Banjo Roots and Branches (4 of 4): Inquiries into White and Black Banjo in 19th and 20th Century America

This post 4 of 4 in the series Banjo Roots and Branches.

The world of the banjo expanded greatly in the second half of the 19th century. Touring blackface minstrel performers began popularizing the instrument with white Americans starting in the 1830s. Some white Southerners learned to play the banjo from African Americans prior to that, but the extent to which it happened is unknown. Banjo manufacturers supplied instruments to professionals and amateurs alike. Instructional manuals gradually shifted from teaching the down-stroke techniques that persisted from the banjo’s African ancestors to an up-picked guitar style of playing. Guitar style would develop in different ways among white and black banjo players, eventually laying the foundation for bluegrass banjo playing in the 1940s. By the turn of the 20th century, the banjo had emerged as a common parlor instrument in middle class American homes and was played in a variety of musical styles.

This is the fourth of four posts that mine the latest scholarship on banjo history from the book Banjo Roots and Branches (University of Illinois Press, 2018). The first post explored the African roots of the banjo. The second post discussed developments that took place in the Caribbean in the context of the transatlantic slave trade. The third post examined and contextualized the earliest references to the banjo on the North American continent. This post delves into the growth in popularity of the banjo and the exchange of banjo playing between African Americans and European Americans.

Banjo Roots and Branches

Black Banjo, Fiddle, and Dance in Kentucky

In his chapter “Black Banjo, Fiddle, and Dance in Kentucky and the Amalgamation of African American and Anglo-American Folk Music,” banjoist and researcher George R. Gibson shows how Kentucky fiddle and banjo music and dance are the result of both African American and European American people. In the process, he challenges some previous held conceptions about the banjo. He theorizes that, rather than developing in the Caribbean, the banjo may have been created in Africa by Luso-Africans. Luso-Africans are creoles of mixed Portuguese and African ancestry.  Gibson references a 1620 quote by Richard Jobson stating that instruments found along the Gambia River have “pinnes they winde and bring to agree in tunable notes.” This quote may describe tuning pegs, a defining feature that distinguishes it from its African predecessors. Other writers in the book determined that these European design elements were added in the Caribbean. Gibson notes that the Portuguese had been in Africa more than one hundred years by 1620, and that Luso-Africans may have combined these European and African elements into the banjo during that time.

Gibson also challenges the commonly-held idea that minstrel performers were the first white people to play the banjo. Joel Walker Sweeney and Archibald Ferguson are the first known minstrel banjoists in the 1830s, but Gibson argues that whites were learning the banjo prior to that in the South. The only documented white banjoist prior to 1828 was James Hollyday in the 1740s or 50s. Hollyday played the banjo in Maryland among people in slavery who were owned by his mother. Gibson notes that whites and blacks were living in close proximity in Kentucky and other parts of the South. They interacted socially and played music together for dances. There were black fiddlers in Kentucky by 1780 and a documented banjo player by 1781. Establishing that white fiddlers were adopting music from African Americans, Gibson determines that whites must also have been learning banjo at this time. This is certainly reasonable, but concrete historical evidence has yet to be found to support it.

The Growing Popularity of the Banjo

Blackface minstrel performances that featured the banjo began making the instrument popular with middle class whites by the 1840s. Manufacturers, including William Boucher and the Dobson Brothers, William A. Cole, H.C. Fairbanks, and James Ashborn, produced banjos and sold them to minstrel performers and non-performers alike. The bodies of these instruments were no longer made from gourds. Instead, they were constructed with wooden hoops, as they are today, which are easier to mass produce consistently than gourd bodies.

Wood-Rimmed Minstrel Banjo built by William Boucher, Jr.
Wood-Rimmed Minstrel Banjo built by William Boucher, Jr.

Starting with Briggs’ Banjo Instructor, published in 1855, books provided instruction on how to play the instrument. A series of these banjo tutors followed, including Phil Rice’s Method for the Banjo (1858), Buckley’s New Banjo Method (1860), Frank Converse’s Banjo Without a Master (1865),  Frank B. Converse’s New and Complete Method for the Banjo (1865), Buckley’s Banjo Guide (1868), and others.

Briggs' Banjo Instructor of 1855
Briggs’ Banjo Instructor of 1855

“Briggs’ Corn Shucking Jig” from Briggs’ Banjo Instructor (1855)

The banjo tutors are available for free download on Tim Twiss’s website and elsewhere online. They are a great resource for understanding banjo-playing techniques and repertoire during this time period. In Banjo Roots and Branches, Jim Dalton examines the tutors to analyze the relationship between the intonational practices and repertoire of the banjo. Dalton finds that the repertoire became increasingly complex in the 1850s and 1860s. The evolving musical features of the repertoire corresponded to the transition of the banjo from an unfretted to a fretted instrument starting around the 1860s.

Frets are metal strips inserted into the fingerboard of stringed instruments that divide the neck into fixed segments of intervals. Fretted instruments (banjos, guitars, mandolins) are generally easier to play in tune than unfretted instruments (violins, violas, cellos), though the nature of the fixed intervals requires some compromise in intonation. Most banjos today are fretted, but fretless banjos are still popular with some players.

Unfretted Banjo Neck
Unfretted Banjo Neck
Fretted Banjo Neck
Fretted Banjo Neck

The Big World of the Banjo

Between the Civil War and the turn of the 20th century, the banjo continued to grow in popularity. Banjo promoters, including manufacturers like S.S. Stewart, successfully sought to make the banjo at home in the Victorian-era parlors of middle-class Americans. Manufacturers made instruments that were smaller in size and had intricate pearl inlays in the neck and headstock. Promoters deliberately disassociated the banjo from its African roots.

S.S. Stewart Orchestra No. 2 (c.1893-94)
S.S. Stewart Orchestra No. 2 (c.1893-94)


As evidenced by the banjo tutors and late 19th century recordings, the dominant playing style changed during this period. It transitioned from the early down-stroke style (a.k.a. stroke, clawhammer, or frailing), as it was played by earlier African American musicians and blackface minstrel performers, to an up-pick style, now referred to as guitar banjo style or classic banjo style. As the name implies, guitar banjo borrows the up-picking technique from the guitar.

The repertoire of the banjo also expanded to include sentimental songs of the time, European waltzes, mazurkas, polkas, and the new American style of ragtime, which has its origins in African-American communities. Banjo, Mandolin, and Guitar Clubs were common in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These groups, featuring stringed instruments of various sizes and shapes, became especially popular on college campuses.

Banjo, Mandolin, and Guitar Club at Washington & Jefferson College (1890s)
Banjo, Mandolin, and Guitar Club at Washington & Jefferson College (1890s)

Sylvester Louis “Vess” Ossman was a leading banjo player and one of the most recorded artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Starting in 1893 he recorded hundreds of ragtime songs, marches, cakewalks, popular songs, and intermezzos for various early disc and cylinder recording companies.

Gus Cannon – “The Colored Champion Banjo Pugilist of the World”

The parlor banjo movement is often thought of as exclusively white, but in Banjo Roots and Branches, researcher and banjoist Tony Thomas shows how African Americans were part of it. Thomas examines banjo player Gustavus “Gus” Cannon’s life and work to show how popular musical trends and banjo playing techniques were evident in his recordings.

Previous commentators have assessed that Cannon’s playing style emerged from black folk banjo traditions, or that his style was “unorthodox.” Thomas shows how the recordings he made between 1927 and 1930 actually demonstrate that he was an up-to-date professional musician well-versed in the music of “the big world of the banjo” of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Cannon was born on a plantation in Marshall County, Mississippi in 1883. As a young adolescent, he learned both down-stroke and up-pick banjo techniques from African American banjo players in the Mississippi Delta. He began playing banjo and fiddle for black country dances at age 14.

Most of Cannon’s early musical experiences were in the Mississippi Delta, where ragtime music was pervasive. African Americans there called most secular music, including early blues, “ragtimes.” Cannon learned to play traditional black fiddle tunes as well as newer ragtime, show, and dance music. He enjoyed W.C. Handy’s twenty and ten piece brass dance bands that played throughout the area.

Around 1908 Memphis, Tennessee became his new musical home. He toured with medicine shows, played for dances, and put together a jug band. For the new dances that were developing in the black South, Cannon played up-to-date “swinging, raggy music,” as Thomas calls it. Thomas cites Cannon’s recording of “Jazz Gypsy Blues” as an example.

