Old-Time Appalachian Fiddle Tunes

In the early days of European settlement in North America and the United States, the violin was the most commonly played musical instrument. The instrument is small and portable, so people easily carried it along as they migrated into the Appalachian Mountains and to the West. It is versatile enough to play classical art music as well as lively dance music. Fiddling remains one of the most vital folk music traditions throughout the United States. This post focuses on old-time fiddle tune traditions in Appalachia.

Fiddle tunes are primarily instrumental melodies, though some have words that can be sung optionally. Most originated as tunes for dancing, but people often play them today in social settings and performance that do not include dancing. Most fiddle tunes consist of two melodic parts, often referred to as the A and B part. Frequently the tunes are played in A A B B form, that is, playing the A part twice, then the B part twice. This form is repeated for as long as the musicians, or the dancers, care to continue.

Violin or Fiddle

What is the difference between a violin and a fiddle? According to The New Grove Dictionary of Music, a fiddle is “a generic term for any chordophone played with a bow.” This includes a variety of exotic stringed instruments played throughout the world. In popular usage in the United States, the word “violin” is used to describe the instrument when it plays classical and art music, and the word “fiddle” is used to describe a violin (and sometimes other bowed stringed instruments, such as viola or cello) when it plays dance, folk, country, and bluegrass music.

There can be also be differences in the way the instrument is physically adjusted (or set up) to play in one style or another, but it’s essentially the same instrument. Violinists hold the instrument between the chin and shoulder. Many fiddle players hold it this way, but some hold the instrument against their chest, which makes it easier to sing while playing.

There is one more important distinction. When you are buying one, it’s a fiddle. When you are selling one, it’s a violin.

Fiddle Tunes from the British Isles

Most ethnic groups in the United States have fiddle traditions. The majority of people who settled in the American colonies were from the British Isles. Immigrants from the British Isles played a stock of dance tunes and other melodies from England, Ireland, and Scotland. These tunes persisted in North America, and they became the basis for variations and new tunes that emerged in the United States. Irish and Scottish tunes and playing styles became the dominant influence on Southern American fiddle tunes.

Fiddle tune from England – “Jacob”

Fiddle tune from Ireland – “Swallowtail Jig”

Fiddle tune from Scotland – “Mrs. MacLeod of Raasay”

Fiddle Tunes in Appalachia

During the 1700s, more than 200,000 people emigrated from the Irish province of Ulster to the British colonies in the New World. The origins of the Scots-Irish, as they are called, lie primarily in the Lowlands of Scotland and in northern England. They had been relocated to Ireland’s northern province of Ulster starting in 1606, primarily to strengthen royal control over the North of Ireland. Most of the Scots-Irish emigrants settled initially in Pennsylvania. From there, many followed the Great Wagon Road to make their homes in the Appalachia Mountains – Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, and the Carolinas.

Much of the work there on the American frontier, including barn raising, molasses making, corn husking, and apple peeling, was done communally. At the end of the work day, people danced the old Scottish and Irish reels and jigs, with the music provided by a fiddle or fiddles. (See A Brief History of Southern Square Dance for more on dancing in Appalachia.)

Fiddle and Banjo

Initially, fiddle tunes were played with no other instrumental accompaniment. Both black and white fiddlers played to accompany dances.

Fiddle solo – “Sallie Gooden”

In the mid-19th century, the pairing of fiddle and banjo became common. The banjo developed in the Caribbean from African roots. In the United States, the instrument was played almost exclusively by African Americans until the 1830s when touring minstrel banjoists began popularizing it among whites. (See Banjo Roots and Branches for more about the banjo.)

In Southern Appalachia, where white and black people often lived in close proximity, musicians adopted music from each other. Many common fiddle tunes originated with African American fiddlers. The fiddle and banjo combination melded European American and African American musical traditions.

Ben and Lew Snowden
Bano and fiddle – Ben and Lew Snowden
Fiddle and banjo duet – “Old Bunch of Keys”

Old-Time String Bands

In the late 19th and early 20th century, other stringed instruments were added to the fiddle and banjo duos. These might include guitar, mandolin, harmonica, and either double bass or washtub bass. In the 1920s and 1930s, many string bands recorded fiddle tunes for record companies. These early recordings are common source material for contemporary fiddle players and string bands to learn tunes. The string bands are also the forerunners of the bluegrass bands that came about in the 1940s.

Old-time string band – “Rock That Cradle Lucy”

Types of Fiddle Tunes

The Appalachian old-time fiddle repertoire began with reels and jigs that originated in the British Isles. Because tunes were generally played and passed on by ear, not printed music, variations of those tunes appeared. Sometimes the variations became so different from the original that they were essentially new tunes.

“Hop High Ladies” is an Appalachian version of the Scottish reel “Mrs. MacLeod of Raasay,” aka “Miss McCloud’s Reel” or “Mrs. McCloud’s Reel.” Compare the “Hop High Ladies” recording below by the Zinc Kings to the “Mrs. Macleod of Rassay” recording above by Patrick Doyle from the Whisky Galore! soundtrack.

The terms reel and jig refer both to the type of dance and to the type of tune played to accompany the dance. Reels originated in Scotland and were introduced to Ireland in the late 18th century. Jigs, which are played in 6|8 time, are not very prominent in old-time Appalachian traditions today. The recording of “Swallowtail Jig” above is an example of a jig.

The reel “Soldier’s Joy” is probably the most widely-known fiddle tune in North America. It most likely originated in Scotland in the 18th century.

Reel – “Soldier’s Joy”

Other European dance styles that became popular in the United States during the 19th century provided new tunes and additional fodder for original tunes. These included the quadrille, polka, schottische, two-step, and waltz. New types of fiddle tunes emerged in the United States, including breakdowns, blues, and rags.

