Archive for the ‘The Banjo’ Category

Author: Barry O’Connell
Source: Smithsonian Folkway Recordings

“Let us now praise famous men.” Dock Boggs belongs among them. Most of his life was lived in the obscurity this Biblical passage celebrates. He deserves fame for his efforts to live true to what he believed his God expected of him. Never a conventional life his was also shaped by extraordinary gifts. Among them was an almost instinctive capacity to see and hear the events of his world newly.

Dock worked forty-five years in coal mines; only for a short period was he able even to imagine he might make a living as a musician. Like many miners he refused to be a company man, a particularly courageous stance in those days when the coal companies held tyrannical power. He spoke out, resisted, named his own course, and followed it. From the early pre-World War I days he was a believer in union, in the United Mine Workers, quick to educate his fellows in the early 1930s about a company attempt to thwart the creation of UMW local by offering a company union in its stead. “Emmet,” Dock told the miner promoting the company union, “that paper you got ain’t worth a dime. Anything the company’s head of and rules and runs, why it isn’t gonna do the men very much good.” He survived all the years underground without suffering either injury to his limbs or to his spirit, a feat which bespeaks luck and brilliant skill. He never bowed to the subtle arts or flagrant acts of the powerful who controlled his work world, the communities he lived in, and the political structure.”



Author : George R. Gibson

Source :


About the Author

George R. Gibson began playing old time banjo in Knott County, Kentucky, ca. 1950. He learned from his father, Mal Gibson (b. 1900, d.1996), and a few neighbors. His grandfather, George W. Gibson (b. 1876, d. 1963) also played banjo. George is also a banjo collector.

George has a CD: Last Possum up the Tree, JA 0079 D, June Appal Recording. He has some banjo songs on a compilation CD: Banjer Days, JA 0077 D, June Appal Recording.

“Part 1: African Gourd Instruments

Musical instruments made from gourds have been found in many cultures. Early travelers in Africa described various gourd instruments. Richard Jobson documented his travels up the Gambia in 1620-21 in The Golden Trade. He found a variety of cultures, some heavily influenced by Muslim invaders. He observed the following:

“There is, without doubt, no people on the earth more naturally affected to the sound of musicke then these people … They have little varietie of instruments, that which is most common in use, is made of a great gourd, and a necke thereunto fastned, resembling, in some sort, our Bandora; but they have no manner of fret, and the strings they are either such as the place yeeldes, or their invention can attaine to make, being very unapt to yeeld a sweete and musicall sound, notwithstanding with pinnes they winde and bring to agree in tunable notes, having not above six strings upon their greatest instrument …”

Eileen Southern, in Readings in Black American Music, quotes Thomas Edward Bowdich, who traveled to Africa in 1819:

“The Mosees, Mallowas, Bournous and natives from the more remote parts of the interior, play on a rude violin: the body is a calabash, the top is covered with deer skin, and two large holes are cut in it for the sound to escape; the strings, or rather one string, is composed of cow’s hair, and broad like that of the bow with which they play, which resembles the bow of a violin.”

The most interesting instrument found in recent years is the Akonting, still in use by the Jola tribe in Gambia. It is a banjo-like gourd instrument with three strings, two longer and one short, which is played in a down stroke style similar to that used in the mountains. Daniel Jatta and Ulf Jagfors demonstrated this instrument at a banjo collector meeting in November 2000. It is likely that some early slaves in the Chesapeake area came originally from Gambia.”



Authors : Carl Fleischhauer and Alan Jabbour

Source :


“Carl Fleischhauer and I first became acquainted with the Hammons family in 1970. Since then we have visited them regularly, though not as often as we should like, and at some point in our acquaintance it dawned upon us that a full-length study of the family which brought together recordings, print, and photography, and which combined music, lore, oral history, documentary historical research, and general cultural reflections, offered us the best means at our disposal for conveying publicly something of the profound impact the family has had upon us. The Hammonses, who likewise bear a profound respect for the traditions which nurtured them, have encouraged and assisted us at every stage of the project. We should like to express here our gratitude to them for all they have given us.
The study of the history and traditions of a single family, though rarely pursued in American folklore research, has proved exceptionally stimulating. The family unit is important anywhere, but in the case of the Hammonses it weighs even more heavily in the balance with community influences, for the family has been migratory since its arrival upon the early frontier some 175 years ago, rarely staying in one place for even a generation. Following the trail of the family over several generations could not be accomplished exclusively through documentary sources, so we have meshed documentary evidence with the family’s own oral history. The oral stories and the printed documents complemented each other nicely, enabling us both to determine many facts of the family’s peregrinations and to understand better the present generation’s view of the past and its significance”



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.”



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.”