Cannon was part of the early 20th century show business world of traveling musicals, medicine, tent, and minstrel shows that spread new dances and songs into remote areas. The music he recorded and his playing style reflect that. Cannon was a master of several different banjo playing techniques, including guitar style, clawhammer, strumming, and 2-finger up-picking.

Cannon plays guitar banjo, a style closely associated with ragtime, on many of the thirty-four recordings he made between 1927 and 1930. Thomas concludes that Cannon’s playing “marks the exchange between African American banjo playing and the late 19th and early 20th century’s big international world of popular music and parlor banjo.”

Cannon recorded “Walk Right In” with Cannon’s Jug Stompers in 1929. The song was a hit for the Rooftop Singers in 1963.

Defining a Regional Banjo Style: “Old Country Style” Banjo or Piedmont Two-Finger Picking

In the final chapter of Banjo Roots and Branches, editor Robert B. Winans examines a style of banjo playing that is prominent in the Piedmont area of North Carolina and southern Virginia. Referred to by many of its practitioners as “old country style,” it came into prominence in the late 1920s and 30s. Several of its practitioners indicate that they were influenced by the two-finger playing of African American guitarists. The style shows one of the ways that up-picked guitar banjo evolved with white musicians.

Old country style is an up-picking style that uses the thumb and index finger. It is generally played in a band context, not by solo banjoists. It incorporates syncopated, arpeggiated chords, and bass runs to provide rhythm and harmonic structure to a song. Two and three-finger up-picking styles had largely replaced down-stroke playing in the Piedmont in the early 20th century.

Winans looks in detail at some of the prominent players of this style, including Glenn Davis (1909-86), Daner Johnson (1879-1955), and Kelly Sears (1907-84). Daner led the way at the turn of the 20th century for other Piedmont banjo players in this technique, though he used three fingers instead of two. He did not make any recordings, but Sears claims that his own recording of “Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane” was played in Daner’s style.

From the album North Carolina Banjo Collection, produced by Bob Carlin


Our knowledge of the banjo is still being shaped by the work of scholars, including those that contributed to Banjo Roots and Branches. While not a comprehensive history of the banjo, the book sheds new light on the instrument’s roots in Africa, its development in the Caribbean, and its spread and traditions in North America. An endlessly fascinating instrument, this is certainly not the last of my posts about the banjo.

Spotify Playlist

Banjo Roots and Branches (3 of 4): Into North America – Early Banjo Sightings

This post 3 of 4 in the series Banjo Roots and Branches.

The banjo in 18th century North America was an instrument of African American culture, but the fiddle was far more commonly-played by black musicians. There are a total of eighty-five documented banjo sightings between 1736 and 1840. All but four of these were in reference to African American musicians. Unlike the fiddle, the banjo was primarily a southern instrument. More than half of the banjo sightings were in the Chesapeake Bay states of Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware. The rest were widely scattered with small clumps around New York City and New Orleans.

This is the third of four posts that mine the latest scholarship on banjo history from the book Banjo Roots and Branches (University of Illinois Press, 2018). The first post explored the African roots of the banjo. The second post discussed developments that took place in the Caribbean in the context of the transatlantic slave trade. This post examines and contextualizes the earliest references to the banjo on the North American continent.

Banjo Roots and Branches

The Earliest Banjo Reference in North America

The earliest known reference to a banjo in North America comes from a letter published on March 7, 1736 in John Peter Zenger’s The New York Weekly Journal: Containing the freshest Advices, Foreign, and Domestick. The letter is attributed to someone identified only as “The SPY.” The SPY’s letter describes a fair that took place in “the Field, little Way out a Town.” Historians have determined that this location was likely “the Common” of early New York City. The Common was an open civic space used as a common grazing land and for public gatherings. Previous historians believed that The SPY’s account of an African American fair that took place in lower Manhattan described a Pinkster frolic. In Banjo Roots and Branches, banjo historian Greg Adams finds evidence to suggest that the celebration described is actually a Paas (Easter) Monday fair, and he determines that April 10, 1730 is the likely date of the event.

The SPY mentions the “banger” being played three times throughout the letter. There is no description of the banger, so it may be assumed that the instrument was sufficiently well-known as to not warrant further explanation. The SPY account also references dancing while drums and percussion instruments are played.

The Plain partly covered with Booths, and well crouded with Whites, the Negroes divided into Companies, I suppose according to their different Nations, some dancing to the hollow Sound of a Drum, made of the Trunk of a hollow Tree, othersome to the grating rattling Noise of Pebles or Shells in a small Basket, others plied the Banger, and some knew how to joyn the Voice (to) it.

African-style drums and rattles similar those described were widely reported throughout the Caribbean. The 1737 census shows that “Negroes” made up approximately 20% of the population of New York City. They were almost all enslaved. Most had been acclimated to slavery, the English language, and Afro-Creole culture (“seasoned”) in the Caribbean where the early gourd banjo took shape. Runaway slave advertisements corroborate the fact that the early gourd banjo could be found in the New York metropolitan area during the 18th century.

The Depiction of the African American Early Gourd Banjo in The Old Plantation, South Carolina, 1780s

The painting The Old Plantation (see photo at the top of this post) provides the earliest depiction of a banjo in North America. It was painted by slave-holding planter John Rose in South Carolina’s Low Country during the 1780s.  The painting is a richly-detailed portrayal of African American music and dance in the 18th century. In Banjo Roots and Branches, Shlomo Pestcoe examines various features of the banjo pictured, determining which of these features are shared with other early gourd banjos, West African predecessors, and later European-American built minstrel banjos. He also shows the West African precedents and influence of the depicted dance.

The Old Plantation banjo includes features that define it as an early gourd banjo and differentiate it from known instruments in West Africa including a flat, fretless fingerboard and wooden tuning pegs. It is a  4-string full spike lute, meaning the neck passes over or through the entire body of the instrument. Features that it shares with West African spike lutes include decorative sound holes in the body and a short thumb string which provides a musical drone – a defining feature of banjos to this day.

The following table summarizes the physical features of various early gourd banjos. It indicates whether or not each feature was present on:

  • Subsequent early wood-rimmed minstrel banjos of the 1840s
  • West African ancestors to the banjo
  • European plucked and bowed lutes, including guitars and violins, which probably inspired some design features

There are images of most of these instruments at the bottom of this blog post and more information in post 1 and post 2 of this series.

The dance depicted in The Old Plantation is reminiscent of communal social dances throughout West Africa. The ring formation is a feature of social dances found throughout the African diaspora. The male dancer holds a stick or wooden staff, which is a common prop in some West African dance traditions. Pestcoe suggests that the stick might indicate a connection to stickfighting. Stickfighting was a martial art in the Caribbean in the 18th century, and it was also documented in The SPY’s 1736 letter to The New York Weekly Journal.

Historian/writer Kristina Gaddy and researcher/banjo builder Pete Ross (a contributor to the book Banjo Roots and Branches) have done more recent research into the meaning of the dance depicted in The Old Plantation. The scene in The Old Plantation is almost identical to the Slavendons papier-mache dioramas created by Gerrit Schouten between 1810 and 1839 depicting scenes in Suriname. The people in the dioramas are participating in a role-playing religious ceremony that includes a dance known as the banya prei. The key elements of the King, the Queen, the hut, the vessel, dancing, singing, and the banjo are found in The Old Plantation, the Slavendons, and historical documents describing other ceremonies witnessed in the Americas and the Caribbean. In some historical records, “playing banya” or “playing banjo” may have referred to the dance ritual, not the musical instrument.

The video below shows me playing “Pompey Ran Away” on a banjo built by Pete Ross. The banjo is patterned after detail from The Old Plantation. “Pompey Ran Away” appears in the book A Selection of Scotch, English, Irish and Foreign Airs, published by James Aird in 1782. The book indicates that the tune is a “Negroe Jig,” [sic] but Aird’s source for the tune not known.

Evidence from Runaway Slave Advertisements

Runaway slave advertisements included details about the missing individuals that might have helped people identify them. Often this included mention of musical instruments that they played. Robert B. Winans, editor of the Banjo Roots and Branches book, read more than 12,000 runaway slave advertisements from 20,000 issues of 300 newspapers from the 18th century. He found references to a total of 761 black musicians. In Banjo Roots and Branches Winans organizes the data into tables and analyzes it.

