The Banjo And Its Prominence In American Culture

author: hiwaychild1 date: 02/18/2013 category: the history of

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The Banjo And Its Prominence In American Culture
When someone hears the word "banjo", one may usually think of the famous riff from "Dueling Banjos" which was an exclusive track in the Movie "Deliverance", but this instrument is much more than the initial impression proposes. The banjo is a complex instrument that has stood the test of time. According to, banjo is described as a stringed musical instrument and is known for its percussive sound. The iconic instrument comes from modest background and has evolved over the years from something resembling a prehistoric novelty to an appealing, somewhat modern design. Banjos have played a prominent role in various cultures. A few of these cultures include the slave culture of the south, the Blackface Minstrelsy, the bluegrass culture, the Irish culture, country music culture, and the American music culture in general. In order to appreciate the cultures in which the banjo has been introduced into, one must first understand the humble origins of the instrument. The ancestors of the banjo were first plucked by the many tribes of Africa. The tribes among this continent held music in high regard and it was quite normal for a man to craft a strange instrument and learn how to play it for the enjoyment of his tribe. Tribesmen brought about musical devices such as the bafolo, a percussive instrument resembling the xylophone; the earth bow, a bass instrument; and countless others (Blue et al). The banjo was among these many instruments. It was supposedly first constructed by cutting a large gourd in half and stretching animal skin over the open end (Blue et al). (The slaves of pre-civil war America used raccoon skin.) Then, a smoothed board was adhered to the side and strings were fastened to the end of the gourd body and the board. The strings were usually made out of whatever material was convenient at the time. These instruments were called many names depending on the language of the tribe, but the most popular name was the "banjar" ("Banjo"). It travelled with the captured Africans to America where it would be played by a multitude of slaves and would begin the evolution of the banjo. The slave populations throughout their existence in America were an extremely musical people. Almost all recreational activity that the African slaves took part in was entirely musically involved (Blue et al). In fact, the masters would frequently call in their more inclined servants to entertain their guests and themselves. Slaves would play many different homemade instruments including such that were brought over from Africa (Blue et al). The "banjar", which would later come to be known as the banjo (The name of the instrument was probably changed because of the dialect of the slaves), was one of these. Henry Ossawa Tanner was probably inspired by this when he painted a depiction of an elderly African-American teaching a little kid how to play the banjo. The work of art is displayed at the Hampton University Museum of Art ("Tanner"). Thomas Jefferson stated in his book "Notes On The State Of Virginia" that "the instrument proper to [the slaves] is the banjar, which they brought hither from Africa" ("Banjo"). Slaves that could play musical instruments were considered to be worth more and were usually treated better than others. Even still, running a plantation was hard, tedious work and any cause for a break was looked forward to (Blue et al). Holidays, birthdays, house-raisings or any other type of celebration would be used for an excuse. Plantation owners even gave the musically-inclined slaves a few days off before the event to be well warmed-up and ready (Blue et al). The music was the focal point of most celebrations. It was essential in these gatherings to have a banjo when people wanted to dance. As soon as the fast-paced chatter of the strings sang out, the people would come to life with dancing. It is almost evident that the southerners took a liking to the twang of the banjo. While slavery was still going on, a new type of culture was brewing with the vagabonds and nomads of the entertainment world in the north. This culture was called Blackface Minstrelsy. Thomas D. Rice and Daniel Emmitt are said to be the fathers of this form of entertainment ("MUSIC" Greenwood). It was formed around the stereotypical image of the happy, singing slave. The acts would usually consist of painted white men acting as if they were working in fields. After a few of these acts, the entertainers realized the comedy would be increased if a banjo was added to the performances. They were correct in this assumption and the bright sound of the instrument energized the crowd. These scenes in the history of America have been depicted in entertainment even after this form was deemed politically-incorrect. There are even scenes of Blackface Minstrelsy in the Second-Best selling book in the world of its time. "Uncle Tom's Cabin" describes a scene of a minstrel singing and playing the banjo while painted and shackled ("1852"). However, the basis for this comedy act was extremely racist and the crude humor was based upon a mutation of reality ("MUSIC" Greenwood). The whites would convince themselves that the slaves were happy when they heard their songs ringing out during the workdays. They used this as a blind comfort for the cruelty of the predicament that some of the slaves were wrapped in. Despite this fact, blackface minstrelsy unintentionally taught many white people how to play the banjo and in doing so, it spread the music to another group of people. At the same time that the Blackface Minstrelsy was going on, many immigrants came to the United States looking for a better life. Unfortunately, most of them ended up in the lower end of society along with the rest of the working class. The Irish were among these immigrants coming over. Because of their position in society, they were forced to mingle in along with the freedmen and other immigrants. This forced position influenced the Irish Americans and introduced them to the instrument of the lower class ("Banjo"). The immigrants took a liking to it and modified it to fit their musical taste. They elongated the neck and stuck with the original four-stringed design ("Banjo"). It looked strangely proportionate, and consequently, the United States Military nicknamed their shovels "Irish Banjos" ("Irish"). Some of the Irish-Americans later carried the innovation back with them to Ireland where it worked its way into the traditional music of that era. The "plectrum banjo" as it was later known to be called, was used in later Irish revival bands in the 