Gourd Banjos: From Africa To The Appalachians
by George R. Gibson
Part 3: Gourd Banjos in Colonial America
That the banjo came to America from Africa with enslaved Africans has been thoroughly documented. The most famous quotation about the early banjo in America is from a footnote in Thomas Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia (1781-82):
"The instrument proper to them [Slaves] is the Banjar, which they brought hither from Africa, and which is the original of the guitar, its chords being precisely the four lower chords of the guitar."
Nicholas Creswell, in Journal of Nicholas Creswell, observed a gourd banjo in Maryland in 1774:
" they [Negroes] generally meet together and amuse themselves with Dancing to the Banjo. This musical instrument (if it may be so called) is made of a Gourd something in the imitation of a guitar, with only four strings and played with the fingers in the same manner."
The guitar was commonly played in an up picking style different from the down stroke banjo style common in the mountains. Africans played several instruments in a guitar picking style, so it is possible that some also played the banjo in this manner. Mountain banjo players used both styles, although the down stroke style was preferred for dances. It is very possible that both styles originated from early African American banjo playing.
Dena Epstein documents the banjo in early America in Sinful Tunes and Spirituals. She quotes a description of the banjo from a dictionary begun by Reverend Jonathan Boucher, a loyalist who lived in Maryland and Virginia before the American Revolution:
"Bandore, n. A musical instrument in use, chiefly, if not entirely, among people of the lower classes I well remember, that in Virginia and Maryland the favorite and almost only instrument in use among the slaves there was a bandore; or, as they pronounced the word, banjer. Its body was a large hollow gourd, with a long handle attached to it, strung with catgut, and played on with the fingers My memory supplies me with a couplet of one of their songs, which are generally of the improvisatori kind; nor did I use to think the poetry much beneath the music:
"Negro Sambo play fine banjer,
Make his fingers go like handsaw."
Reverend Boucher makes two separate statements about the people who played banjo. He first states that the gourd banjo was in use among the "lower classes," and secondarily defines it as "almost only instrument in use among the slaves " Reverend Boucher was very familiar with the class system in America prior to the American Revolution. He wrote about his life in Maryland and Virginia in Reminiscences of an American Loyalist (1738-1789). Class in Maryland and Virginia, prior to the American Revolution, was chiefly defined by economic status. The lower classes included people of limited means: indentured servants, apprentices, slaves, freed slaves, wage earners and small farmers.
The view of the banjo as a lower class instrument persisted into the twentieth century. A good description of this bias is in the liner notes to the CD, Rufus Crisp (Smithsonian Folkways). Dr. Marion Mayo, born in 1871, wrote the following:
"Dancing was frowned upon by all people devoted to the church. There was never such a thing as a dance held in our home or in any other Mayo home that I know of. There were, of course, dances held in the neighborhood and all I ever attended or knew about were either square dances or play-parties. A lone fiddler or banjoist often supplied the music. Banjo picking and dancing were often seen at our elections. There would usually be one or two dancers on the floor, dancing something like a jig. 'Classy' people did not engage in this diversion."
The Mayos were early slave owners in Floyd County, Kentucky; the family was originally from Virginia.
The name "Sambo" in the verse quoted by Boucher is interesting because Daniel Jatta and Ulf Jagfers have said Sambo is a very common name among the Jolas in Gambia. There are many references to this name in early America: James M. Wright, in The Free Negro in Maryland, cites "Negro Sambo and his wife Betty," freed by a 1709 deed in Somerset County; Eileen Southern, in The Music of Black Americans, cites an August 18, 1768, advertisement in the Virginia Gazette for a runaway slave: " a black Virginian born Negro fellow named Sambo He makes fiddles, and can play upon the fiddle "
Banjo playing in Tidewater Virginia is described in the Journal and Letters of Philip Vickers Fithian. Fithian was a tutor at Nomini Hall, owned by Robert Carter. The Carter family was one of the most prominent in Virginia. Carter employed, in addition to Fithian, both a dancing master and a music tutor. Fithian's diary entry for February 4, 1774, included the following about two of his pupils:
"This evening, in the School-Room, which is below my Chamber, several Negroes & Ben, & Harry are playing on a banjo and dancing!"
Fithian comments in a letter to a friend: "And as to the Boys they are full of youthful impetuosity & vigor, & these compel them, when they are free from restraint, to commit actions which with proper management they had surely avoided." The class bias in Tidewater Virginia would have prevented Ben and Harry from playing banjo for a white audience. Did they play a gourd banjo? We don't know because Fithian does not describe the banjo. It is probable that by 1774 the banjo was so commonly known that Fithian felt a description was unnecessary.
There may be an even earlier reference to whites playing a banjo-like instrument in Secular Music in Colonial Annapolis, The Tuesday Club (1745-56). The author, John Barry Talley, quotes a letter by one or the Tuesday Club members:
"Bacon wrote to Callister, 'Your strum-strum must wait til the garden will permit me a day or two's leisure to tinkle it at Oxford.' "
This could have been the 'strum-strum' that Sir Hans Sloane described in Jamaica.
The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Collection at Colonial Williamsburg has a watercolor, The Old Plantation, which was found in South Carolina. This painting, which is assumed to be late eighteenth century, depicts a four-string gourd banjo with three long strings and one short. This painting has often been cited as evidence that the short banjo string was not a later invention. John Huron of Bristol, Tennessee, made a replica of this banjo for Colonial Williamsburg.
There is a later description of a banjo-like instrument that appears somewhat different from those observed in the Chesapeake area. Fredrika Bremer visited America in 1849-50. Eileen Southern, in Readings in Black American Music, quotes Bremer's Diary entry for Columbia, South Carolina, on June 10, 1850:
" another young Negro came and sung with his banjo several of the Negro songs The banjo is an African instrument, made from the half of a fruit called the calabash, or gourd, which has a very hard rind. A thin skin or piece of bladder is stretched over the opening, and over this one or two strings are stretched, which are raised on a bridge. The banjo is the Negroes' guitar, and certainly it is the first born among stringed instruments."
Southern says of Bremer: "While in America, Bremer eagerly sought opportunities to come in contact with both free and enslaved blacks." Bremer was an astute observer, so there is no reason to believe her description of a gourd banjo with "one or two strings" is incorrect. The number of strings varied on banjo-like gourd instruments described in Africa and the West Indies. Slaves may have introduced banjo-like instruments at different times and in different places. It seems likely, however, that the forerunner of the uniquely American banjo was introduced in the Chesapeake area of Virginia and Maryland in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
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