Perhaps most strikingly is the overwhelming majority of musicians who played the violin or fiddle. A total of 627 of the 761 musicians (88.4%) played the instrument. Approximately 66% of the advertisements referred to the instrument as a fiddle and 33% as a violin. The remaining instruments mentioned, in descending order of popularity, are fife (50), drum (21), flute (18), banjo (18), French horn (8), pipes (3), and guitar (1).

All of the instrumentalists described in the advertisements were adult males. Some women and men were identified as singers, but Winans’ study focused only on musicians who played instruments. Curiously, the data shows that the ratio of musicians to the total number of adult male runaways was highest in the North (1:10 in New England) and decreased steadily moving towards the South (1:63 in the Deep South). The majority of the musicians were house servants or craftsmen, with occupations that included carpenter, cobbler, wheelwright, distiller, weaver, boatman, and butcher. Some were identified as farmers.

A few of the fiddlers made money playing music. Dan from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, is described as “fond of playing the fiddle, and has a good deal of money with him which he acquired that way.” Evidence indicates that these musicians made money playing for tips on the streets, at dances, and in brothels. Others made money by teaching people how to play the instrument or providing music for dancing masters who gave dance instructions.

Approximately 83% of the banjo players were from the South, with 66% from Maryland or Virginia. The three players from the North were from New York City, New York; Hanover, Pennsylvania; and Elizabeth, New Jersey. Among the eighteen references to black musicians who played the banjo, there were eight different spellings of the instrument: bonja, banjo, banger, bangeo, banjoe, bongo, banjeau, and banjeo.

Winans concludes that the banjo was probably not widely played in 19th century North America. There were approximately thirty-six fiddlers for every banjo player advertised. Data collected in the 1840s through 1860s show that by this time the banjo was much more common among black musicians, with half as many banjo players as fiddlers.

Part 4 of this 4 part series considers various aspects of white and black banjo playing in 19th and 20th century America.

Boucher Banjo
Early Wood-Rimmed Minstrel Banjo built by William Boucher, Jr. in Baltimore Maryland in 1845
Close-Up of Banjo in The Old Plantation
“The Old Plantation” Banjo
Afro-Surinamese Panja
Afro-Surinamese Panja
Haitian Banza
Haitian Banza
Afro-Surinamese Creole Bania
Afro-Jamaican Strum-Strump
Afro-Jamaican Strum-Strump

Banjo Roots and Branches (2 of 4): Into the New World – Caribbean Developments

This is post 2 of 4 in the series Banjo Roots and Branches.

The wood-rimmed five-string banjo emerged in the United States in the context of blackface minstrel performance around 1840. Its immediate forebear is the early gourd banjo, which was developed by enslaved West Africans in the Caribbean during the 17th century. The design of the early gourd banjo is fundamentally West African, but the instrument is not an exact replica of any known African instrument.

This is the second of four posts that mine the latest scholarship on banjo history from the book Banjo Roots and Branches (University of Illinois Press, 2018). The first post explored the African roots of the banjo. This post will look at the developments that took place in the Caribbean in the context of the transatlantic slave trade. The focus is on two early gourd banjos, one from Jamaica and one from Haiti, that share remarkable similarities with a banjo featured in a South Carolina painting from the late 18th century.

Banjo Roots and Branches

Most of the information in this post is adapted from Chapter 7, “‘Strum Strumps’ and ‘Sheepskin Guitars’: The Early Gourd Banjo and Clues to its West African Roots in the Seventeenth-Century Circum Caribbean” by ethno-organologist and musician Shlomo Pestcoe, and Chapter 9, “The Haitian Banza and the American Banjo Lineage” by researcher and banjo builder Pete Ross.

African Instruments in the Caribbean

The earliest historic record of a West African plucked lute in the Caribbean comes from  Cartagena de Indias, present-day Columbia’s port city of Cartagena on the Caribbean Sea. In the 17th century, Cartagena de Indias was the hub of the Spanish transatlantic slave trade. In his 1627 book, Spanish Jesuit priest Alonso de Sandoval wrote that the enslaved people from Angola “have naturally happy hearts and play little guitars called banzas, played by placing the head of the guitar on the breast in a very delicate and graceful way.” Banza was a West-Central African general term for string instruments. Pestcoe determines that the playing technique described makes it more likely that the banzas referred to by Sandoval were not lutes (string instruments with necks that are distinct from their bodies – like banjos) but some other type of African chordophone, such as a pluriarc.


Sandoval also wrote about “the Guineans” and their love of music and dance. The Portuguese and Spanish referred to West Africa’s Upper Guinea Coast, from Senegal down to Sierra Leanne, as  Guinea. “The energy that they put into shouting and dancing is amazing. Some play guitars similar to our Spanish-style guitars, although they are made of rough sheepskin.” Pestcoe concludes that these sheepskin guitars may possibly have been early gourd banjos, but there is not enough available information to draw that conclusion.

The Creole Bania in Suriname

The oldest known early gourd banjo still in existence is the Creole bania. British-Dutch captain John Gabriel Stedman brought the instrument from the South American country of Suriname (part of the Caribbean) to Holland in 1777. After examining the instrument, Ross determined that it was an early gourd banjo, but “we cannot reliably say how similar it is to the ancestors of the modern banjo as they existed in the eighteenth-century North American colonies.

Creole Bania
Creole Bania

The Strum-Strump in Jamaica

The earliest written record of an early gourd banjo comes from the writing of Sir Hans Sloane. Sloane was a British physician and naturalist who spent fifteen months in Jamaica in the late 1680s. Sloane published a book in 1707 called A Voyage to the Islands of Madera Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers and Jamaica. The book primarily cataloged plants, trees, and wildlife, but it also included this observation from Sloane’s stay in Jamaica:

The Negroes are much given to Venery, and although hard wrought, will at nights, or on Feast days Dance and Sing; Their songs are all bawdy, and leading that way. They have several sorts of Instruments in imitation of Lutes, made of small Gourds fitted with Necks, strung with Horse hairs, or the peeled stalks of climbing Plants or Withs. These Instruments are sometimes made of hollow’d Timber covered with Parchment or other Skin wetter, having a Bow for its Neck, the Strings ty’d longer or shorter, as they would alter their sounds. The Figures of some of these Instruments are hereafter graved.

Hans Sloane Plate III
Plate III from Hans Sloane’s A Voyage to the Islands of Madera Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers and Jamaica

The caption to Sloane’s illustration, translated from Latin, refers to the two instruments in front as “Strum Strumps.” The coiled plant fiber pictured below the instruments is used to make their strings. The instrument in the back is a form of harp unique to West Africa.

The website Musical Passage offers an audio interpretation of musical notation that is found in Voyage to the Islands. Admitting that not enough information is available to recreate the music precisely, project collaborators Laurent Dubois, David Garner, and Mary Caton Lingold present recordings that “create an opportunity to reflect on how this early music may have sounded.”

The Banza in Haiti

In 1841 French abolitionist, writer, traveler and collector Victor Schoelcher brought an instrument he collected in Haiti to France.  The instrument went relatively unnoticed in museum collections for 160 years.  In 2003 Saskia Willaert, a curator at the Musical Instruments Museum in Brussels, found the banza in the collection of Paris’s Musee de la Musique. She was searching for material for a showcase of African precursors to the banjo as part of a larger banjo exhibition at her museum. When the inclusion of this previously-unknown instrument was announced, Ross and fellow-researcher Ulf Jagfors made a trip to Brussels to examine this “Holy Grail of early banjo research.”

According to Ross:

As I examined the banjo, it became evident that this particular gourd banjo tradition was the one that gave birth to the well-known banjo of the present day United States.

Haitian Banza
Haitian Banza

Connections to the Contemporary Banjo

The earliest known image of a banjo in North America is John Rose’s painting The Old Plantation. Most likely painted in South Carolina in the 1780s, it depicts enslaved African Americans having a dance on a plantation.

The Old Plantation
The Old Plantation
Close-up of banjo in The Old Plantation
Close-up of banjo in “The Old Plantation”

The Jamaican strum strump, the Haitian banza, and the instrument depicted in The Old Plantation all share three critical design features that differentiate them from the known plucked spike lutes in West Africa:

  1. A flat, fretless fingerboard – West African instruments have rounded stick necks.
  2. Wooden friction tuning pegs – Strings are tied to the neck of West African instruments with leather or cloth strips that are slid up or down the neck to tune the instrument by tightening or loosening the strings.
  3. The way the neck enters and attaches the gourd body – There are several structural similarities in the three New World instruments that are not shared by West African instruments.

