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Classic Banjo Resource

A Brief History of the Banjo

Universally acknowledged to be a descendent of instruments brought to America by African slaves, the banjo was primarily associated with that culture until approximately 1840. It was at this point in history that minstrelsy took the nation by storm, with white musicians dressing up in blackface and often oversized clothes, caricaturing black life and music. Minstrel shows usually had a banjo player (in addition to fiddle, tambourine and bones), whose approach to the instrument was usually to strum the strings with the nails of the right hand using a sharp downward motion, creating a somewhat wild, violent sound. This style of banjo playing was referred to as stroke style; and was similar to how slaves are believed to have been playing at the time.
Minstrel Troupe Photo
In the mid-1860s, a new style of banjo playing was developed, largely as a reaction to the minstrel's way of playing. Known as guitar style, because it was similar to the more refined guitar playing techniques of the period, it required that the player pick the strings with the thumb and first two fingers of the right hand. This approach created a more melodious and legato sound than stroke style. In the following 20 years, guitar-style banjo (also known as finger-style, or classic banjo) gained immense popularity in the United States and England, especially in sophisticated, urban white society. Composers and performers sought to transform the banjo from an instrument associated with blacks and minstrels to one which was fit for middle and upper-class men and women.
3 Lady banjoistes photo
The most outspoken leader of this musical movement was Samuel Swain Stewart (1855-1898), an instrument maker and music publisher from Philadelphia. In addition to making some of the finest banjos of the time, Stewart published a great deal of material dedicated to elevating the stature of the banjo in American society. His pulpits were his catalogs, his magazine, Stewart's Banjo and Guitar Journal, and various articles published throughout his lifetime, such as "The Banjo Philosophically, Its Construction, Its Capabilities, Its Evolution, Its Place as a Musical Instrument, Its Possibilities and Its Future."
S. S. Stewart Journal
In Stewart's mind, there was no reason at all why the banjo couldn't be received by musical society with the same respect as the violin or piano. (In his zeal to improve the banjo's status, Stewart, and many others in the industry, even adopted new spellings, such as the singular banjeau or plural banjeaux.) He worked tirelessly to prove that superior music could and should be played on the banjo, and he sponsored the careers of several banjoists of the time (Horace Weston, George Gregory, Alfred A. Farland and Thomas Armstrong, to name a few) who promoted his instruments and ideals. Stewart also insisted that if the banjo was to be taken seriously, its players must know how to read music. Reading from a score helped distance the modern banjo player from the coarse minstrel banjoist, who played strictly by ear.
Brooks, Denton, and Ossman photo
By the mid-1880s America and England were in the midst of a banjo craze: thousands of pieces for the banjo had been published, from simple marches and dances to arrangements of operatic overtures. Highly paid soloists toured extensively, performing original compositions, popular music of the day and transcriptions of music by Handel, Schumann and Mendelssohn. Banjo teachers were readily available in every city, each professing to teach the true method of playing the banjo. Many of the students received by these teachers were young women seeking to improve their status in society. Banjo ensembles, ranging from duos and trios to large orchestras containing a variety of banjo hybrids mixed with mandolins and guitars, sprang up everywhere, especially on college campuses.
Fraternity Glee Club photo
The popularity of finger-style banjo eventually faded. Shortly before the onset of World War I, it was eclipsed by a new music style, jazz. Dance bands had become popular, and the five-string banjo could not supply the rhythm or volume needed for this style of music. The newly popular four-string tenor and plectrum banjos, played with a flat pick, soon took the place of five-string banjos in the hands and hearts of the public.
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