Roots of the banjo on YouTube

What better place to start than with Bela Fleck, arguably the greatest banjo virtuoso of all time?

Notice the shorter drone string — just like the fifth string on a banjo — and the drop-thumbing clawhammer style. Even the singing — nasal, high-pitched — is reminisicent of what we think of as old-time Appalachian style; the singer’s speaking voice is an octave lower, as heard in the talking-blues-style spoken interludes.

Another Sana Ndiaye piece. Ndiaye is from the Jolo people of southern Senegal. There’s more of his music at his MySpace page, where his bio stresses a peace- and justice-oriented approach to music in general and the ekonting in particular.

An ancient and extremely rare three-stringed gourd instrument, the ekonting (which looks like a large banjo) is virtually extinct in Senegal. Played using a technique similar to plucking a guitar, its sound is so soothing that historically it was used to bring peace to the villagers in times of unrest.

This clip is from Mark Burda’s 1992 MA Thesis for Governor’s State University. It was shot at the Old Town School of Folk Music’s “Making of the 5-String Banjo” exhibit in 1989.

The great musicologist (and very good musician) Mike Seeger on the gourd banjo.

When they started making banjo heads out of snare drums instead of gourds in the early 19th century, the louder, janglier sound was much better at drawing a crowd. What once might’ve been prized for instilling peacefulness was now used to draw a crowd and whip up American consumer appetites instead. A banjo player had to be a showman, a comic, and a pitchman as well as a musician.

On the white side, Uncle Dave Macon was the last famous banjo player in the minstrel/medicine show tradition, and played a founding role in the development of what we now call country and western — surely the most crassly commercial genre of popular music.

A tune called “Ethiopian Cracovienne,” from oldcremona.

Briggs Banjo Instructor, published in 1855, is the earliest example of the style of banjo playing popular in the antebellum era. As such, it forms the basis of what we know about exactly how people were playing the instrument at that time.

A Cracovienne is a dance, and “Ethiopian” refers to the blackface style of performance that banjo players used. This song probably would have accompanied a dance number in an early minstrel show.

For more from the Briggs Banjo Instructor, check out this page of audio and video.

Uncle John Scruggs acts out the usual racist stereotype engraved in the American imagination by more than a century of minstrel shows with black and blackface performers. Painful to watch. Is it any wonder that African Americans turned their backs on the banjo when guitar blues and barrelhouse became popular?

Dock Boggs learned directly from an African American teacher around the turn of the century. I couldn’t find a video of Boggs’ playing, but this animated short was fun.

Roscoe Holcomb had a unique style, and seemed to have been as influenced by blues records as by string band music — his recorded repertoire includes covers of blues standards.

Another giant of mountain music, Clarence Ashley, reminisces about medicine shows and the early recording industry.

Taj Mahal is usually classed as a blues musician, but his repertoire includes styles and instruments from across the African diaspora, including the five-stringed banjo played frailing/clawhammer style.

The Carolina Chocolate Drops are almost single-handedly trying to revive the once-flourishing black string band tradition, but as the last video shows, they’re not confining themselves to the traditional repertoire.

(A cover of this song.)

10 Comments


  1. Ooh that ‘Pretty Polly’ one is macabre and funny!

    Happy New Year, Dave, and long live the amazing bran tub which is Via Negativa.

    Reply

  2. WOW! Everything we need to know about the banjo and more! Well done Dave. This is to be my New Year treat in front of the laptop this evening. It’s a subject about which I have no knowledge at all, so thanks for this fantastic introduction.

    Reply

    1. I hope you enjoyed some of the videos. Obviously I was trying mainly to counter the stigma the instrument has acquired — a stigma which has existed nearly as long as the instrument, apparently — and make the point that, as Mr. Fleck says, it was not an instrument invented by Southern white people.

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  3. Dave, I came across this link in the banjohangout.com forums. Thanks so much for putting this together, it gives the development of the banjo some historical context in an easy to understand presentation. Any student of the banjo would benefit from seeing the short video comparisons of instruments and styles.

    JP

    Reply

    1. Hi John – Thanks for the comment. I’m really glad this is proving of interest to banjo players as well as those who know little beyond what we’ll call the Deliverance stereotype. There’s so much good stuff on Youtube now — I feel like I barely scratched the surface.

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  4. Thanks for these, Dave. I still haven’t heard them all, but will return. Especially enjoyed the phenomenal Sana Ndiaye. Heading to his Myspace page now.

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    1. Cool. You can find a little more such music on YouTube, too, by searching “akonting.”

      Reply

  5. Thanks, Dave, for the introduction to CCD.
    I’ve been enjoying your banjo poems

    Reply

    1. Hey, I’m glad to give exposure to bands like that — no reason why the folkies should have them all to themselves. Thanks for stopping by.

      Reply

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