The fact that the features are found in these three instruments across time and distance suggest that this particular banjo-building tradition was firmly ingrained in the New World.

Furthermore, many details in these early gourd banjos are present in the instruments built by European American banjo makers in the mid-19th century. In the 1840s, William Boucher, Jr. became the first builder to mass-produce banjos. His instruments were commonly used in minstrel shows and contributed to the growing popularity of the banjo with European Americans.

Boucher Banjo
Banjo built by William Boucher, Jr. in Baltimore Maryland in 1845

The banjos built by Boucher and other mid-19th century European American banjo builders had the now-common wood-rimmed body instead of a gourd body. Despite this difference, it is clear that the builders were influenced by early gourd banjo designs. They incorporated the heel-less neck design of the early gourd banjos rather than having a pronounced heel at the bottom end of the neck, as was common on European guitars and violins.

The neck on the Haitian banza narrows as it passes through the body of the instrument. This feature distinguishes it from African banjo-like instruments while connecting it to the work of European American banjo builders who incorporated this concept in the design of rim stick. The necks on 1840s Boucher banjos resemble the neck of the Haitian banza. The resemblance would be even greater if what appears to be a planned cut had been carried out, making one edge of the banza’s neck straight.

Ross concludes:

All three banjos differ enough from African instruments while sharing some details specific to later banjos played and made by European Americans to place them at a point in the banjo’s history where it was no longer simply a relocated African instrument, but on its way to attaining the structure of the well-known antebellum nineteenth century banjo.

Part 3 of this 4 part series explores the banjo in 18th and 19th century North America.

Banjo Roots and Branches (1 of 4): Exploring the African Roots

This is post 1 of 4 in the series Banjo Roots and Branches.

When I started learning how to play the banjo in 2006, I was unaware of the rich and complex history of the instrument. I had no idea how perfectly the banjo would complement my fascination with music and the story of the United States. I am still going deeper down the rabbit hole that led me to purchase replicas of banjos from the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries. This is the first of four posts that mine the latest scholarship on banjo history from the book Banjo Roots and Branches (University of Illinois Press, 2018). It explores the African roots of the banjo.

Banjo Roots and Branches

In my personal experience, when talking to people outside of the folk and old-time music worlds, the mention of the banjo almost inevitably elicits the response of someone referencing or even singing the opening phrase of “Dueling Banjos” (der-ner-ner-ner-ner-ner-ner-ner-ner) as heard in the movie Deliverance. To these and many other people today, the banjo represents American whiteness. In the mid-1800s, in the hands of blackface minstrel performers, the banjo represented American blackness. Sixty years earlier, it represented Africanness.  What happened?

The instrument proper to them is the Banjar, which they brought hither from Africa.
Thomas Jefferson, 1781

The Old Plantation
The Old Plantation painting by John Rose, circa 1790.

In 1843, the Virginia Minstrels introduced what became the standard instrumentation for blackface minstrel groups – banjo, fiddle, bones, and tambourine. Minstrel companies claimed their performances were authentic representations of Southern African American culture, which they were not.

The Virginia Minstrels
Cover from the 1843 book The Celebrated Negro Melodies, as Sung by the Virginia Minstrels

Banjo Player – The ultimate offensive towards redneck/ignorant racists. Contrary to past belief, of Cracker and Honkie being the most ‘offensive’ words towards white people, the term Banjo Player: implies being a redneck with all of its common stereotypes.
Urban Dictionary, 2018

Lonnie from the movie Deliverance

The early gourd banjo is a creolized hybrid instrument that first emerged in the Caribbean during the 17th century. It is an African American instrument of West African heritage that emerged in the context of slavery, synthesizing African and European influences.

Banjo Roots and Branches

Over the past few decades there has been a surge of interest in the African roots of the banjo. This can be traced back to the pioneering work of Dena J. Epstein, who published an article in 1975 in the journal Ethnomusicology called “The Folk Banjo: A Documentary History.” In 1977 she published the book Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War. Shlomo Pestcoe was one of a handful of scholars who took up her challenge to continue this groundbreaking research. That growing consortium of scholars has now produced the book Banjo Roots and Branches, published by the University of Illinois Press in their series Music in American Life. It was edited by Robert B. Winans and includes contributions by Winans, Pestcoe, Greg C. Adams, Nick Bamber, Jim Dalton, George R. Gibson, Chuck Levy, Pete Ross, Tony Thomas, and Saskia Willaert.

The book is a collection of essays that explores the banjo’s roots in West Africa, its development in the Caribbean, and its circulation and traditions in the United States. The authors use a method they call “ethno-organology” to study music making within cultural contexts as well as the historical development, classification, and technology of the instruments themselves.

West African Ancestors of the Banjo

The story of the banjo begins in Africa. There is likely no single ancestor to the banjo. The instrument shares design elements and playing techniques with a family of approximately eighty known West African plucked spike lutes. Lutes are string instruments with necks that are distinct from their bodies. “Spike” implies that the neck passes over or through the body of the instrument, either all the way to the end of the body (full spike) or part of the way (semi spike). “Plucked” means that it produces sound when the strings are struck or plucked, as opposed to being played with a bow.

Perhaps the most closely-investigated ancestor of the banjo is the akonting (or ekonting) found today in the Senegambia region of West Africa. Senegambia includes Senegal, the Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, and portions of Mauritania, Mali, and Guinea. The akonting is usually played in relaxed social settings, sometimes accompanied by singing, percussion, and/or dancing.

Banjo Roots and Branches features interviews with Jola akonting master musicians Ekona Diatta and Sana Ndiaye conducted by Chuck Levy.

Ekona Diatta, Remi Diatta, Chuck Levy
Ekona Diatta (left), Remi Diatta (center), and Chuck Levy (right)

Playing Styles

The akonting and other West African plucked spike lutes are played with a technique that is very similar to the earliest known banjo playing techniques in North America. Players use a down-stroke technique in which a lead finger and thumb work in tandem to sound the strings. The lead finger, usually the index or middle finger, strikes a string or strings with a downward motion, and the thumb might pluck a string as the hand returns to starting position.

This is the playing style taught in the first published banjo instructional manuals, starting with Briggs’ Banjo Instructor in 1855. It is also the primary style associated with many old-time banjo players from the late 19th century through today, although there are also common up-picking styles. The down-stroke technique is generally referred to as clawhammer or frailing among old-time banjo players. It was called stroke style in the 19th century banjo tutors.

Greg C. Adams and Chuck Levy collaborated on an essay in Banjo Roots and Branches that compares the playing techniques of the banjo and akonting with great precision. They emphasize, however, that they are not suggesting that the akonting is “the” ancestor to the banjo. The authors encourage  additional study of all plucked lutes that utilize a down-stroke technique. In another chapter, Adams and Pestcoe list all the known West African plucked spike lutes, indicating full or semi-spike, traditional social performance context, ethnic group, country, number of strings, type of bridge, and body construction.

Ancient Roots

The roots of the plucked spike lutes of West Africa can be traced back 4,000 years to the first known lutes – the spike lutes of ancient Mesopotamia known as the pantur. It appears that the pantur spread from Mesopotamia northwest to Anatolia (present-day Turkey) and west and south to Syria and Canaan (present-day Israel and Palestine). Historic records indicate that the plucked spike lute was brought to Pharonic Egypt between 1640 and 1540 BCE when nomadic Semitic tribes from Canaan and Syria dominated the country. They arrived in West Africa as a result of trade with Muslim Berbers who crossed the Sahara from North Africa during the 9th century CE.

Physical Characteristics

The West African and ancient Mesopotamian plucked spike lutes share three basic design features.

  1. The body is made from either a gourd, calabash, or carved wood covered like a drum with an animal hide.
  2. The neck is a plain round stick without frets.
  3. The strings are attached to the neck with leather or cloth strips tied as rings around the neck. These rings are slid up or down the neck to tune the instrument by tightening or loosening the strings.

Early gourd banjos emerged in the Caribbean during the 17th century with West African plucked spike lute elements. They also incorporated European-inspired design innovations.

Part 2 of this 4 part series looks at these developments in the Caribbean as the banjo evolved the New World.

The featured image at the top of this post is a photograph of Jola scholar and musician Laemouahuma Daniel Jatta with an akonting. Jatta is from Mandinary, Gambia. The photograph was taken by book contributor Chuck Levy.