A breakdown is a general term used primarily in the American South to refer to a wide range of up-tempo old-time and bluegrass tunes in duple 2|4 or quadruple 4|4 meter. They are often played for fast dancing, such as clogging and flat-footing. The playing style frequently includes the bowing of two adjacent strings simultaneously.

Breakdown – “Sally Ann”

Carrying on the Traditions

Old-time Appalachian fiddle tunes now reach far beyond Appalachia. The string band records of the 1920s and 1930s started the process. These recordings gained new life in the 1950s and 1960s with a segment of the folk music revival. A generation of young urban musicians became interested in fiddle tunes and other forms of old-time music and learned to play the instruments and tunes themselves.

Many revivalists and folklorists sought out the living masters in Appalachia. They learned the tunes and traditions directly from musicians like Tommy Jarrell, Henry Reed, and the Hammons Family. They also made invaluable recordings of these musicians that have served as source material for others to learn the tunes. These recordings are still available from sources like The American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, The Field Recorders’ Collective, and Digital Library of Appalachia.

Tommy Jarrell (right), 1982, Courtesy Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections, Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, Smithsonian Institution

Today, Appalachian fiddle tunes are played at weekly or monthly old-time music jams in communities across the United States and elsewhere in the world. Musicians can learn to play the tunes from videos at Homespun Music Instruction, YouTube, and other sites. Students can learn in person from masters at music camps, including Old-Time Week at Warren Wilson College’s Swannanoa Gathering (North Carolina), Augusta Heritage Center of Davis & Elkins College’s Old-Time Week (West Virginia), and Mars Hill University’s Blue Ridge Old-Time Music Week (North Carolina). There are also old-time music festivals held around the world. Oldtime Central offers the Oldtime Central Festival Guide, which lists more than 200 old-time music festivals, for free on their website.

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Once More a-Lumbering Go: An American Folk Song

“Once More a-Lumbering Go” is an American occupational song from the 19th century. It describes the life and work of the lumberjacks who harvested and transported trees, providing raw materials for the growing nation. The work of the lumberjacks also, as their saying goes, “let some daylight into these swamps.”

Historical Background

European settlers in North America began chopping down trees to clear land and build homes since their earliest arrival. As the colonies grew, so did logging as an industry. Lumber was needed for houses, public buildings, firewood, and ships for fishing and trade.

Lumberjacks bucking a tree into logs
Lumberjacks bucking a tree into logs

The early logging industry was centered in the northeastern part of what would become the United States. The Northeast had dense forests of white oak, cedar, chestnut, and other trees. The industry started in  Maine and Massachusetts and gradually expanded to New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, and Pennsylvania.

Most of the early Maine woodsmen were of English heritage. By the 1830s many Irish immigrants had joined the labor force. By the 1850s Scandinavians, French Canadians, and Eastern Europeans also participated.

In the 1830s, as wood resources were depleted in the Northeast, the logging center migrated to the Great Lakes region. Loggers in Wisconsin and Michigan included people of German, English, Irish, and Dutch descent. By the 1880s, logging was taking place in the Pacific Northwest territories of Oregon and Washington. The work was done by Poles, Swedes, Czechs, Greeks, Armenians, Belgians, Germans, and Dutch.

Lumberjack Life and Work

Workers in the logging industry have been called loggers, lumbermen, lumberjacks, woodsmen, woodcutters, choppers, or shanty boys. During the 19th century, lumberjacks generally called themselves shanty boys, referencing the crudely-built wooden shacks in which they lived. During the working seasons of fall through spring, they lived communally in these bunkhouses at camps near the logging sites.

Lumberjacks in front of a shanty
Lumberjacks in front of a shanty

Shanty boys followed the timber-harvesting jobs where and when they were available. The pay was low and the living conditions primitive. Lumberjacks worked 12 to 14 hours a day, sometimes in freezing temperatures. The work was difficult and dangerous. Using only hand tools such as axes and cross-cut saws, they felled trees, removed the limbs, bucked them into logs, and transported the logs to a river to send downstream.

Lumberjack Singing

At night, the lumberjacks returned to their camp. They sharpened their axes and sat at the dinner table, where talking was often forbidden. After dinner they sat on the long, wooden deacon seat beside the stove  or around the campfire talking, telling stories, playing cards, and singing songs.

Shanty boys sang songs with which they were familiar, including the old Child and broadside ballads that were carried from the British Isles. They also sang indigenous ballads and songs that were made up in the United States. Some songs were sung by only one singer and some in groups. Some might have had a solo singer on the verses with all joining in on the repeated refrain.

Lumberjacks also created and sang their own occupational songs, including “Once More a-Lumbering Go.” Occupational songs describe work, work conditions, or attitude towards work. They differ from work songs, which are sung during the actual act of labor and might be about any topic. Occupational songs are not necessarily sung during work, but they are about the subject of work.

“Once More a-Lumbering Go” Song History

In the 18th century, ballads that concerned themselves with the lives of common people and began with the words “come all ye…” had become very popular in Great Britain. In America, this type of ballad became the basis for many new songs, including “The Lovey Ohio” and “Once More a-Lumbering Go.”

“Once More a-Lumbering Go” first appeared in print under the title “The Logger’s Boast” in John S. Springer’s 1851 book Forest Life and Forest Trees: Comprising Winter Camp-life Among the Loggers and Wild-wood Adventure with Descriptions of Lumbering Operations on the Various Rivers of Maine and New Brunswick. Springer spent several “of the most pleasant years of his life” as a lumberman in the pine forests of Maine. His book is an excellent source of information about the life and work of lumbermen. It is available digitally for free from several online sources, including Internet Archive and Google Books.

Following are the lyrics as printed in Springer’s book. No tune is provided.

