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U3A Writing: More On Banjos

Chris Dean of Vancouver takes issue with Ken Harris of Australia on the origin of banjos.

Chris Dean writes:

You may doubt that the banjo was brought to America by slaves, but I think you are wrong. It's pretty obvious that the "banjar" wasn't physically brought to the new world by African slaves, who were sold naked or in rags in the market. It was the idea of the banjo that was brought over, to be recreated with local materials.

The first 100 years or so of American banjo music is associated exclusively with black performers. Besides that, how would a musical instrument in the hands of slave-ship crew member, more likely Europeen than American, be the link that connected the banjo from Africa?

The only aspects of their cultures that Africans slaves managed to carry to the new world were carried in their heads. The ideas they managed to hang onto through years of slavery were those they could integrate into the new culture thrust upon them, such as music, or those they managed to keep hidden form their masters, like spiritual and magic rituals and ceremonies, which by their nature, were always secretive and hidden.

The banjos' popularity is one of the more significant contributions of African slaves to world culture.


And here again is Ken Harris's article

Banjos: The Golden Age

The Golden Age" of the banjo, when manufacturers competed with each other to make the loudest and flashiest banjos, and banjo players paid huge sums for the gold-plated, ivory-inlaid, hand-carved beauties that were produced; is long gone. It began with jazz and finished with the birth of swing, when the guitar gradually took its place in the big bands.
Gone but not forgotten and the story or the evolution of the banjo is worth the telling.

The lovely instruments, made during the 1920's and early 1930's, are rare indeed today, and are mostly with collectors. If you are lucky enough to find one, you will need a very large cheque book indeed to own it.

You could, of course, have a good banjo made especially for you, and this will only cost you $3,000 to $30,000 or so, depending on the decoration. There are some very good custom banjo makers in Australia and their instruments sound almost as good as those built during the Golden Age. Almost, but not quite!

It is generally believed that the ancestor of the banjo, a primitive native instrument known as the "Banjar", was brought to America by the first slaves from Africa. I doubt this, since the conditions on the slave ships would not have allowed room for musical instruments. It is more likely that it came over with the crewmen on the trading vessels.

However arrive it did and it fast became an American favourite. During the 1800's it was used in touring minstrel shows where it was gradually improved, and by the 1850's began to resemble the banjos we know today. One special change was the addition of a fifth string half way up the neck. Thus the five-string banjo was born.

By the end of the 19th century the banjo had four basic strings plus the fifth string that was plucked with the thumb. It became so popular that it came second only to the piano in popularity!

But another change was coming. In the early 1900's a new sound was born, first ragtime and then: JAZZ! The driving sound of the banjo was found to be ideal in the jazz bands of the time and by the mid-1920's every band had a banjo player.

It was a time of vast changes to the banjo. The fifth string was removed, giving us the four string plectrum banjo, which was more suitable for the music. At the same time the four string tenor banjo came into being. Shorter and with different tuning, it too was used in jazz bands and by the 1920's two or three tenors were built for every plectrum banjo.

The tenor banjo was tuned in fifths, like a violin or viola. This was thought to give it more "punch". The plectrum banjo was tuned in thirds. Although similar in appearance, the two banjos are completely different to play.

An interesting development came along around this time. The Irish adopted the tenor banjo! They tuned the banjo down a fifth and played it like a violin.

The Irish Tenor Banjo was born!

Some time later, around the 1940's, some banjo players in America started experimenting with steel picks on the right thumb, index finger and middle finger. Music could be played in a "shower" of notes by picking alternative strings in a roll of eight notes.

This was the birth of the Blue Grass Banjo, actually a five string banjo. Still popular today, the driving ring of the banjo punches through and gives a wonderful lift to country and blue grass bands.

Another type of banjo, extremely popular in the late 40's and early 50's, was the Mandolin banjo, built like a banjo but with eight strings in pairs like a mandolin. Dozens of these instruments are stored away in cupboards and closets throughout the land.

Still another banjo, an instrument which would have remained in obscurity but for one man, was the Ukulele banjo. Again, built like a banjo, but tuned as a ukulele.

The name of this man? George Formby of course! George would have six or eight ukulele banjos behind the curtain on a table, each one tuned for different songs and have his valet pass them through as needed.

How do you tell a good banjo from a bad? Pick it up. Look along the neck. Is it straight? It should be. Next feel the weight. The heavier the better, because that means it has steel reinforcement to stop the pull of the strings bending the neck. If the neck is bent you'll never play chords up the neck.

So there we are. Banjos! Love 'em or hate 'em, they have been around for a few centuries and they seem to be here to stay.

Good luck to them. May they ring out for ever!


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