The Folk, the Stage, and the Five-String Banjo in the Nineteenth Century

Posted: October 18, 2011 in Pre Blues, Robert B. Winans, The Banjo

Author : Robert B. Winans

Source :


“THAT THE WIDESPREAD DIFFUSION OF POPULAR MUSIC made possible by the radio and the phonograph beginning in the 1920’s has had a profound effect on folk music is a commonplace truism. But popular music was also exerting a profound effect on folk music in the nineteenth century long before the advent of mass media. In relation to the banjo in particular, the interaction between popular and folk traditions was, in fact, a rather complicated two-way avenue.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the banjo was essentially a black folk instrument; by the early years of the twentieth century the five-string banjo was largely a mountain white folk instrument. Between these dates two other traditions of banjo playing arose: minstrel banjo, a popular tradition, and classical banjo, a popular/art tradition. This paper
explores the interrelationships between these four nineteenth-century traditions of banjo playing. The ultimate African origin of the banjo is assumed, and the question of if, when, and by whom the fifth string was added is largely ignored, since it has been speculated on by others quite frequently; the focus is on the playing styles associated with the instrument. The white folk tradition is of central interest here, since it is the primary one to have survived into the twentieth century, and
therefore this essay concentrates on the relation of the other traditions to it.”



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