The Logger’s Boast

Come, all ye sons of freedom throughout the State of Maine
Come, all ye gallant lumbermen, and listen to my strain
On the banks of the Penobscot, where the rapid waters flow
O! we’ll range the wild woods over while a lumbering we go

When the white frost gilds the valleys, the cold congeals the flood
When many men have naught to do to earn their families bread
When the swollen streams are frozen, and the hills are clad with snow
O! we’ll range the wild woods over, and a lumbering we wil go

And a lumbering we’ll go, so a lumbering, &c.

When you pass through the dense city, and pity all you meet
To hear their teeth chattering as they hurry down the street
In the red frost-proof flannel we’re incased from top to toe
While we range the wild woods over, and a lumbering we go

And a lumbering we’ll go, so a lumbering, &c.

You may boast of your gay parties, your pleasures, and your plays
And pity us poor lumbermen while dashing in your sleighs
We want no better pastime than to chase the buck and doe
O! we’ll range the wild woods over, and a lumbering we will go

And a lumbering we’ll go, so a lumbering, &c.

The music of our burnished ax shall make the woods resoundAnd many a lofty ancient Pine will tumble to the ground
At night, ho! Round our good camp-fire we will sing while rude winds blow
O! we’ll range the wild woods over while a lumbering we go

And a lumbering we’ll go, so a lumbering, &c.

When winter’s snows are melted, and the ice-bound streams are free
We’ll run our logs to market, then haste our friends to seeHow kindly true hearts welcome us, our wives and children too
We will spend with these the summer, and once more a lumbering go

And when upon the long-hid soil the white Pines disappear
We will cut the other forest trees, and sow whereon we clear
Our grain shall wave o’er valleys rich, our herds bedot the hills
When our feet are no more hurried on to tend the driving mills

“When our youthful days are ended,” we will cease from winter toils
And each one through the summer warm will till the virgin soil
“We’ve enough to eat,” to drink, to wear, content through life to go
Then we’ll tell our wild adventures o’er, and no more a lumbering go

And no more a lumbering go, so no more a lumbering go
O! we’ll tell our wild adventures o’er and no more a lumbering go

John and Alan Lomax printed lyrics and melody for a version of the song in their 1947 book Folk Song, U.S.A. The book was later republished under the title Best Loved American Folk Songs.

Once More a-Lumb’ring Go

Come all you sons of freedom that run the Saginaw stream
Come all you roving lumberjacks and listen to my theme
We’ll cross the Tittabawassee where the mighty waters flow
And we’ll range the wild woods over and once more a-lumb’ring go

And once more a-lumb’ring go
And once more a-lumb’ring go
And we’ll range the wild woods over
And once more a-lumbring go

When the white frost takes the valley and the snow conceals the woods
Each farmer has enough to do to earn the family food
With the week no better pastime than to hunt the buck and doe
And we’ll range the wild woods over and once more a-lumb’ring go

And once more a-lumb’ring go
And once more a-lumb’ring go
And we’ll range the wild woods over
And once more a-lumbring go

You may talk about your farms your houses and fine ways
And pity us poor shanty boys while dashing in our sleighs
Around a good campfire at night we’ll sing while the wild winds blow
And we’ll range the wild woods over and once more a-lumb’ring go

And once more a-lumb’ring go
And once more a-lumb’ring go
And we’ll range the wild woods over
And once more a-lumbring go

With our axes on our shoulders we’ll make the woods resound
And many a tall and stately tree will come tumbling to the ground
With our axes on our shoulders to our boot tops deep in snow
We’ll range the wild woods over and once more a-lumb’ring go

And once more a-lumb’ring go
And once more a-lumb’ring go
And we’ll range the wild woods over
And once more a-lumbring go

When navigation opens and the waters run so free
We’ll drive our logs to Saginaw then haste our girls to see
They will welcome our return and we’ll in raptures flow
And we’ll stay with them through summer and once more a-lumb’ring go

And once more a-lumb’ring go
And once more a-lumb’ring go
And we’ll range the wild woods over
And once more a-lumbring go

When our youthful days are ended and our jokes are getting long
We’ll take us each a little wife and settle on a farm
We’ll have enough to eat and drink contented we will go
And we’ll tell our wives of our hard times and no more a-lumb’ring go

And once more a-lumb’ring go
And once more a-lumb’ring go
And we’ll range the wild woods over
And once more a-lumbring go

“Once More a-Lumbering Go” Recordings

Folk music collector Alan Lomax recorded lumberjack Carl Lathrop singing “Once More a-Lumbering Go” in Saint Louis, Michigan on August 22, 1938. The recording is part of the Alan Lomax Collection of Michigan and Wisconsin Recordings.

“The Adirondack Minstrel” Lawrence Older recorded the song for folk music collectors Caroline and Sandy Paton in the 1960s. Older was a lumberjack and musician who played fiddle, guitar, and sang songs he learned from his musical family. His recording of “Once More a-Lumbering Go” is part of the Folk-Legacy Records full-length album of his music calledAdirondack Songs, Ballads, and Fiddle Tunes.

The 20-minute film Adirondack Minstrel featuring Older can be viewed online at Folkstreams.

My version of “Once More a-Lumbering Go” is based on the printed lyrics and melody in Best Loved American Folk Songs. The recording is 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.

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Spirituals: A Brief History (2 of 2)

This is post 2 of 2 in the series The Evolution of Spirituals.

African American spirituals are often called “sorrow songs.” While sorrow permeates many of the songs, spirituals are much more than that. They are faith songs. They strength songs. They are hope songs. They are unity songs. They are resistance songs.

Camp Meetings

The Second Great Awakening was a religious revival that occurred roughly from the 1780s through the 1850s. Initially, it was led by Evangelical Protestant preachers. After the first few decades, Baptist and Methodist preachers became active leaders of the movement.