The Wisconsin Emigrant: An American Folk Song

The desire for land has been part of the American psyche since the time of the early European explorers, conquistadors, and settlers. Throughout the 19th century, the quest for land pulled Americans ever farther towards the West. It also drove government policies and military actions that removed Native Americans from their lands.

While there was opportunity for American pioneers in the West, there was also a great deal of uncertainty. The decision whether or not to leave the relatively settled lands of the East was not an easy one to make. The lyrics to The Wisconsin Emigrant are representative of the discussions that went on in thousands of households as husband and wife debated whether or not to take their chances in the West.

Historical Background

Thomas Jefferson promoted the idea that the United States should be a nation of small, independent farmers. This would require a great deal of land to accommodate the growing population. Jefferson drafted the Land Ordinance of 1784, incorporating territories west of the Appalachian Mountains. In 1803, as President, he purchased approximately 828,000,000 square miles of territory from France, doubling the size of the United States.

Following the War of 1812, immigrants flooded into the United States to farm, work in factories, and build roads and canals. Because the soil in New England was poor and not ideal for farming, the region thrived on industries such as manufacturing, shipping, and foreign trade. Eastern seaboard land in the United States became scarce and expensive as industrialization advanced. For struggling New England farmers and factory workers, the lure of western lands for farming and independent living was strong. Many pioneers loaded their wagons and headed west.

The Northwest Territory, which existed legally from 1787-1803, consisted of all the land in the United States west of Pennsylvania and northwest of the Ohio River. This included the present-day states of Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and the northeastern part of Minnesota.

The British Empire and France struggled for control of this region during the 18th century. During the Seven Years’ War (1754-1763) the Native Americans living in the area generally fought alongside the French, with whom they had longstanding trade relations. Britain was victorious and took control of the land at the end of the war. The Great Lakes region became part of the United States in 1783 with the signing of the Treaty of Paris that ended the American Revolution, but that did not end the disputes.

For decades the British maintained a presence in the area and supported the Native Americans in their resistance against American expansion. Miami Chief Little Turtle led a confederation of tribes, including the Shawnee, Potawatomi, Odawa, and Chippewa, against the United States Army in the Northwest Indian War (1785-1795). The confederacy lost and were forced to cede extensive territory, including much of present-day Ohio. In 1810 Shawnee leader Tecumseh led an Indian confederacy against the U.S. Army. Tecumseh’s War bled into the War of 1812, with Britain and the confederacy ultimately being defeated.


The end of the War of 1812 marked the end of British support for Indian resistance. The war also “renewed and reinstated the national feelings and character which the Revolution has given,” according to Albert Gallatin, the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury. “They are more Americans; and they feel and act more as a nation.” Americans turned to the federal government to cancel Native American titles to land in the Northwest and Indiana Territories. Official commissioners negotiated with remaining tribes for their lands and moved them farther west.

In 1827 the Winnebago tribe, reacting to a wave of lead miners trespassing on their lands in what is now the state of Wisconsin, attacked some American civilians. The so-called Winnebago Uprising consisted of only one or two incidents, but it alarmed American officials. After a show of U.S. military force, the Winnebagos ceded the lead mining region to the United States.

The Indian Removal Act, signed by President Andrew Jackson in 1830, authorized the president to grant unsettled lands west of the Mississippi River in exchange for Indian lands within existing state borders. Some tribes went peacefully. Others did not. Between 1830 and 1832 Sauk Chief Black Hawk led groups of Sauks, Meskawakis, and Kickapoos east across the Mississippi into the Illinois lands that were once theirs. Black Hawk believed that the treaties ceding Sauk lands had been signed without full tribal authorization. The U.S. Army drove the tribes back across the Mississippi River. Following the Black Hawk War, as this brief conflict is called, President Jackson ordered the relocation of all other tribes still living in the Northwest Territory to the Indian Territory across the Mississippi.

“The Wisconsin Emigrant” Song History

In 1931, 1941, and 1942 ballad collector Helen Hartness Flanders made recordings of “The Wisconsin Emigrant” from three different singers in New England. Between 1930 and 1958 Flanders, a native of Vermont, collected traditional songs and ballads throughout New England. Her collection of nearly 4,500 field recordings, transcriptions, and analyses are housed at the Flanders Ballad Collection at Middlebury College in Vermont.

Helen Hartness Flanders
Helen Hartness Flanders (left) with Eveline K. Fairbanks, one of the singers whose traditional songs she recorded

“The Wisconsin Emigrant” Lyrics

Since times are so hard, I’ve thought, my true heart
Of leaving my oxen, my plough, and my cart
And away to Wisconsin, a journey we’d go
To double our fortune as other folks do
While here I must labor each day in the field
And the winter consumes all the summer doth yield

Oh husband, I’ve noticed with sorrowful heart
You’ve neglected your oxen, your plough, and your cart
Your sheep are disordered; at random they run
And your new Sunday suit is now every day on
Oh, stay on the farm and you’ll suffer no loss
For the stone that keeps rolling will gather no moss

Oh wife, let’s go; oh, don’t let us wait
Oh, I long to be there; oh, I long to be great
While you some rich lady – and who knows but I
Some governor may be before that I die?
While here I must labor each day in the field
And the winter consumes all the summer doth yield

Oh husband, remember that land is to clear
Which will cost you the labor of many a year
Where horses, sheep, cattle, and hogs are to buy
And you’ll scarcely get settled before you must die
Oh, stay on the farm and you’ll suffer no loss
For the stone that keeps rolling will gather no moss

Oh wife, let’s go; oh, don’t let us stay
I will buy me a farm that is cleared by the way
Where horses, sheep, cattle, and hogs are not dear
And we’ll feast on fat buffalo half of the year
While here I must labor each day in the field
And the winter consumes all the summer doth yield

Oh husband, remember that land of delight
Is surrounded by Indians who murder by night
Your house they will plunder and burn to the ground
While your wife and your children lie murdered around
Oh, stay on the farm, and you’ll suffer no loss
For the stone that keeps rolling will gather no moss

Now wife, you’ve convinced me; I’ll argue no more
I never had thought of your dying before
I love my dear children, although they are small
But you, my dear wife, are more precious than all
We’ll stay on the farm, and suffer no loss
For the stone that keeps rolling will gather no moss

“The Wisconsin Emigrant” Recordings

From the Helen Hartness Flanders Ballad Collection

My version of “The Wisconsin Emigrant” is based on the printed lyrics, chords, and melody in The Ballad of America: The History of the United States in Song and Story by John Anthony Scott. I had not heard any recording of the song at the time I learned it from the book. “The Wisconsin Emigrant” is the second track on my first album of traditional folk songs Over a Wide and Fruitful Land (Ballad of America Volume 1)released in 2004. The album tells the story of the westward expansion of the United States through the 19th century.

Spotify Playlist

Railroad Bill: An American Folk Song

“Railroad Bill” is a blues ballad that dates to the 19th century and has been performed and recorded by many folk artists throughout the 20th century. People have conjectured that the subject of the song is an African American outlaw named Morris Slater who robbed freight trains in the 1890s. Slater’s nickname was Railroad Bill. Only a few of the song’s dozens of stanzas seem to refer specifically to Slater’s activities. The majority of the stanzas are quite general. Was “Railroad Bill” written about Slater? Or did Slater get his nickname from what was a preexisting song, with the verses specific to him being added later?

Blues Ballads

Blues ballads are loosely-organized narrative folk songs. They are often about actual murders, disasters, or criminals, but they don’t follow an exact sequence of events as do other types of ballads. Blues ballads tend to focus on the responses and thoughts of the participants and those affected rather than a chronological story line. The style likely evolved with African American singers in the last decades of the 19th century as an adaptation of Anglo-American ballad traditions. Other blues ballads include “John Henry,” “John Hardy,” “Frankie and Johnny,” “Casey Jones,” and “Stackolee.”

Historical Background

Stories about Morris Slater began to surface in newspapers in 1895. Slater robbed freight trains, primarily in Alabama and western Florida along the Louisville & Nashville Railroad line. His method was to throw merchandise off moving railroad cars and pick it up later. Slater allegedly killed at least two sheriffs as they, and a succession of detectives and railroad officers, tried to apprehend him. He was shot to death in Tidmore and Ward’s General Store in Atmore, Alabama, by Constable McGowan and storekeeper Bob Johns on March 7, 1897.

