About this Site
This web site is devoted to banjos and banjo history. The banjo was brought to America by African slaves and was eventually adopted by people of Anglo-European ancestry. Numerous web sites, books and articles have information regarding banjo history; however, many contain information that is inaccurate. Minstrel banjo tutors being printed today are a particularly poor source for banjo history. Unfortunately, popular myths about the banjo have been circulating for well over 100 years, and most persist today.
Persistent myths have developed regarding the career of Joel Walker Sweeny, who played 5-string banjo in circuses beginning in the 1830s. He was one of the early blackface banjo performers on the minstrel stage and helped popularize the banjo as a stage instrument. Unfortunately, many people assume that Sweeney and the minstrels were primarily responsible for popularizing the banjo as a folk instrument. My research has revealed, however, that stage minstrels had little influence on the folk banjo tradition in Kentucky.
The banjo music of Sweeney and the stage minstrels did have an indirect influence upon the popularity of the banjo among both men and women of the upper classes, beginning in the latter part of the 1800s. A few stage minstrels adopted a more European style of music for the banjo beginning after 1860 and by the 1880s S. S. Stewart of Philadelphia and other banjo makers were marketing banjos to members of the upper class. During this period there was an effort to “elevate” the banjo by divorcing it from its African origins. This was done by claiming that Sweeney, who died ca.1860, invented the banjo. It was claimed that Sweeney did this by adding a fifth string or by building the first wood frame banjo. We know Sweeney did not invent the banjo. Additionally, there is no proof that he added a fifth string to the banjo or was the first to build a banjo with a wood frame. The Sweeney myths are not supported by serious banjo historians. Dena Epstein, a respected banjo historian, concluded the following in The Folk Banjo: A Documentary History:
"...the documents already presented, and those cited in the table below, should lay to rest a number of myths that have been widely published, although it is hard to believe that they were ever taken seriously: that the banjo was ‘invented’ by white men in the United States, that it was popularized primarily by minstrel troupes..."
There is also a wide spread myth that white Appalachians did not have a banjo tradition prior to the Civil War, but obtained the banjo and banjo playing styles from minstrel banjoists after 1860. This myth was spread by academics with little knowledge of mountain history or culture. There was an African American banjo tradition on the frontier and in the mountains. Many people in southwest Virginia, northeast Tennessee, eastern Kentucky and other areas of Appalachia have some mixture of Anglo-European, African American and Native American ancestry. Folk life in the mountains is a mixture of folkways from all three groups. These groups have been mixing since early Colonial days, and there is no reason to assume that the exchange of musical ideas did not also begin very early. I knew mixed race banjo players in Knott County, Kentucky, when I learned to play banjo ca. 1950.
I have articles on this site that I hope will help to dispel some of the myths regarding banjo history. It is also my hope that the banjo history contained on this site will lead to further research by others. There is a need for serious students of folkways to fill in some of the large gaps in our knowledge of the role music played in the folk life of backwoods settlers, beginning in the Colonial era.
Stringed Instrumnets and Ephemera
Stringed instruments, including banjos, mandolins, dulcimers, guitars and fiddles, will be posted on this site from time to time. Some will be clearly marked for sale, while others will be for display only. Also included from time to time will be banjo related ephemera, some of which will also be for sale.
Museum Display of Banjo History
I have had a banjo history exhibit at the non-profit Kentucky Music Hall of Fame and Museum at Renfro Valley in Kentucky for the past few years. This exhibit tracks the history of the banjo from Africa to ca. 1900. The exhibit contains numerous instruments and related ephemera. It is my intention to photograph the exhibit as it is dismounted, and then display the exhibit on this web site in a sequence that follows the time line of the evolution of the banjo.
I have recordings for sale on this site. They are also available from other sources. It is my intention to donate all the money from the sale of these recordings to WMMT-FM Radio in Whitesburg, Kentucky and to the Cowan Creek Mountain Music School in Letcher County, Kentucky.
WMMT-FM radio employs many volunteer programmers, and has been instrumental in providing a variety of music, news and information to people in parts of Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia and North Carolina. The station’s programmers play a wide variety of music, including both bluegrass and old-time. WMMT-FM broadcasts over the Internet and can be found at www.appalshop.org/wmmt/.
The Cowan Creek Mountain Music School’s primary mission is to teach old time music to young people in east Kentucky. People from other sections of the country, however, have enjoyed classes at the school. The School’s web site can be found at www.cowancreekmusic.org.