Outdoor religious services called camp meetings were one of the most common ways to preach the revival message during the Second Great Awakening. Camp meetings were held in tents in the countryside, on the frontier, or in the backcountry. They could last for days and include thousands of participants. The participants, mostly rural farmers and their families, sang and prayed in a large tent and often slept in smaller tents nearby. Camp meetings were highly emotional events with preaching about sin and Jesus as the only path to save one’s soul from the fires of hell.

Religious Camp Meeting
Religious Camp Meeting, watercolor by J. Maze Burbank c. 1839

African Americans took part in camp meetings, even in slave states, though often in segregated sections. Some black ministers preached at the meetings. In 1818 the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church held the first camp meeting organized by and for African Americans. (See post 1 in this series for more about the AME Church, the first independent Protestant denomination founded by African Americans.) Other black churches, primarily Methodist and Baptist, sponsored camp meetings throughout the 19th century.

Spiritual Songs/Camp Meeting Hymns

There were generally no hymnbooks in the early years of camp meetings. People sang from memory or learned songs at the meetings. From the energetic, highly emotional, noisy atmosphere of the meetings, a new kind of hymn and style of singing emerged.

Camp-meeting hymns sometimes used popular or folk song melodies to accompany isolated lines from prayers and scriptures. They often incorporated call-and-response singing, with a leader singing a verse and the congregation joining on the chorus or refrain. The new hymns also had wandering refrains and verses that appeared in multiple songs.

Both call-and-response singing and wandering refrains were African American innovations that first appeared in print in Richard Allen’s 1801 hymnal “A Collection of Spiritual Songs and Hymns Selected from Various Authors by Richard Allen, African Minister.” Allen’s hymnal was the first song collection published expressly for a black congregation. (See post 1 in this series for more about the ways in which the songs in Allen’s hymnal differed from earlier European American hymns and psalms.)

Contemporaries wrote about differences between traditional European American and African American religious singing. A report from an 1838 camp meeting held in Pennsylvania noted, “Their shouts and singing were so very boisterous that the singing of the white congregation was often completely drowned in the echoes and reverberations of the colored people’s tumultuous strains.” Swedish novelist Fredrika Bremer wrote of a camp meeting in Georgia, “A magnificent choir! Most likely the sound proceeded from the black portion of the assembly, as their number was three times that of the whites, and their voices are naturally beautiful and pure.”

More than a dozen writers reported that African Americans sang long into the night on their own segregated “shouting-ground” after other participants had gone to bed. Wesleyan Methodist John F. Watson was disdainful about African American singing practices, but his 1819 writings are very informative. According to Watson, “In the blacks’ quarter, the coloured people get together, and sing for hours together, short scraps of disjointed affirmations, pledges, or prayers, lengthened out with long repetition choruses. These are all sung in the merry chorus-manner of southern harvest field, or husking-frolic method, of the slave blacks.”

Watson is describing the performance of songs that were coming to be known as camp-meeting hymns or spiritual songs. Some of the songs were improvised on the spot, fitting lines from the Bible, references to everyday experiences, and wandering verses and refrains to familiar tunes. Some of the wandering verses and refrains improvised in these new spiritual songs had been printed in Allen’s 1801 and 1818 hymnals. Some were also present in later spirituals.

The songs and performance practices of African Americans at the camp meetings were having an influence on the white participants. Watson writes, “The example has already visibly affected the religious manners of some whites. I have known in some camp meetings, from 50 to 60 people crowd into one tent, after the public devotions had closed, and there continue the whole night, singing tune after tune, (though with occasional episodes of prayer) scarce one of which were in our hymn books.”

The Ring Shout

Watson also provided the earliest written account of a ceremony of African origin called a ring shout, or shout. A shout is an event in which participants sing a spiritual with strong rhythmic drive while shuffling in a ring formation. Watson observed “With every word so sung, they have a sinking of one or other leg of the body alternately; producing an audible sound of the feet at every step, and as manifest as the steps of actual Negro dancing in Virginia, etc. If some, in the meantime, sit, they strike the sounds alternately on each thigh.”

Ring Shout

Ring dances were common in many parts of Africa. In the United States, shouts often took place on Sundays or praise nights in the praise house or cabin after the regular meeting was over. They were also seen in New York City markets and in Place Congo, or Congo Square, in New Orleans. Shouts could last four or five hours, with the song taking on the character of a repetitive chant.

“Good Lord (Run Old Jeremiah)” is a ring shout spiritual sung by Joe Washington Brown and Austin Coleman. Folklorists John and Alan Lomax recorded it in 1934 in Jennings, Louisiana, for the Library of Congress.


The improvised religious songs sung by African American Christians at camp meetings, on rural plantations, and in urban churches resulted in a large body of spirituals. Some spirituals were intended to be sung in worship services, others for ring shouts, funerals, or “jes’ sittin’ around.” The word “spiritual” appears to have been commonly used to refer to these songs by the 1860s.

Spirituals were the result of improvisation. A lead singer would sing a line, and others would repeat it or reply with a chorus or refrain. Anyone could interject a new verse. Some lines might be repeated, remembered, and sung the next time. Material from multiple songs or scriptural readings were combined with ideas from personal experiences. Wandering phrases, verses, or refrains appeared in more than one song. The melodies were also born of improvisation, and some tunes might be used for multiple sets of lyrics.

Perhaps the most important element of the spiritual was the performance itself. This was participatory music not intended for an audience. Spirituals demonstrated many characteristics of African music: intense emotion, call and response, polyrhythms, bent notes, blue notes, repetition of rhythmic figures, off-beat phrasings, and body percussion.

