The Banjo

22 07 2010

Banjo playing is often associated with bluegrass and country music of southern America. The five string frailing and picking of this parchment made (plastic is used more recently) instrument are not foreign to our ears.  If asked, one would more than likely imagine the banjo to have originated in the southern states.

A historical review of other parchment made instruments include the two-stringed banit of Arabia, the three-stringed Egyptian te-bouni, and in Japan the three-string samisen.  These, including others, date back several thousand years and span the world. 

The banjo we know and love in the south is believed to have originally been brought to the America’s and southern islands by African slaves, dating back to 1688.  More than likely, this version of the banjo was not a five string but rather a three or four stringed instrument.  Arguments surround the development of the five string banjo which added a “higher pitched string next to a lower pitched one in an ascending scale.” Historical evidence does not lend itself to verify the claim of Virginian, Joel Walker Sweeney’s invention of the fifth string.  It is plausible that Mr. Sweeney saw the fifth string on the instruments of plantation slaves and was so inspired to create his own. 

The development of what has become bluegrass music as played with a banjo spanned generations of players and includes various styles.  Frailing is a “hard downward movement of the hand from the wrist, striking a string or strings with the back of the index fingernail and popping off the thumb string on the alternate beat.” This style is assumed to have been birthed by slaves as a result of combining African beats with minstrel sounds from British slave owners.  As classical or guitar banjo rose to popularity in England, later a new type of “mountain music” could be heard, although not exclusively, among southern, white Americans.  This mountain music included frailing but also “double thumbing.” This is a “two-finger picking using the thumb and index finger in alternate movement for playing a melody.”

Today we see a banjo that is played in a variety of ways, from more minstrel sounds to finger picking, and strums (both up and down).   While bluegrass music seems to have pushed the banjo into popularity, the banjo is not limited to only bluegrass/folk music as it has saturated many musical eras and styles. 

References: Bailey, Jay. (1972). “Historical Origin and Stylistic Developments of the Five-String Bango.” Journal of American Folklore. Vol. 85, No. 335. (Jan – Mar., 1972), pp. 58-65.

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2 responses

22 07 2010
Suwannee Refugee

I’ve been wanting to get a ukelele. They have a nice simple sound.

4 10 2010
A New Month, a Birthday, and a Long Lost Blogger « Sweet Iced Tea

[…] I do, and wouldn’t be half of who I am without him. I love that he loves history, America, bluegrass music, Elvis, bowties, bacon, fine dining, and Southern folks, just like […]

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