo Roots: From Africa to the New World

 

Today, we can see that these early banjars were clearly akin to West African gourd-bodied folk lutes, such as the Jola ekonting (also akonting. Casamance [southern Senegal], Gambia, Guinea-Bissau), Manjak bunchundo (Gambia, Guinea-Bissau), the Hausa gurmi (also kumbo. Nigeria, Niger), the Frafra koliko (also kologo. Ghana), and the Gwari kaburu (Nigeria), to name but a few.

Also, they were related to the Mande ngoni, Wolof xalam, Mandinka kontingo, FulBe/Tukulóor hoddu and other wood-bodied lutes played exclusively by the griots, male professional musicians/praise singers who are members of a hereditary griot caste, found primarily in Mali, Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, and Niger.

For more on the banjo's African roots, please visit: Banjo Roots: West Africa


 

Minstrelsy & the First 5-String Banjos

The 1840s marked a major watershed in the evolution of the banjo. A decade earlier, European American circus and stage performers began to adopt the gourd-bodied banjar and the down-picking stroke style playing technique, learned from African American vernacular musicians. These white performers donned black grease paint in crude imitation of their "Ethiopian" sources. Eventually, they would be known as the blackface minstrels.  

During this period, the 4-string gourd-bodied banjar was transformed into the wood-rimed 5-string "tack-head" banjo. It featured a short top chanterelle (drone string)-- known in banjo parlance as the thumb string-- and four long melody strings.

At this point it's worth noting the myth crediting early white minstrel Joel Walker Sweeney (1810-1860) with the invention of the banjo's short thumb string. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The banjo's   thumb string is a genetic characteristic which can be traced back specifically to the lands that were once ruled by the Mande Kingdom of Mali (c. 1235-1500 CE)-- primarily, modern-day Mali, Guinea, Senegal, and Gambia. Of all the myriad different kinds of West African lutes, short thumb strings are only found on all varieties of griot lutes-- Ancient Mali was the crucible of jaliya, the griot musical tradition-- as well as on some Senegambia folk lutes like the Jola ekonting, Manjak bunchundo, and the Bijago ñopata. Even more conclusive is the iconographic evidence found in The Old Plantation (The Abbey Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center, Williamsburg, VA), an anonymous folk painting from South Carolina, c.1777-1794, which is the oldest extant depiction of an early gourd banjo in North America. Here we can clearly see that the instrument has a short thumb string in addition to three long melody strings. If anything, the innovation that Sweeney probably introduced was the inclusion of an additional thick bass melody string-- the 4th string on the 5-string banjo.

The new 5-string banjo had a circular body made from a thin wooden stave bent to form a hoop, which was often characterized as a "cheese-box" rim. At first, the 5-string banjo's skin head was attached to the wooden rim with metal tacks-- hence the sobriquet tack-head banjo. By the mid-1840s, the head was affixed to the rim with modern drum fixtures, a metal hoop held in place by bracket tension hooks and tightening screws. On through the 1880s, the prevalent style of banjo neck continued to be fretless. However, as early as the 1850s, a few makers began to experiment with the use of frets on their instruments' fingerboards in an effort to make the banjo more guitar-like.

It was the 5-string banjo that was thrust unto the world stage on February 6, 1843 with the first public performance of The Virginia Minstrels at New York City's famed Bowery Amphitheatre. Their debut marked the transition of the minstrels from being minor side acts in traveling circuses to commanding top billing in popular theaters as troupes performing full-blown variety shows. The Virginia Minstrels-- which included Daniel Decatur "Old Dan" Emmett (1815-1904), the author/composer of Dixie-- established the combination of fiddle, banjo, tambourine, and bones as the standard instrumentation of the "minstrel line."

In May of 1843, the troupe arrived in England and debuted their unique minstrel show format at London's prestigious Adelphi Theatre on June 19. This marked the arrival of minstrelsy as America's first homegrown pop music form to become a global craze.

(It was also the one that presaged ragtime, blues, jazz, rock and hip-hop. Minstrelsy kicked off the trend which continues to this day of a style of African American vernacular music being appropriated, "repackaged," and mass-marketed the world over as homogenized "pop" by the mainstream music industry.)

As a result, the banjo was embraced overseas and became a world-class instrument. This was especially true in England, where the banjo became a central fixture of early British pop from the 1840s on through the early 20th century.


The Age of the Classic Banjo, 1880-1920

After the Civil War, professional players and makers sought to refine and "elevate" the banjo in an effort to make it a "legitimate" musical instrument that could be marketed to a broader audience. For inspiration, they looked to the guitar, the most popular fretted string instrument of the day. The down-picking stroke style-- the original playing technique that had come over from Africa and which the "blackface minstrels" had learned from African American musicians-- began to give way to the "guitar-style" of up-picking, also referred to as finger-picking, the term for this style that we use today.

In the 1870s, some makers and players began to add fret markers to their banjos' fingerboards for more precise noting. Back then, the preferred method for fretting a banjo was to inlay thin strips of ivory or wood marquetry that were flush to the fingerboard. This is evident on most extant fretted banjos dating from the 1870s up until the early 1880s, when guitar-style raised metal frets became the fashion.

By the mid 1880s, the banjo had assumed the form of the "standard" or "regular" 5-string banjo we know today. Fingerboards with raised metal frets, laid out in standardized configurations and scale lengths, became the norm. The instrument was tuned from the short 5th string to the 1st long melody string as follows: gCGBD (Standard "C" Tuning).

