KGOU

From Slavery To Minstrelsy, The Banjo’s Troubled History

Sep 5, 2018

Many children of the 1970s and 1980s can trace their first taste of the banjo to Kermit the Frog, sitting alone, forlorn but hopeful, strumming his banjo and singing at the beginning of The Muppet Movie. Kermit’s song, “The Rainbow Connection,” was the breakout hit of the 1979 movie, and served as a positive introduction to the banjo.

“That vision of the banjo, to many people, is their only vision of the banjo,” said Johnny Baier, executive director of the American Banjo Museum in Bricktown. The museum is opening a new exhibit that features Jim Henson’s affinity for the banjo this weekend as part of Banjo Fest 2018.

But the banjo hasn’t always been seen in such a glowing fashion. The instrument has a complex past that is intertwined with America’s racial struggles.

“The banjo has a log of baggage with it,” Johnny Baier said as he walked through his museum’s collection of banjos in advance of the museum’s annual Banjo Fest.

Johnny Baier, executive director of the American Banjo Museum.
Credit Jim Johnson/KGOU

“It’s something we wish wasn’t part of the story, but if we’re going to tell the story of the history of the banjo, we have to include the fact that the banjo was introduced to America by enslaved Africans in the mid-1600s,” Baier said.

According to Baier, the earliest banjos, also known as banjars, were not the instruments we recognize today. Early banjos varied greatly. They could have any number of strings. The body could be made from a gourd or other hollowed frame. The shared feature was an animal skin stretched across the body which gave the instrument its signature tone as the strings were plucked or strummed. 

“Those early banjos remained exclusive to the black culture for 200 years,” Baier said. “When white culture embraced the banjo kind of as their own in the mid-1800s, it came at the expense of the black culture, with white performers performing in blackface doing grossly exaggerated performances that really ridiculed the black culture.”

This period is considered the minstrel era and was so offensive and hurtful that the culture that brought the instrument to America abandoned it in large part.

“When minstrelsy came into play, there was a push back… a logical push back, especially after the end of the Civil War among the black culture,” Baier said. “And while the black culture thrived musically, the banjo had little to do with it.”

Folk Art Tree Of Life banjo circa 1860s.
Credit American Banjo Museum

This period of abandonment coincided with significant modifications and technological advancements in the instrument’s design. And that’s why, according to Baier, there are comparatively fewer African Americans represented in the American Banjo Museum.

“There were certain small pockets of black banjo activity. And you had in the jazz community great banjo pioneers,” Baier said. “You had your Ikey Robinsons and your Elmer Snowdens and such, but by the 1920s most people thought the banjo had originated with the white people in Appalachia.”

Today, thanks in part to artists like Taj Mahal, Rhiannon Giddens, Otis Taylor, and several others, African Americans are increasingly reclaiming their cultural connection to the instrument.

“When they found out about the black heritage of the banjo, they were genuinely surprised,” Baier said. “It was a matter of the history being, as I say, so whitewashed that many black people were completely unaware of the heritage and legacy that they brought to the United States.”

The American Banjo Museum’s 2018 Banjo Fest kicks off Thursday, September 6th with various public performances at the museum in Oklahoma City. The annual hall of fame induction ceremony is Friday evening in Devon Tower. The celebration concludes Saturday evening with a concert showcase in Midwest City. Details, including this year’s scheduled performers, can be found by clicking the ‘Events’ tab on our website www.kgou.org.

KGOU relies on voluntary contributions from readers and listeners to further its mission of public service with arts and culture reporting for Oklahoma and beyond. To contribute to our efforts, make your donation online, or contact our Membership department.