While most people condemned Slater’s crimes, a minority of African Americans in Alabama admired him and turned him into a folk hero. Like the legend of Jesse James, they said he gave the food he stole to poor blacks. Also like the legend of Jesse James, no one has found evidence of this. Some people even attributed supernatural powers to Slater, claiming that he could change form into an animal to escape capture or that he could only be killed by a “solid silver missile.”

That Slater could be viewed as a hero and a martyr is not surprising, considering the racial and economic divide in the post-Reconstruction Deep South.

“Railroad Bill” Song History

The song “Railroad Bill” seems to be related to other 19th century songs of African American origin about characters named Bill, including “Roscoe Bill,” “Shootin’ Bill,” and “Buffalo Bill.” Some lyrics are shared among these songs. This type of common “floating” stanza is a characteristic of blues ballads and other types of folk songs.

The first lyrics to “Railroad Bill” were collected by folklorists in Mississippi and Alabama during the first two decades of the 20th century. Newman I. White reported three fragments of lyrics he collected from a construction gang in Mississippi in 1906.

Railroad Bill did not know
That Jim McMillan had a forty-fo’

Sheriff Edward S. McMillan of Escambia County, Alabama was killed by Slater while trying to apprehend him. Though the first name in the lyric is different, this stanza may refer to Sheriff McMillan. In “Songs and Rhymes of the South,” published in 1912 in the Journal of American Folklore, E.C. Perrow includes a text in which Railroad Bill “killed McMillan like a lightnin’ flash.”

Howard Odum published three longer texts in his 1911 Journal of American Folklore article “Folk-Song and Folk-Poetry as Found in the Secular Songs of the Southern Negroes.” One has no identifiable references to Slater, and one seems to be mostly about him.

The following stanza collected by Odum is very similar to stanzas found in other 19th century Bill songs.

Railroad Bill, Railroad Bill
He never work, an’ he never will
It was that bad Railroad Bill

Only four or five of the dozens of “Railroad Bill” stanzas collected and recorded make definite reference to Slater’s activities. Especially considering the oddity of a man named Morris Slater being nicknamed Railroad Bill, it is entirely likely that Slater was given the nickname as a reference to a preexisting song or songs. The few verses that specifically reference Slater’s activities may have been added later. As with many traditional folk songs, the origins of “Railroad Bill” may never be revealed.

“Railroad Bill” Recordings

The first recording of “Railroad Bill” was made by Riley Puckett and Gid Tanner on September 11, 1924.

Two months later, Roba Stanley and Bill Patterson recorded it. Stanley took out the first copyright on the song, claiming credit for the words and music.

Three recordings of the song were made in 1929, including the first by an African American artist, Will Bennett.

Frank Hutchison’s 1929 recording appears to be the first one that was played in fingerpicking style on the guitar. It’s also the first with the distinctive Major III chord following the I chord behind the second line of the verse. Both of these attributes became standard in many subsequent versions of the song.

Recordings of “Railroad Bill” are available from many other artists, including Joan Baez, Jerry Garcia, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Hobart Smith, Lonnie Donegan, Crooked Still, Van Morrison, Etta Baker, and Billy Bragg.

“Railroad Bill” Lyrics

Dozens of different stanzas of “Railroad Bill” have appeared in print and on recordings. Below are the complete lyrics from the recordings of Will Bennett and Frank Hutchison.

From Will Bennett (1929):

Railroad Bill, ought to be killed
Never worked, and he never will
Now I’m gonna ride, my Railroad Bill

Railroad Bill done took my wife
Threatened to me that he would take my life
Now I’m gonna ride, my Railroad Bill

Going upon the mountain, take my stand
Forty-one derringer in my right and left hand
Now I’m gonna ride, my Railroad Bill

Going up on the mountain, going out west
Forty-one derringer sticking in my breast
Now I’m gonna ride, my Railroad Bill

Buy me a gun just as long as my arm
Kill everybody ever done me wrong
Now I’m gonna ride, my Railroad Bill

Buy me a gun with a shiny barrel
Kill somebody ’bout my good-looking gal
Now I’m gonna ride, my Railroad Bill

Got a thirty-eight special on a forty-four frame
How in the world can I miss him when I’ve got dead aim
Now I’m gonna ride, my Railroad Bill

When I went to the doctor, asked him what the matter could be
Said “If you don’t stop drinking, son, it’ll kill you dead”
Now I’m gonna ride, my Railroad Bill

Going to drink my liquor, drink it and win
Doctor said it’d kill me, but he never said when
Now I’m gonna ride, my Railroad Bill

If the river was brandy, and I was a duck
I’d sink to the bottom and I’d never come up
Now I’m gonna ride, my Railroad Bill

Honey, honey, do you think I’m mean
Times have caught me living on pork and beans
Now I’m gonna ride, my Railroad Bill

Son, you talk about your honey, you ought to see mine
She’s humpbacked, bowlegged, crippled and blind
Now I’m gonna ride, my Railroad Bill

Honey, honey, do you think I’m a fool
Think I’m gonna quit you while the weather is cool
Now I’m gonna ride, my Railroad Bill

From Frank Hutchison (1929):

Railroad Bill, got so bad
Stole all the chickens the poor farmers had
Well, it’s too bad, Railroad Bill

Railroad Bill, went out west
Shot all the buttons off a brakeman’s vest
Well, it’s too bad, Railroad Bill

Railroad Bill, got so fine
Shot ninety-nine holes in a shilver shine(?)
Well, it’s ride, Railroad Bill

Railroad Bill, standing at the tank
Waiting for the train they call Nancy Hanks
Well, it’s ride, Railroad Bill

Railroad Bill, standing at the curve
Gonna rob a mail train but he didn’t have the nerve
Well, it’s too bad, Railroad Bill

Railroad Bill, he lived on the hill
He never worked or he never will
Well, it’s ride, Railroad Bill

Railroad Bill went out west
Shot all the buttons off a brakeman’s vest
Well, it’s get back, Railroad Bill

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Further Reading

Cohen, Norm, and David Cohen. Long Steel Rail: The Railroad in American Folksong. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000.

“Railroad Bill.” Encyclopedia of Alabama.

“Railroad Bill [Laws I13].” Traditional Ballad Index.

What is Old-Time Music?

When I first started performing traditional American folk music in the early 2000s, I shared a bill once with The Flying Turtles String Band. Tom and Ellen Hogan, founders of the band, told me that they host an old-time jam every Tuesday evening in the Boca Raton warehouse in which they build furniture for a living. I had no idea what an old-time jam was, but it sounded like it was probably for me. It was. As I walked into the unfinished warehouse, I was enveloped in the reverberating, yet unamplified, sounds coming from some twenty people playing tunes that were more than a hundred years old on fiddles, banjos, guitars, mandolins, and bass fiddles. This was my introduction to the living tradition of old-time music.

Old-time music is alive and well in communities around the United States and other parts of the world. But just what is old-time music? There is no single definition, so I have culled the following thoughts from various articles and my own observations and experiences.

Old-time music encompasses various styles that originated in rural America before recorded music and radio were widely available. This was music made in the home and in community spaces, generally for personal entertainment or dancing. It emerged from the synthesis of European and African musical sensibilities, particularly fiddle traditions from Scotland, Ireland, England, France, and Germany; ballad traditions from Scotland and England; and vocal, rhythm, and instrumental styles from West Africa. Much of this is embodied in the union of European fiddle and African banjo music.

The American southeast has been an especially productive incubator for old-time music styles. Today, the music remains unusually concentrated and persistent in the Southern Appalachian Mountains. Other parts of the United States also have their own regional old-time music styles.

Old-Time Music Recordings

Though I stated earlier that old-time music originated before recorded music and radio were widely available, recordings from the late 1920s through the mid 1930s are among the best sources to hear old-time music. These recordings were generally made by and for white rural Southerners. Record labels marketed these records as “old familiar tunes,” “old time tunes,” and eventually “hillbilly.” As one might infer from these descriptions, most of the songs were already old and familiar at the time they were first recorded in the ’20s and ’30s.

Advertisement for Old Time Tunes from Paramount Records
Advertisement for Old Time Tunes from Paramount Records

These original old-time music recordings included:

Fiddle tunes

Old British ballads

Newer American ballads

Tin Pan Alley/sentimental songs

Religious music

Bluegrass and Old-Time Music

Though they share similar instrumentation and even some repertoire, bluegrass is not considered old-time music. Old-time music laid the foundation for bluegrass. Early bluegrass musicians like Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs, and the Stanley Brothers played and listened to old-time music before bluegrass emerged in the 1940s. Bluegrass is a more modern form of Appalachian music that incorporates improvised solos, which are generally not part of old-time music traditions. Bluegrass also tends to be music for performance, whereas old-time music is connected to social events like dancing.

