The Banjo’s Early History and Origin
Banjos originated in West Africa and were brought to America by African slaves. In America, the first references to the banjo describe an instrument made from a gourd with a body that is covered in hide or skin, a fretless neck and strings. Banjar, banjil and banza were all common names for the banjo, as well as bangoe, bangoe and bangie. The Spanish word “bandurria”, the Portuguese “bandore” or West African “mbanza” are the sources of the word “banjo”. More than 60 instruments that sound like the banjo are plucked in West Africa. Many of these likely influenced its creation. The instruments most closely resembling the banjo in West Africa are the kora and ngoni. Below is a video showing Ekona Diatta performing the akonting.
Early sources mention the banjo being played mostly by slaves but also by the “lower classes.” This means that it was likely picked up by white slave-hands during the 18th century.
Because of its association with minstrel shows, the banjo gained popularity in 1830’s. In the latter half of 18th century, blackface actors first appeared on stage. Minstrel plays were a form comedy that portrayed common stories and new stories about slaves. Minstrel characters were often happy, carefree slaves who enjoyed servitude, but lacked the adult mental abilities. This was far from the harsh life slaves had to endure and the perseverance necessary to survive.
Joel Sweeney was a minstrel musician. He had learned the banjo from African Americans in Appomattox in Virginia. Around 1839, he began to incorporate the banjo into his shows. Sweeney is the first documented white banjo player, and the first person to play the banjo on stage. Sweeney was a member the successful band “The Virginia Minstrels” and popularized the banjo making it an instrument for the middle class and key part of the minstrel show. He popularized the use of a drum-like body for country music, replacing the gourd banjo body.
An African slave had created the clawhammer stroke style of early banjo-playing. Following the civil war, James Buckley and Frank Converse published their finger-picking instruction books. These books spread European finger-picking styles just like the guitar. Around this time, the fretboard was also introduced. Two distinct banjo traditions developed in the United States. One was more influenced classical finger-picking, while the other was based on the older clawhammer styles.