1900's. The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem are examples of musicians that had the plectrum banjo in their music ("MUSIC IRISH"). Bluegrass is another culture that was strongly influenced by the banjo. Bluegrass today is seen as a sort of "pigeon hole culture" prominent in the Appalachian Mountains and the backwoods of southern America. Bluegrass music was strongly influenced by the gospel-bound roots of its area and so the lyrics were largely Christian hymn-based. Bands of this genre usually consisted of all stringed instruments such as the guitar, violin, washtub bass, mandolin, and of course the banjo. "Negro Tunes" highly influenced this type of music. (Negro Tunes was a nickname given to a particular fashion of music at the time.) Homemade instruments and others originating from Europe and Africa were used. The first bluegrass bands originated in the many churches based in the extremely rural areas. Many of the churches did not have the funds for a piano or an organ so other alternatives were taken to achieve a lively worship session. Many times, a church short on funds would simply sing hymns a cappella. Some churches however, were inventive and used the musical resources available to them. In this case, many members of the congregation were of lower class so it was common for the men to know how to play the mandolin or the banjo even though it was not fitting to know as such. These bands in present day are now called "old-time string bands" and are sometimes ridiculed as hillbilly bands ("Bluegrass"). Even though the roots of the genre go as far back as the early 1800's, the genre owes its existence in its entirety to Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys ("Bluesgrass"). Bill Monroe was a mandolin player and tenor singer from Rosine, Kentucky ("Bill"). He assembled a band that made up of Lester Flatt playing guitar, Earl Scruggs on the banjo, and Chubby Wise the fiddler ("Bluegrass"). The mandolin timing style of Bill Monroe defined the way a mandolin should be used in bluegrass ("Bill"). Scruggs was famous for the three-finger picking style that is so common in banjo today. He credited this style to his North Carolina roots. Flatt and Scruggs would later go on to start a duo titled "The Foggy Mountain Boys" that also attracted large crowds ("Scruggs"). Their act was most famous for the "Ballad Of Jed Clampet" which is the theme for the hit show "Beverly Hillbillies" in which they were featured in a few episodes. Their song "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" is the held in high regard as a classic among many bluegrass musicians today ("Scruggs"). Monroe played a key role in The Foggy Mountain Boys popularity since he had trained these young musicians in what would later become an all-American genre. The Blue Grass Boys were a very highly remarked band of their age and played in halls such as The Grand Ole Opry ("Grand"). This particular venue would be the bridge between the Bluegrass Culture and yet another that has been touched by the banjo. It may be a hyperbole to say that American music originated in the south, but many historians would argue that the former statement rings true. Musical historians would argue that the former statement rings true. Many of the first recordings by American musicians were country songs and southern folk music. One particular Broadcasting Program and Performance Center was the most iconic country music station to ever hit the airwaves. It was brought to life by the National Life and Accident Insurance Company when they bought the radio station and named it WSM; an acronym for We Save Millions ("Grand"). WSM broadcasted in Nashville, Tennessee hosted by George D. Hay. The name Grand Ole Opry was adopted after a radio show where Hay wanted to show "realism" in the stations music ("Grand"). His monumental statement was "For the past hour we have been listening to music taken largely from the Grand Opera, but from now on we will present the Grand Ole Opry." The Opry instated tons of artists over the years, many keeping membership until death. The most popular act of the first year was Uncle Dave Macon the singer and banjoist. Macon was a farmer and did not pursue his music career until he was nearly fifty ("Uncle"). George D. Hay took great pride in finding men like Macon to play in the Opry because it was part of the marketing technique of the shows. The first recording of Uncle Dave Macon, "Hill Billie Blues" which consisted of his vocals and tight rhythmic banjo lines, was the first documented time anyone had ever used the term Hillbilly ("Uncle"). He was so cherished by the listeners that he acquired an affectionate nickname "The Dixie Dew-Drop". He played in tent-shows with Bill Monroe in the later 1940s and played with many string-bands in his career ("Uncle"). His banjo style was a resemblance the three-finger style of Earl Scruggs mixed with the more traditional "clawhammer" style. Macon can be seen in the 1940 motion-picture "The Grand Ole Opry" alongside his son Dorris Macon on the guitar. David Macon stayed in the Grand Ole Opry until he died in March of 1952 ("Uncle"). It was clear that the banjo played a strong role in the standing of the Opry with radio-listeners on account of Macon being the highest esteemed performer of the broadcasting service. From such a track record, one can see why some say that the banjo is an iconic instrument and can be considered part of the history of America. Its legacy has proved that it is more than just a riff in a classic song. In its infancy, the musical device was nothing more than an experiment to a tribesman for the sake of impressing his living mates. Since then, it has grown far past what was thought. The banjo was the instrument of the poor and enslaves. Now it is the instrument that distinguishes a time and a people. It is the symbol of moving from the dirt of the ground to the opera houses and the shelves of everyday Americans. The banjo played a prominent role in the slaves of the pre-civil war America by giving them a pastime and something to look forward to after a hard day of work. It reached the northern comedy circuits in a crude attempt to make the hard life of the immigrants seem just a little less difficult. It reached the virtuosos of Ireland and gave a rekindled fresh breath on the simplicity of folk-life. It gave a soundtrack to the gospel that was augmented on high in the southern churches. A radio station reached monumental status with a simple banjo man and a few string-bands. These strange breeds of people have had lives that the banjo has touched and have given a benefit to it. It is the instrument of the south and of the poor and forever imprints itself in the history books as such.
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