Spirituals turned biblical stories into songs. Many centered on faithful servants of God, like Noah, Daniel, and Jonah, who were saved from a sinful world of oppression. One of the most commonly-referenced people in spirituals is Moses. His story of delivering the Israelites from bondage in Egypt resonated with the enslaved African Americans.

“Go Down, Moses” is one of the best-known spirituals. Harriet Tubman said that she used the song to signal that she was nearby and able to help those who wanted to escape. Some slaveholders forbade the singing of it, feeling threatened by the call-and-response message “Let my people go!”

When Israel was in Egypt’s land
Let my people go
Oppressed so hard they could not stand
Let my people go

Coded Messages

Many spirituals had messages that were not as direct as that of “Go Down, Moses.” “Steal Away” could be an invitation to escape from bondage. It could also be a call to meet in the woods for a secret meeting to pray or to make plans to run away. Some reports indicate that Nat Turner, who organized a violent uprising of enslaved people, used the song as a call to action.

Steal away, steal away
Steal away to Jesus
Steal away, steal away home
I ain’t got long to stay here

Harriet Tubman used the song “Wade in the Water” to tell escaping slaves to literally put themselves into bodies of water to avoid being seen and to ensure that the slave-catchers’ dogs couldn’t sniff out their scent.

Wade in the water
Wade in the water, children
Wade in the water
God’s gonna trouble the water

The lyrics to spirituals have vivid imagery and symbolic language. Moses represented deliverance from bondage. Egypt and Babylon were the American South. Hell was the Deep South. Slave owners were Pharaoh. The River Jordan was the Ohio River, or any body of water across which lay freedom in the North. The many modes of movement – chariots, wheels, shoes, trains – represented escape.

While spirituals often had these hidden subtexts, they were also beautiful songs of Christian faith, hope, and spirit.

Spirituals in Print – “Slave Songs of the United States”

As early as 1800, observers wrote down lyrics to songs they heard enslaved people singing. The first spiritual to be published in print was “Let My People Go. A Song of the ‘Contrabands’,” a version of “Go Down, Moses.” The song was issued in a Northern abolitionist newspaper in December of 1861. It had been learned and written down by the Reverend Lewis C. Lockwood, a missionary to the ex-slaves who took refuge from the Civil War at Fortress Monroe, Virginia.

During the Civil War, three northern abolitionists were educating freedmen on the Sea Islands near Port Royal, a harbor commanding the approach to Charleston, South Carolina. Fascinated by the singing of the newly-freed African Americans, Francis Allen, Lucy McKim Garrison, and Charles Pickard Ware wrote down the texts and notated the music of the songs they heard. They published the songs and their observations in the 1867 book “Slave Songs of the United States.” The book was the first published collection of African American plantation songs. It included melodies and text for 136 songs, most of which were spirituals.

Slave Songs of the United States
Slave Songs of the United States

The editors acknowledged that it was impossible to capture the nuance of the singing and melodies in printed form. “The voices of the colored people have a peculiar quality that nothing can imitate; and the intonations and delicate variations of even one singer cannot be reproduced on paper. There is no singing in parts, as we understand it, and yet no two appear to be singing the same thing.” Nevertheless, since recording technology was not yet developed, “Slave Songs of the United States” provides a vital repertoire and in-depth representation of what spirituals sounded like during the time of slavery.

Spirituals on Stage – The Fisk Jubilee Singers

In 1866 Fisk University was established in Nashville, Tennessee to educate newly-freed African Americans. Treasurer and music professor George L. White formed a choral ensemble at Fisk that specialized in singing spirituals. White, a white Northerner, arranged the songs in a way that refined them for the concert stage and maintained the essence of their unique power and beauty.

The Fisk Jubilee Singers, 1882

In 1871 the Fisk Jubilee Singers began performing on tour to raise money for the struggling university. In the United States and in Europe, they earned standing ovations and praise from the media. Theodore Seward’s song arrangements were published in books and sung by black and white congregations in the North and South. The Fisk Jubilee Singers were instrumental in introducing spirituals to the world. A version of the ensemble is still active today.

Since audio recording technology had not yet been developed by the time slavery ended in the United States, we will never hear the spirituals as they were originally sung. Their sounds can be imagined through song books like “Slave Songs of the United States” and descriptions from other contemporary sources. The echoes of spirituals can be heard in the singing of the Fisk Jubilee Singers and the many other artists who have since performed and recorded them. Their pulse can be felt in gospel music, freedom songs from the Civil Rights Movement, blues, jazz, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, and hip hop.

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Spirituals: A Brief History (1 of 2)

Spirituals are African American religious songs that evolved in the context of slavery primarily in the Southern United States. They were a mechanism for survival – a potent example of how humans can endure the worst of conditions. Spirituals combine elements of European American religious music with African musical characteristics. Their influence can be felt in virtually all subsequent forms of American music, including jazz, gospel, blues, rhythm and blues, country, rock and roll, and hip-hop.

Music in Africa

Most people who came to America in slavery were taken from the west coast of Africa. While they hailed from a wide variety of kingdoms, states, city-states, clans, tribes, and kinship groups, music was integral to everyday life throughout the region. “We are almost a nation of dancers, musicians, and poets,” writes Olaudah Equiano, one of the first Africans to write a book in the English language.

Through the slave trade, elements of music and dance traditions from Africa were integrated into American culture. This includes African musical and performance characteristics that were elemental to spirituals. Both musics were very emotional. The singing was often highly intense and included falsettos, shouts, and groans. There was call and response singing, with a song leader singing a phrase and the rest of the group singing a reply. Refrains were repeated and sung as choruses. Percussive sounds were added with hand claps and foots stomps. Words were improvised. Dancers shuffled in ring formations.

