"Banjo Lesson" by Henry Ossawa Tanner
Nowadays, the banjo is most often associated with bluegrass music, but its roots are firmly embedded in Africa. The banjo, as we know it today, was first made on these shores by African slaves and was an adaptation of a type of instrument found throughout Africa and the Middle East. Thomas Jefferson noted in 1781, "The instrument proper to them (the slaves) is the Banjar, which they brought hither from Africa."
It was during the minstrel era, in the early 19th century, that white men performing in blackface began using the banjo as a prop in their acts. By the mid-1840s blackface minstrel bands such as Joel Walker Sweeney and his Sweeney Minstrels and The Virginia Minstrels were playing banjos to white urban audiences from New York to San Francisco. Many soldiers on both sides of the War Between the States entertained themselves with this newly popular instrument. Between the end of the Civil War and the turn of the 20th century the banjo made the transition from minstrel stage to parlor, due in part to soldiers returning from the war with their new found instruments.
The banjo was adapted to many popular musical styles during the height of its popularity. Symphony orchestras added banjo soloists, dance bands and solo entertainers alike used the popular banjo in their performances. It has been speculated that the Great Depression brought about the decline in the banjo’s popularity, its bright, cheerful sound not fitting the somber mood of the country.
The First World War brought about a renewed interest in “American” music and in the banjo. A banjo was a common instrument in the new jazz bands that formed following the war. In Southern culture, the banjo found a new life, as blues, jazz, and country music were blended into the exciting new sound that would become bluegrass.
Today I thought we’d take a listen to an earlier style of banjo music.