Old-Time Music Today

Old-time music is a living tradition. Some people who play it today prefer to stick close to the styles of the original source material, while others use the older styles as a springboard for creativity and innovation. These more contemporary adaptations are sometimes referred to as neo-traditional.

Weekly or monthly old-time music jams occur in many communities across the United States. These communities develop a shared repertoire of tunes that they play together in an informal setting. Contradances and square dances, accompanied by live old-time music, are also present in many parts of the United States. Many of the jams and dances focus almost exclusively on fiddle tunes.

Old-time music is also shared and passed on in more formal settings, such as fiddle contests and music camps. While fiddle contests are a place for players to compete, they are cherished by participants for the opportunity to jam and interact with like-minded musicians. The list at is not up to date, but it gives a good idea of the breadth of contests held throughout the country. The largest old-time music event in the United States is the Appalachian String Band Festival held every August in Clifftop, West Virginia. Approximately three-thousand musicians participate in this five-day mountaintop gathering, which features contests, concerts, workshops, square dances, and perhaps most importantly, informal jams at the campsites.

Musicians and non-musicians alike can learn how to play old-time music at a number of music camps, including Augusta Heritage Center of Davis & Elkins College’s Old-Time Week (West Virginia), Mars Hill University’s Blue Ridge Old-Time Music Week (North Carolina), Old-Time Week at Warren Wilson College’s Swannanoa Gathering (North Carolina), and Ashokan Music & Dance Camps (New York). These camps provide excellent opportunities to learn directly from experts in old-time music traditions and to interact with other enthusiasts. In one-week or weekend sessions, they offer classes ranging from beginning to advanced fiddle, banjo, guitar, singing, mandolin, dance, and more.

This 3-minute trailer for the documentary Why Old Time? provides a nice overview of why people are still drawn to play old-time music. For more on the subject, you can find the entire film on many online movie sites.

Old-Time Music Artists

Here’s a short list of artists for further exploration. Search for them on your favorite sites (YouTube, Spotify, Apple Music, Wikipedia, etc.)

Old Old-Time Artists
(recorded primarily in the 1920s – 1930s)

  • Clarence Ashley
  • Fiddlin’ John Carson
  • Grayson & Whitter
  • Uncle Dave Macon
  • Charlie Poole
  • Eck Robertson
  • The Skillet Lickers
  • Ernest Stoneman

Mid Old-Time Artists
(recorded primarily in the mid 20th century)

  • Highwoods String Band
  • The Hollow Rock String Band
  • Tommy Jarrell
  • New Lost City Ramblers
  • Doc Watson

New Old-Time Artists
(recorded in the 21st century)

  • Crooked Still
  • Dom Flemons
  • Foghorn Stringband
  • The Mammals
  • Uncle Earl
  • The Wailin’ Jennys

Spotify Playlist

The Lovely Ohio: An American Folk Song

“The Lovely Ohio” is an American folk song that arose from unknown sources in the United States during the late 18th or early 19th century. It celebrates the opportunities available in the Ohio River Valley, inviting settlement into the long-disputed lands.

Come all ye brisk young fellows who have a mind to roam
All in some foreign country, a long way from home
All in some foreign country, along with me to go
And we’ll settle on the banks of the lovely Ohio
We’ll settle on the banks of the lovely Ohio

“The Lovely Ohio” is one of the first traditional folk songs that I learned to sing and play. I was fascinated by the historical context out of which it emerged. The lyrics express the beliefs and practical needs of the settlers, reflecting the pioneering spirit of the time. The “come all ye” style linked the song to musical traditions from the Old World. Listeners today can connect with an important part of the American story through “The Lovely Ohio.”

Historical Background

During the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, European nations that were establishing colonies in the Americas frequently clashed with each other and Native American populations. In 1756, years of territorial struggle between the British and French in the Ohio River Valley resulted in the outbreak of the Seven Years’ War, known in the colonies as the French and Indian War. Both sides established allies with local Native American tribes. With the defeat of the French in 1763, the British gained control of Canada and all land east of the Mississippi River.

The French had generally respected Native American traditions in the Great Lakes region, and they established good trade relationships. When the British took control of the area following the Seven Years’ War, they restricted the tribes’ ability to trade and provoked distrust and hostility.  Pontiac, a leader of the Odawa people, organized a violent uprising against the British confederacy that included nearly every tribe from Lake Superior to the lower Mississippi. Pontiac’s War, or Pontiac’s Rebellion, reached a negotiated end in 1766.

In an effort to minimize further confrontations in the region, the British government issued the Proclamation of 1763 which forbade English settlement west of the crest of the Appalachian Mountains. It established the land as Indian territory. Colonists disregarded the proclamation and continued to settle in the territory, resulting in further violent clashes with local tribes. In an effort to quell the violence and quiet colonial discontent with the proclamation, the British government established subsequent treaties that acquired additional Indian land for British settlement.

It would not be enough. The Declaration of Independence cited “raising the conditions of new appropriation of lands” as part of the justification for freeing the thirteen colonies from British rule.  At the end of the American Revolution, Great Britain legally recognized the independent existence of the United States of America. Britain ceded claims not only on their colonies, but also on the lands between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River.

The United States Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 officially establishing the Northwest Territory, which included the Ohio River Valley. The new law set conditions for settling in the territory and addressed the rights of the Native Americans living there.

The utmost good faith shall always be observed towards the Indians; their lands and property shall never be taken from them without their consent; and in their property, rights, and liberty, they shall never be invaded or disturbed, unless in just and lawful wars authorized by Congress.

This was not to be. The violence continued as a growing population of Anglo-American settlers came to inhabit Indian lands. A series of United States government treaties and policies, backed by the U.S. Army, forced the tribes onto reservations west of the Mississippi River by the middle of the 19th century.

“The Lovely Ohio” Song History

Songs about the lives of common people that opened with the call “come all ye” were very popular in the British Isles in the 18th century. In the early United States, the “come all ye” format was the foundation for many new songs about the American experience.

A song called “The Banks of the Ohio” appeared in the Forget Me Not Songster: Containing a Choice Collection of Old Ballad Songs, As Sung By Our Grandmothers, published in 1842. More than a dozen slightly different versions of songsters were published in the mid-19th century with this name. The subtitle Containing a Choice Collection of Old Ballad Songs, As Sung By Our Grandmothers suggests that the books included songs that were known perhaps fifty years earlier.

Forget Me Not Songster

Melodies were not printed in the books, but the lyrics to “The Banks of the Ohio” are very similar to those in the song now known as “The Lovely Ohio.”

Come all you young men who have mind for to range
Into the Western country, your station for to change
For seeking some new pleasure we’ll all together go
And we’ll settle on the banks of the pleasant Ohio

The 1941 book Songs of Yesterday: A Song Anthology of American Life by Philip D. Jordan and Lillian Kessler includes “We’ll Hunt the Buffalo!” with lyrics virtually identical to “The Lovely Ohio,” except for the addition of a repeated chorus. The melody, “arranged” in the book by A. Briff is also very similar to “The Lovely Ohio” melody. The following words are attributed only to “F.M.”

Come all you brisk young fellows, who have a mind to roam
Unto some foreign country, a long way from home
Unto some foreign country along with me to go
And we’ll settle on the banks of the lovely Ohio

chorus (sung after each verse):
Sweet and shady groves!
Thro’ the wild woods we’ll wander,
and we’ll hunt the Buffalo,
And we’ll hunt the Buffalo,
Thro’ the wild woods we’ll wander,
and we’ll hunt the Buffalo.

Come all ye pretty fair maids, and spin us some yarn
To make us some nice clothing, to keep ourselves warm;
For you can knit and sew, my loves, while we do reap and mow,
When we settle on the banks of the lovely Ohio.

There are fishes in the river just fitted for our use;
There’s tall and lofty sugarcane that yields us some juice;
There is all kind of game, my boys, beside the buck and doe,
When we settle on the banks of the lovely Ohio.

If ever those wild Indians do unto us come nigh,
We will all unite, together, lads, to conquer or to die;
We will march into their tents, boys, and strike the deadly blow,
When we settle on the banks of the lovely Ohio.

