- “The Glory-Beaming Banjo!”
In the mid-1990s when James F. Bollman and I began to discuss writing a book on the history of the banjo that treated its physical development as well as its cultural significance, the topic had not received extended scholarly attention. To most people, “the banjo” was a round-bodied wood-and-metal stringed instrument associated, since the mid-twentieth century, with bluegrass music, whose most accomplished player was Earl Scruggs. In the 1960s some aficionados of the folk revival began to collect earlier, simpler examples, because the sound of these instruments better fit the kinds of tunes they played. Most of these people, though, were more interested in the repertoire rather than in the history of their instruments. Bollman was a notable exception. His extensive collection of banjos, plus written and graphic ephemera, formed the core of our book, America’s Instrument: The Banjo in the Nineteenth Century (1999).
Since that book’s publication, much new information about the banjo’s early history has emerged. In The Banjo, Laurent Dubois, a scholar who is best known for his work on the history of Haiti, effectively summarizes what is known and adds some new information.1 His study is wide-ranging: from the instrument’s ancestors in Africa before the commencement of the international slave trade to the death of American folk-singer Pete Seeger in 2014. The author’s original contribution comes in his discussion of the area he knows best, the early Caribbean, where he has ferreted out many new accounts of the instrument. For its pre-history in Africa and its subsequent development in the United States proper, he provides a generous and accurate summary of other scholars’ work and a suggestive, if sometimes speculative, narrative of the banjo’s larger significance. He wants to provide, he says, “a biography of the banjo” (p. 3).
Why all the fuss about this particular instrument? Why not the guitar, or the accordion, or the piano? What about the banjo makes it so special that it has attracted an ever-increasing number of scholars, who now include historians of music, musical instruments, popular culture, the slave trade, folklore, and performance history, among others? According to Dubois, over several centuries, [End Page 505] the banjo became iconic of a crucial aspect of Western civilization—the formation and maintenance of community among enslaved Africans in their diaspora—and subsequently, in increasingly complicated ways, it was a central conduit between black and white cultures. Arguably, no other instrument has performed such complicated cultural work. His book helps us to understand how and why this is true, as the banjo passed back and forth between blacks and whites in a strange and vexed history. “In this curious instrument,” Dubois writes, “lives a history of American culture, a culture born out of the layered encounters between Africa, Europe, and the diverse societies of the Americas, from north to south” (p. 2).
He begins his story by reviewing briefly the African stringed instruments of the banjo’s general appearance—“a rounded or oval body covered with an animal skin” (p. 21)—and argues that, while the instrument’s “shape, aesthetics, and meaning were influenced by the entire spectrum of stringed instruments on the continent,” including various kinds of lutes and harps, the form as we know it eventually emerged “from a cross-pollination between West and Central African musical cultures” (p. 23). For many years, scholars (Bollman and I included) pointed to the xalam or molo as the banjo’s immediate ancestor; but recent work by a diligent group of historians has located the akonting, still played today by the Jola in Gambia, as its most likely ancestor. The akonting’s “construction,” Dubois writes, “playing style, and the fact that it was a popular and vernacular instrument all suggest that it was likely one of the influential examples in the formation of the banjo in the Caribbean” (p. 47).2 Most experts now agree.
The important point is that there was never anything in Africa called a...