The Secret Life of the Banjo


By Robbie Whelan

When you hear the banjo, you probably picture one of two things—Kermit the Frog strumming away or the inbred boy from Deliverance. How can one instrument conjure up images both so sweet and so repugnant? The answer lies in the history of the banjo, which stretches from Africa to Hollywood, with an extended pit stop in Appalachia.

Centuries ago, somewhere in West Africa, the banjo was born on the knees of griots—storytellers who improvised their lyrics as they performed. Almost like forerunners to today's hip-hop artists, griots interacted with their audiences using call-and-response patterns to liven up the crowd. Their instruments—strings and animal skins tacked across hollowed-out gourds—are considered the first banjos.

The earliest versions were easy to make and easily portable, so when Africans were forced aboard slave ships, they brought their banjos with them. Once in America, slaves had no trouble recreating the instruments wherever they went. The banjo spread across Appalachia, but it was quickly pigeonholed as a black instrument.

The Jim Crow Show

Big changes were in store for the banjo, though. In the mid-19th century, the newest and most popular form of entertainment was the minstrel show. White men and women toured the nation dressed in blackface while singing and dancing in a manner that mocked black people. And because they were lampooning all aspects of African-American culture—particularly African dance and music—the banjo was at center stage.

Minstrel shows also meant change for the instrument itself. The early "minstrel banjo" was a fretless, four-string instrument with strings crafted from animal intestines. But metal strings soon replaced those, and then a minstrel named Joel Walker Sweeney (aka The Banjo King) popularized the fifth string, which became the defining characteristic of the modern instrument.

During the next 50 years or so, a strange thing happened to the banjo. Although minstrel shows poked fun at black people, they made the banjo immensely popular among white people in the process. In turn, African Americans increasingly wanted to distance themselves from an instrument that had come to represent oppression and bigotry. In the early 1900s, the banjo only played a small part in new forms of African-American music, such as blues, gospel, and jazz. Meanwhile, it was becoming all the rage in white communities, especially in Appalachia.

Hillbilly Hilarity

The 1930s saw the rise of the banjo in Appalachian country music, thanks to the Grand Ole Opry. A Saturday-night variety show performed in Nashville and broadcast live on the radio, the Opry spread "hillbilly" culture over the airwaves. The banjo played a central role in this, accompanying the antics of comedians such as David "Stringbean" Akeman and Louis Marshall "Grandpa" Jones, both of whom became even more famous later on the TV hit Hee-Haw.

The banjo might have remained an instrument of redneck comedy forever if it hadn't been for one man—Earl Scruggs. Born in 1924 in rural North Carolina, Scruggs grew up listening to the Opry and became convinced that the instrument could do more than accompany stage acts. By inventing the jangly, three-finger technique of banjo-picking—the trademark of today's bluegrass music—Scruggs used his fast-paced, twangy style to prove beyond a doubt that banjo players could be virtuoso musicians. Of course, the trend has lived on. Modern-day banjo masters like Bela Fleck, Tony Trischka, and Bill Keith all play with as much technical precision as concert violinists.

Ironically, Scruggs also recorded the soundtracks for Bonnie and Clyde (ever wonder why high-speed getaway music is always played on a banjo?) and TV's The Beverly Hillbillies. Both projects probably maligned the banjo's image as much as Scruggs's earlier work had innovated it, though not everyone in the music industry agrees. In fact, Juilliard-trained banjo legend Eric Weissberg thinks the soundtracks brought bluegrass into the lives of many people who would have otherwise never heard it.

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We'll end with a clip of Kermit performing "The Rainbow Connection":