“The Lovely Ohio” Lyrics

Following are the lyrics as printed in Alan Lomax’s 1960 book Folk Songs of North America. Lomax’s source for the lyrics and melody is singer Ed McCurdy’s recording from his 1956 album A Ballad Singer’s Choice. The liner notes for the album do not indicate McCurdy’s source for the song, but the lyrics and melody are very similar to “We’ll Hunt the Buffalo!” above, with one of the verses and the repeating chorus eliminated.

Come all ye brisk young fellows who have a mind to roam
All in some foreign country, a long way from home
All in some foreign country, along with me to go
And we’ll settle on the banks of the lovely Ohio
We’ll settle on the banks of the lovely Ohio

Come all you pretty fair maids, spin us some yarn
To make us some nice clothing to keep ourselves warm
For you can knit and sew, my loves, while we do reap and mow
When we settle on the banks of the lovely Ohio
When we settle on the banks of the lovely Ohio

There are fishes in the river, just fitted for our use
There’s tall and lofty sugar cane that will give to us its juice
There’s every kind of game, my boys, also the buck and doe
When we settle on the banks of the lovely Ohio
When we settle on the banks of the lovely Ohio

“The Lovely Ohio” Recordings

My version of “The Lovely Ohio” is based on the printed lyrics and melody in Folk Songs of North America. I had not heard McCurdy’s or any other recording of the song at the time I learned it from the book. “The Lovely Ohio” is the opening track on my first album of traditional folk songs Over a Wide and Fruitful Land (Ballad of America Volume 1)released in 2004. The album tells the story of the westward expansion of the United States through the 19th century.

Ed McCurdy opened his 1956 album A Ballad Singer’s Choice with “The Lovely Ohio.” In the liner notes, McCurdy writes that the song is “a very good song of its type and era. The words sound honest and the tune sings along with good humor.”

Spotify Playlist

Anthology of American Folk Music (5 of 5): Volume Three – Songs

This is post 5 of 5 in the series Anthology of American Folk Music.

Singer/songwriter Elvis Costello noted, “First hearing the Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music is like discovering the secret script of so many familiar musical dramas. Many of these actually turn out to be cousins two or three times removed, some of whom were probably created in ignorance of these original riches.” Folkways Records released the Anthology on six long-playing records in 1952, and Smithsonian Folkways Recordings re-released it on compact disc in 1997.  It consists of three volumes, each containing two discs: Ballads, Social Music, and Songs. This post explores Anthology of American Folk Music Volume Three – Songs.

All three volumes of the Anthology contain “songs” by most definitions of the word. Volume One – Ballads focuses on songs that can be more specifically identified as ballads because of their strong narrative line. Volume Two – Social Music is dedicated to songs that serve community gatherings of dance or worship. Volume Three features non-narrative folk songs, including blues, cowboy, jug band, and other forms that don’t quite fit within the parameters of the other two volumes. Many are of the type that Harry Smith, editor of the Anthology, categorizes as “folk-lyric.” These are songs made up of verbal fragments or floating verses that have been shared among multiple songs and don’t necessarily connect logically to each other within a song.

Bascom Lamar Lunsford was a country lawyer and musician from Madison County in western North Carolina. Known as “The Minstrel of the Appalachians,” he traveled extensively through the mountains collecting folk songs. Lunsford recorded a few songs for the Brunswick record label in 1928, including “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground.” In later years, he recorded 350 songs for the Library of Congress.

Novelist Robert Cantwell wrote the following about Lunsford’s recording of “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground.”

Listen to “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground” again and again. Learn to play the banjo and sing it yourself over and over again, study every printed version, give up your career and maybe your family, and you will not fathom it.

This writer can attest to that statement, having engaged in most of the aforementioned activities.

Lemon Henry “Blind Lemon” Jefferson was one of the first rural or country blues artists to achieve popular success with just guitar and voice. Born blind in Wortham, Texas, Jefferson earned money busking in the streets of Dallas. He also traveled extensively, sometimes in the company of singer/guitarists Josh White or Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter. He made a series of successful recordings for Paramount Records between 1926 and his death in 1929. Jefferson recorded “See That My Grave is Kept Clean” in 1928 at his last recording session. He died a short time later in Chicago.

The Memphis Jug Band, led by singer, songwriter, guitarist, and harmonica player Will Shade, recorded “K.C. Moan” in 1929. Jug bands flourished in the first decades of the 20th century, especially in cities along the Mississippi River. Their styles mixed jazz, blues, ragtime, and string band music. Jug bands played homemade instruments such as the jug, washtub bass, washboard, spoons, comb and tissue paper kazoo, in addition to manufactured instruments that might include guitar, banjo, harmonica, and mandolin.

We’ll leave the Anthology with the track that closes the set – Henry Thomas’ 1929 recording of “Fishing Blues.” Author Greil Marcus notes that there is an “almost absolute liberation” in the song. Thomas plays guitar and quills, a form of pan-pipe made from cane that has its origins in Africa. You may recognize the sound of the instrument from the Canned Heat hit “Goin’ Up the Country.”

Spotify Playlist

The following Spotify playlist is a close approximation of Anthology of American Folk Music Volume Three – Songs. The actual Anthology is not on Spotify. Most of the tracks on this playlist are the same recordings in the same order but from different sources. You should purchase the real deal on compact disc or record to get all the essays and annotations.

Anthology of American Folk Music (4 of 5): Volume Two – Social Music

This is post 4 of 5 in the series Anthology of American Folk Music.

Anthology of American Folk Music has inspired countless musicians and songwriters, including Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, Jeff Tweedy, Jerry Garcia, John Sebastian, and The Fugs. Folkways Records released the Anthology on six long-playing records in 1952, and Smithsonian Folkways Recordings re-released it on compact disc in 1997.  It consists of three volumes, each containing two discs: Ballads, Social Music, and Songs. This post explores Anthology of American Folk Music Volume Two – Social Music.

Social Music focuses on music as a part of community events, specifically dance and worship. The first fourteen tracks include various forms of dance music, and the remaining fifteen songs are church and religious music.

Dance Music

The first track on Anthology of American Folk Music Volume Two – Social Music is a 1926 unaccompanied violin recording of “Sail Away Lady” by “Uncle Bunt” Stephens. Harry Smith, editor of the Anthology,  notes that the style of this performance is probably typical of American dance music between the American Revolution and the Civil War. Early European settlers generally used unaccompanied violin for dancing.

The African-derived banjo became a common accompaniment to the violin during the mid-19th century. The Spanish-derived guitar came into the mix in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. String bands consisting of fiddle, guitar, banjo, and sometimes mandolin and double bass, were popular in the 1920s and 1930s, laying the foundation for bluegrass and country music. “Brilliancy Medley,” recorded by Eck Robertson and Family in 1930, features violin with banjo and two guitars. Smith notes that this “medley of traditional tunes is more suited to the popular dance steps of the 1920s than for the square dance.”

Social Music also includes a few Acadian dance tunes, a jug band song, and a jazzy song that is “one of the musical ancestors of Spike Jones.”

Religious Music

The religious set of songs on Social Music begins with two “lining hymns” from Rev. J.M. Gates. In a lining hymn, the leader chants a phrase which is then sung by the congregation or choir. Smith identifies this style of  song as “one of the earliest modes of Christian religious singing in this country.”

The lining hymns are followed two shape note songs from The Sacred Harp song book, first published in 1844. Shape note singing originated in New England and was perpetuated in the American South. Shape note songbooks represent the notes of the melody with different shapes to identify the appropriate pitch. The method was devised so people who don’t read standard musical notation can join the singing. In the first part of the song, instead of the lyrics, singers sing the name of the scale position – fa, sol, la, or mi.

Other unaccompanied vocal performances follow in addition to some with instrumental accompaniment. Blind Willie Johnson recorded “John the Revelator” in 1930. Johnson made some of the most popular African American religious song recordings of the time.

Social Music concludes with Rev. D.C. Rice and His Sanctified Congregation’s notably contemporary, jazz-inflected performance of “I’m in the Battle Field for My Lord” from 1929.

Spotify Playlist

The following Spotify playlist is a close approximation of Anthology of American Folk Music Volume Two – Social Music. The actual Anthology is not on Spotify. Most of the tracks on this playlist are the same recordings in the same order but from different sources. You should purchase the real deal on compact disc or record to get all the essays and annotations.