European American Religious Music

Early Protestants in the New World sang a type of religious song called a psalm. Psalms had lyrics that were taken directly from biblical scripture. They were sung at a slow tempo without instrumental accompaniment. In New England during the colonial era, some African Americans attended Sabbath services in segregated seats and joined in the singing of psalms. Psalm singing was led by a precentor who “lined out” the psalm and “set the tune” so that those who couldn’t read or didn’t have the psalm book could join in the singing. The most popular early psalter was the “Bay Psalm Book,” first published in 1640. It was the first book printed in the English colonies.

The Bay Psalm Book
The Bay Psalm Book title page

“Psalm 100,” also known as “Old Hundred” was one of the best known and most commonly sung psalms.

In the 1730s and 1740s, a series of emotional religious revivals called the Great Awakening swept across the American colonies. Along with the Great Awakening came a new, livelier form of religious song called a hymn. While the words to psalms came directly from the Bible, hymns were religious poems based on scripture. English minister Dr. Isaac Watts published the book “Hymns and Spiritual Songs” in 1707. The book was very popular in the colonies, especially with African Americans. The new hymns gradually replaced the old psalms among the Protestant denominations.

African Americans and Christianity

People in the American colonies disagreed over whether to encourage, discourage, enforce, or prohibit the conversion of African Americans to Christianity. In the North, Christian denominations generally supported and facilitated conversion. The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG), the Church of England’s missionary organization, formed in 1701 to convert African Americans to Christianity. They founded schools, including one at New York’s Trinity Church, to provide religious instruction, which included psalm singing. Schools that taught Christianity and psalm singing also formed that were independent of established churches.

In the South, religious conversion was much less common than in the North. Large plantations were relatively isolated, and it was up to individual plantation owners whether or not to convert their slaves. Some believed that religious instruction made enslaved people “proud, and not as good servants.” Others used passages from the Bible to justify the existence slavery. They attempted to leverage these passages to make slaves more docile and subservient. After some people in slavery used their status as Christians to argue for their freedom, Virginia and other states passed laws specifying that baptism does not bring freedom to blacks.

The SPG was active in the South, and the Church of England had a strong influence on Southerners. Some slaves attended church with their masters. They sat in segregated galleries, on the floor, or listened from outside through an open window. The Reverend Samuel Davies, a Presbyterian minister from Virginia noted in 1751 that he was able to attract African Americans to his ministry through congregational singing. “The Negroes, above all the Human Species that I ever knew, have an Ear for Musick, and a kind of extatic Delight in Psalmody; and there are no books they learn so soon or take so much Pleasure in.” The songs and hymns of Dr. Watts were favorites.

Black Churches

When worshiping in white churches, African Americans were generally segregated and subject to discrimination. By the late 18th century, African Americans began forming their own congregations that were part of the established churches. Whites were divided over their support of separate black congregations. The First African Baptist Church at Savannah, Georgia, formed in 1788. It was the earliest permanent African American congregation in the United States. Blacks in the South formed other congregations, generally Baptist. By the 1790s, there were separate black congregations in the North, most of which were Methodist.

Particularly in the South, most black congregations had white ministers and were governed by white councils. Following the Denmark Vesey uprising in 1822 and the Nat Turner insurrection in 1831, most black congregations were dissolved. As both revolts were led by preachers, whites placed blame on religious organizations. After the Civil War, blacks again formed independent congregations in the South.

Richard Allen’s Hymnals

In 1784, Old St. George’s Methodist Church in Philadelphia issued former slave Richard Allen a preaching license. He was one of the first two black men to receive such a license from the Methodist Church. To overcome the discrimination blacks faced in white churches, Allen organized the first congregation of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) in 1794.

Richard Allen
Richard Allen

In 1801 Allen published a hymnal for the AME Church. “A Collection of Spiritual Songs and Hymns Selected from Various Authors by Richard Allen, African Minister” included 54 hymn texts without tunes. Many of these were drawn from the hymnals of Dr. Watts and other favorite Methodist and Baptist hymnals. Others had been in oral circulation, and some may have been original Richard Allen compositions. The book is invaluable as a reference of songs that had were favorites of African Americans before and after it was published.

“A Collection of Spiritual Songs” was the first song collection published expressly for a black congregation. The hymnal is also significant because it included refrains that both supported and contrasted with the message in the stanza. Refrains can be found in only one previous hymnal. Sung as a call and response, they were an element of African music that became common in later spirituals. Some refrains appeared in more than one song. Wandering refrains such as this appear to be unique to African American singing at the time. They were also frequently found in later African American spirituals.

The spiritual “My Lord, What a Morning” is an adaptation of a hymn from Allen’s “A Collection of Spiritual Songs.”

Despite the relative freedom enjoyed by the independent black congregations, they were still controlled by white elders and subject to discrimination. In 1816, following a battle in court, several black Methodist congregations separated from the church and established the African Methodist Episcopal Church as the first black denomination. As the Church’s first bishop, Allen published a new hymnal in 1818. It was larger than his previous hymnal and still contained favorites by Dr. Watts and others.

Many of these hymns would soon become favorites at the camp meetings of the Second Great Awakening. These camp meetings would provide fertile ground for the further development of spirituals.

Part 2 of this 2-part series explores how spirituals continued to develop in the 19th century.

Spotify Playlist

Shenandoah: An American Folk Song

There are few melodies as recognizable as that of the American folk song “Shenandoah.” As with most folk songs, there are many different variations and versions, and it is impossible to determine the song’s exact origin. It has commonly been sung as a sea shanty (also spelled chantey or chanty), though it most likely originated with early French Canadian fur traders. Versions of the song have linked it to riverboat men, cavalry men, mountain men, and soldiers on both sides of the Civil War. Some use names, including Sally Brown, Polly Brown, Darby Doyle, Paddy Doyle, or Dan O’Shea, in place of the word Shenandoah.

