The Banjo, our American Heritage

Posted: October 18, 2011 in Dr Horsehair, History, Pre Blues, The Banjo

Author : Dr Horsehair

Source :


“The story of the banjo itself is a heritage of America and its people: from the black folk in bondage in the South to the forty-niners in the hills of California, from the top hat and tailcoat of Broadway, to the cowboys driving cattle from Texas to Wyoming, from the fraternities of Harvard and Yale in New England, to the cabin in the darkest hollow of the Appalachian Mountains, the banjo has been there, played by our people when our history was being made. The 5-string banjo is our American Heritage.

We all associate the 5-string banjo with songs from Oh! Susanna and Ring, Ring de Banjo, to Foggy Mountain Breakdown and The Beverly Hillbillies, but how did the banjo come to be our American heritage? The natural sound of the banjo is happy, joyous and exciting, but how did the banjo evolve? The banjo has had a big part in performing the popular music of the American people for two hundred years. It has developed from the simple round stick attached through a turtle shell with a groundhog hide and three horsehair strings into the “bluegrass powerhouse” that, as Little Roy Lewis says, “…will peel bark off a tree”.

Almost all ancient societies have had some sort of instrument with a vellum stretched over a hollow chamber with string vibrations creating tones, but most research indicates that our American banjo was developed from an instrument the Africans played here which they called banzas, banjars, banias, bangoes. Africans, brought to the new world in bondage and not allowed to play drums, started making their banjars and banzas from a calabash gourd. With the top one third of the gourd cut off, they would cover the hole with a ground hog hide, a goat skin, or sometimes a cat skin. These skins were usually secured with copper tacks or nails. The attached wooden neck was fretless and usually held three or four strings. Some of the first strings used were made of horsehair from the tail, twisted and waxed like a bowstring. Other strings used were made of gut, twine, a hemp fiber, or whatever else was available.”



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