Sources For Banjo History

Following is an outline of essential reading for those seriously interested in the general history of the banjo. It is difficult to find much personal information in written history about the classes that played the banjo: slaves, freed slaves, indentured servants, wage earners, backwoodsmen; all people of limited means. One quickly realizes that history, for the most part, was not written by or for these people.  History was written by elites for the upper economic classes. The upper classes scorned the banjo as an instrument of the lower classes. This attitude can be documented from Colonial America to twentieth century Appalachia. Unfortunately, the upper class view of the banjo is often cited as if it represented the view of all classes. It is used to argue that no Americans, excluding slaves and freed slaves, played the African American banjo until almost 200 years after its introduction in Colonial America. This elitist view of history defies logic, but can be found in many articles and books and on the Internet.

Africa and the Americas: Slaves brought the banjo to the Americas from Africa in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The primary book for descriptions of the banjo in the Caribbean and Colonial America is Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War by Dena J. Epstein, published by the University of Illinois Press, 1977.

Black banjo playing in the mountains: There was a black 5-string banjo playing tradition in America that persisted in some areas into the twentieth century. African Banjo Echoes in Appalachia, by Cecelia Conway, published by the University of Tennessee Press, 1995, is an in depth study of some twentieth century black banjo players in North Carolina.

The banjo from Africa to the Appalachians: My article, Gourd Banjo: From Africa to the Appalachians, can be found on this web site. This article provides an overview of 300 years of banjo history. It begins with Africa and the introduction of the banjo to the Caribbean and Colonial America in the seventeenth century, and follows the banjo to twentieth century Appalachia.

Appalachian and Kentucky banjo history: Listed below are those articles and books that should be read by anyone interested in Appalachian and Kentucky banjo history.

  1. The Folk Banjo and Clawhammer Performance Practice in the Upper South: A Study of Origins, by William Tallmadge, was published in The Appalachian Experience, Proceedings of the 6th Annual Appalachian Studies Conference; edited by Barry M. Bruxton and published by the Appalachian Consortium Press in 1983. This article is well researched and should be read for an understanding of one means by which the banjo entered the Appalachian frontiers of Kentucky and West Virginia.
  2. Sang Branch Settlers: Folksongs and Tales of a Kentucky Mountain Family by Leonard Roberts; published for the American Folklore Society by the University of Texas Press in 1974. This book is essential for understanding how deeply the banjo was rooted in eastern Kentucky culture.
  3. Folk-Songs of the Southern United States by Josiah H. Combs; edited by D. K. Wilgus and published by the University of Texas Press for the American Folklore Society in 1967. This book is essentially the doctorial dissertation that Dr. Josiah Combs, from Knott County Kentucky, wrote for the University of Paris in 1925. Dr. Combs discusses black banjo songs and provides lists of those that entered Kentucky both before and after the Civil War. He discusses blackface minstrelsy and the tendency of mountaineers to adopt songs from minstrelsy and other sources. He collected songs from Banjo Bill Cornett, Dan Gibson, Tom Kelley and others in Knott County well before 1925. There are two versions of Whoa Mule in the appendix that he collected from Cullie Williams in 1902. Cullie Williams was an African American banjo player in Knott County born ca. 1880.
  4. Ballad Makin’ in the Mountains of Kentucky by Jean Thomas; published by Henry Holt and Company in 1939. Devil’s Ditties by Jean Thomas; published in Chicago in 1931 by W. Wilbur Hatfield. Jean Thomas has been dismissed by most folklorists because she subscribed to an Elizabethan ancestry for all things Appalachian, including music. She was, however, a very acute observer who recorded many interesting details of Kentucky folk life. For instance, she describes in more than one place the practice of making banjos from gourds.