In summing up the beauty and appeal of the song, it is hard to top the writing of John and Alan Lomax in their book Best Loved American Folk Songs:

The melody has the roll and surge and freedom of a tall ship sweeping along before a trade wind. The sonorous succession of long vowels and soft and liquid consonants blend perfectly with the romantic air. The lines are a call from the homeland to the sailor wandering far out across the seas, a call not from a sweetheart, a house, or even a town, but from the land itself, its rivers and its familiar and loved hills.

Sea Shanties

Sea shanties, or nautical shanties, are the work songs of sailors. Often sung in call and response fashion, shanties coordinate the actions of sailors in specific tasks. The singing of shanties evolved from more primitive chants and calls to coordinate work on board sailing vessels. They evolved with British and northern European sailors during the 16th century. Shanties sung by American sailors include older European and American songs, adaptations of these songs, and original creations. The 1820s through the 1860s were the peak years for American shantying. These were years that smaller packet ships carried passengers, goods, and mail on rivers and along the coasts of America. Fast transatlantic clipper ships brought immigrants and transferred goods both ways across the Atlantic Ocean.

Shanties are generally one of two types: hauling or heaving. Hauling songs coordinate intermittent actions, such as pulling on a halyard (rope) to hoist a topsail. Heaving songs accompany continuous actions, such as pushing the wooden bars of a capstan to raise the anchor of a ship. The anchor’s rope winds around the capstan, which is a sort of giant winch. Rhythmic coordination of action is less important in heaving songs than in hauling songs.

“Shenandoah” was one of the most popular capstan shanties. Heaving songs such as this set an appropriate, manageable pace and inspired the sailors to accomplish the task at hand, which could be quite long in duration.

Sailors working at a capstan
Sailors working at a capstan

French Canadian Origins

The song first appeared in writing as “Shenadore” in The New Dominion Monthly in April, 1876. The author, Captain Robert Chamblet Adams, indicated that he had first heard the song around 1850.  W.B. Whall reprinted it in his 1910 book Ships, Sea Songs and Shanties Collected by W.B. Whall, Master Mariner. The lyrics tell the story of a canoeing voyageur, or fur trader, who was in love with the daughter of a Native American chief.

This earliest known version of the song likely originated with French Canadian voyageurs who traded with Native Americans around the Great Lakes starting in the 16th century. The voyageurs gave weapons, tools, and money in exchange for animal furs, especially beaver pelts. They often sang while they paddled their canoes along the Mississippi River and its tributaries, including the Missouri, in the quest for furs.

"Fur Traders Descending the Missouri" - painting by George Caleb Bingham
“Fur Traders Descending the Missouri” – painting by George Caleb Bingham

Most musicologists agree that the chief mentioned in “Shenandoah” is the Oneida Iroquois chief John Skenandoa. Skenandoa supported the English against the French in the Seven Years (or French and Indian) War. Support for the English may be the reason that the chief forbade the love between his daughter and the French trader, if the story in this early version of “Shenandoah” is true.

Missouri, she’s a mighty river.
Away you rolling river.
The redskins’ camp, lies on its borders.
Ah-ha, I’m bound away, ‘Cross the wide Missouri.

The white man loved the Indian maiden,
Away you rolling river.
With notions his canoe was laden.
Ah-ha, I’m bound away, ‘Cross the wide Missouri.

“O, Shenandoah, I love your daughter,
Away you rolling river.
I’ll take her ‘cross yon rolling water.”
Ah-ha, I’m bound away, ‘Cross the wide Missouri.

The chief disdained the trader’s dollars:
Away you rolling river.
“My daughter never you shall follow.”
Ah-ha, I’m bound away, ‘Cross the wide Missouri.

At last there came a Yankee skipper.
Away you rolling river.
He winked his eye, and he tipped his flipper.
Ah-ha, I’m bound away, ‘Cross the wide Missouri.

He sold the chief that fire-water,
Away you rolling river.
And ‘cross the river he stole his daughter.
Ah-ha, I’m bound away, ‘Cross the wide Missouri.

“O, Shenandoah, I long to hear you,
Away you rolling river.
Across that wide and rolling river.”
Ah-ha, I’m bound away, ‘Cross the wide Missouri.

(from Ships, Sea Songs and Shanties Collected by W.B. Whall, Master Mariner)

Other Versions

Flatboatmen carrying goods on the American rivers in the early 19th century may also have sung versions of “Shenandoah.” Sailors on packet ships along the Mississippi River sang it while they hauled in the anchor. Eventually, sailors on American clipper ships carried the song around the world.

In the book American Ballads and Folk Songs (Macmillan, 1934), John and Alan Lomax include a version called “The Wild Mizzourye.” They identify this as a version sung by U.S. Cavalry men in the American West.

For seven long years I courted Nancy
Hi! Ho! The rolling river!
For seven long years I courted Nancy
Ha! Ha! I’m bound away for the wild Mizzourye!

She would not have me for a lover
Hi! Ho! The rolling river!
She would not have me for a lover
Ha! Ha! I’m bound away for the wild Mizzourye!

And so she took my fifteen dollars
Hi! Ho! The rolling river!
And so she took my fifteen dollars
Ha! Ha! I’m bound away for the wild Mizzourye!

And then she went to Kansas City
Hi! Ho! The rolling river!
And then she went to Kansas City
Ha! Ha! I’m bound away for the wild Mizzourye!

And there she had a little sh-sh-baby
Hi! Ho! The rolling river!
And there she had a little sh-sh-baby
Ha! Ha! I’m bound away for the wild Mizzourye!

She must have had another lover
Hi! Ho! The rolling river!
She must have had another lover
Ha! Ha! I’m bound away for the wild Mizzourye!