Unlike most banjos produced today, the vast majority of American-made banjos from this period were open-backed. This means that the back of the banjo's "pot" (drum body) was not enclosed with a resonator, a separate dish-like piece attached to the pot. The resonator is generally larger then the pot's rim in order to project the sound forward through the space between the resonator and the rim and make it louder. The modern resonator banjo-- which is now the most recognizable form of the instrument, thanks to its prominence in bluegrass, traditional jazz, western swing, contemporary country, etc.-- first emerged in the early 1920s as a by-product of The Jazz Age. However, the invention of the resonator banjo actually dates back to 1867. It's credited to Henry C. Dobson (1832-1908), a prominent New York City banjo performer/teacher/maker, the eldest of the five Dobson brothers, all of whom were major figures in the emerging banjo culture of the 1870s and '80s. In the 1880s, Brooklynite Alfred D. Cammeyer (1862-1950) further developed the resonator concept with his zither-banjo, which became England's favorite banjo after he introduced it there in 1888.

(Until quite recently, it was believed that another New York maker George Teed had beaten Dobson to the punch, inventing the resonator banjo five years earlier. However, this assumption was based on an erroneous interpretation of Teed's banjo patent, dated April 8, 1862. Teed's patent featured a smaller head affixed to a separate assembly set into a larger rim. Apparently, this was done to "conceal" the tension hooks which held the head in place-- something which makers sought to do to make the banjo more attractive to upper class amateurs. Most banjo historians mistook the drawn depiction on Teed's patent of that assembly set into a plain rim to be a rim enclosed with a separate resonator. However, banjo historian Ed Britt, who's a designer by trade, pointed out that the technical drawing indicates an open-back rim. Conversely, Dobson's patent of July 16, 1867 clearly shows a rim enclosed with a larger separate resonating back piece.)

The year 1880 ushered in the banjo's Classic Period (1880-1920), considered by many to be the "golden age" of the 5-string banjo. Until the advent of the Jazz Age, the classic 5-string banjo would be a prominent fixture in the front parlors of homes throughout North America as well as on the "legitimate" concert stage. Banjo clubs sprang up on college and university campuses. Banjoists in formal evening wear would offer selections of light classical and mainstream popular music on costly "presentation" grade instruments, boasting ornate mother-of-pearl inlays and modern machined accoutrements. Now heralded as the product of Anglo/European American "know-how" and industry, banjos were being churned out by the hundreds in factories and workshops, mostly in Northern cities like Boston, Chicago, New York and Philadelphia.

One of the most influential proponents of banjo refinement was Samuel Swain Stewart (1855-1898), the celebrated Philadelphia banjoist and banjo manufacturer. His company S.S. Stewart (1878-1901) produced some of the finest banjos of the instrument's . A fierce advocate of transforming the banjo into a reputable concert instrument, Stewart sought to create banjos in varying sizes to correspond with the various different "voices" in the violin family and the classic orchestra. Towards this end, S.S. Stewart offered banjos ranging in size from the tiny piccolo to the massive bass banjo. In 1885, Stewart invented the banjeaurine, a short-necked banjo with a regular or large-sized pot (body), to be the main lead instrument in banjo ensembles. It became a very popular model that was copied by rival makers. On the flip-side, he also created some duds that never really took off like the banjorett, a truly weird instrument which had a regular length full-size banjo neck on a miniscule pot.

Yet, the 5-string banjo’s "golden age" was also the period in which the instrument had become enshrined as an essential fixture in the various regional folk and vernacular music forms found throughout North America. Within the African American and African Caribbean communities, the original sources of the banjo, the instrument was still played and remained a vital element in their musical culture well into the 20th century… despite deep-seated ambivalence over the banjo’s association with the negative stereotypes popularized in minstrelsy.


The Banjo Revival

By the 1920s, the plectrum banjo, tenor banjo, and all the various banjo hybrids eventually overshadowed the standard 5-string banjo to the point where it had one foot stepping into oblivion and the other hovering over a banana peel. Most manufacturers confined production of 5-strings to a few new models made in relatively small batches. Today, resonator banjos with original 5-string necks that were made in the 1920s and '30s by the major banjo manufacturers of the day-- like Gibson, Bacon & Day, Paramount, Epiphone and so on-- top the list of "holy grails" for banjo collectors and players.

Still, the 5-string banjo survived primarily as a folk instrument-- especially in the rural South and Southwest where it was used mainly to accompany singing and dancing, as well as backing up the fiddle in old-time country music.

Thanks to the advent of bluegrass music in the 1940s and the Folk Revival in the late 1950s and early '60s, the 5-string banjo is enjoying new popularity the world over for all kinds of music.

-- Shlomo Pestcoe

 

The story of the banjo family, continues with:

Tenor & Plectrum Banjos

Banjo Hybrids

 

* Home * Bio * Shlomo Sez * Shlomo on MySpace * Sufferin' Succotash * Gillygaloo *    

* Yummie * Musical Styles * Instruments * Features * News * Contact * Links *

* Banjo Roots: Banjo Beginnings *

* Banjo Roots: West Africa *

* The Ekonting: A Link to the Banjo's West African Heritage *

Please send mail to info@shlomomusic.com with questions or comments about this web site.
Copyright © 2005 Shlomo Pestcoe. All rights reserved.
Last modified: 02/01/09