He must have been a _th Cavalry Soldier
Hi! Ho! The rolling river!
He must have been a _th Cavalry Soldier
Ha! Ha! I’m bound away for the wild Mizzourye!

I’m drinkin’ rum and chawin’ tobacco
Hi! Ho! The rolling river!
I’m drinkin’ rum and chawin’ tobacco
Ha! Ha! I’m bound away for the wild Mizzourye!

I learned this song from Tommy Tompkins
Hi! Ho! The rolling river!
I learned this song from Tommy Tompkins
Ha! Ha! I’m bound away for the wild Mizzourye!

(from American Ballads and Folk Songs by John and Alan Lomax)

Carl Sandburg provides a version with some similar stanzas in his book The American Songbag (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1927). He indicates that “The Wide Mizzoura” was sung by regular army men by 1897. Instead of the word “Shenandoah,” Sandburg’s version uses “Shannadore.”

In his book Splendour of the Seas (E. Stanford, 1953) Captain Frank H. Shaw includes the following version, which celebrates the Shenandoah River and Valley of Virginia and West Virginia.

O Shenandoah, I long ter hear yer
O Shenandoah, I long ter hear yer

O Shenandoah, I look a-notion
To sail across the stormy ocean

O Shenandoah, I’m bound ter leave yer
But, Shenandoah, I’ll not deceive yer

O Shenandoah, I love yer daughters
I love the music of yer waters

‘Tis seven long years since last I seed yer
But, Shenandoah, I’ll never grieve yer

O Shenandoah’s my native valley
Beside her waters I love to dally

O Shenandoah, she’s a lovely river
An’ I shall never forget you ever

(from Splendour of the Seas by Captain Frank H. Shaw)

America’s familiarity with “Shenandoah” soared in the 1960s when it was featured in at least two popular films. How the West was Won (1962) linked the song with the American West, and Shenandoah (1965) connected it to the Civil War.

My version of “Shenandoah” with the Rambling String Band includes the lyrics from John and Alan Lomax’s Folk Song U.S.A. (Duell, Sloan & Pearce, Inc., 1947).

O Shenandoah, I long to hear you
Away, you rolling river
O Shenandoah, I long to hear you
Away, I’m bound away
‘Cross the wide Missouri

Missouri, she’s a mighty river
Away, you rolling river
The Indians camp along her borders
Away, I’m bound away
‘Cross the wide Missouri

The white man loved an Indian maiden
Away, you rolling river
With notions his canoe was laden
Away, I’m bound away
‘Cross the wide Missouri

O Shenandoah, I love your daughter
Away, you rolling river
For her I’ve crossed the rolling water
Away, I’m bound away
‘Cross the wide Missouri

Seven long years I courted Sally
Away, you rolling river
Seven more I longed to have her
Away, I’m bound away
‘Cross the wide Missouri

Farewell, my dear, I’m bound to leave you
Away, you rolling river
O Shenandoah, I’ll not deceive you
Away, I’m bound away
‘Cross the wide Missouri

“Shenandoah” is one of the most recorded and performed American folk songs. The Spotify playlist below includes versions by Harry Belafonte, Trampled by Turtles, Emmylou Harris, Johnny Mathis, Jerry Garcia and David Grisman, Bruce Springsteen, Pete Seeger, Richard Thompson, and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

Spotify Playlist

Southern Square Dance: A Brief History

For most of my days, I have avoided stepping onto a dance floor as if my life depended on it. In 2015 when I first attended Old-Time Week at the Augusta Heritage Center of Davis & Elkins College in West Virginia, I found that there was a square dance every night. I thought that, as a musician who occasionally plays for dances,  I should probably give this a try. The first night I went and watched for a while, but did not brave the dance floor. The second night I went back and summoned the courage to dance. Since that night I have seldom passed up an opportunity to square dance.

Many people have seen the short online video The Secret Racist History of Square Dancing, linked at the bottom of this blog post. The premise of the video is that square dancing became popular nationwide in the 20th century due to the influence of racists and anti-Semites who wanted to promote wholesome Anglo-Saxon values. While the video does acknowledge the true multiracial development of square dance, the alarmist title is misleading. The southern square dance is built on a foundation of Scots-Irish reels, and it includes elements of English, French, African American, and Native American dance. Perhaps the most critical innovation, the dance caller, was the result of African American ingenuity.

For a deep dive into this topic, I recommend the book Hoedowns, Reels, and Frolics: Roots and Branches of Southern Appalachian Dance (University of Illinois Press, 2015) by Phil Jamison. Jamison is an excellent dancer, musician, scholar, writer, and dance caller. Many of the square dances in which I have participated were led by Phil’s expert calling.

Hoedowns, Reels, and Frolics (Phil Jamison)

The Southern Square Dance

There are several different types of dance in the Southern Appalachian dance tradition. Step dances, like flatfooting, clogging, and buckdancing, are for individuals. Round dances, like two-steps and waltzes, are for couples. Set dances, like square dances, are for groups of couples. A community dance, or frolic, in Appalachia might include all of these dance forms.

Two types of square dance are part of the set dance tradition. One is a square set which consists of four couples. The other is a circular set that can include any number of couples. Square dances have a visiting-couple structure, which means that each couple takes turns leading the dance figure. The lead couple dances, or visits, with each of the other couples as they work their way counterclockwise around the set.

Southern Square Dance, Pulaski, TN (2014)
Gerald Young, caller

Cultural Diversity in Appalachia

Southern Appalachian square dance is an American hybrid that incorporates elements of dance traditions from a variety of cultures. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, folklorists and writers began propagating the myth that the people of the southern portion of the Appalachian Mountain Range (Appalachia) were  of purebred Anglo-Saxon heritage. This was far from true. The region was home to Algonquian and Cherokee Indians when Europeans began settling there during the 18th century. Scots-Irish, German, English, Welsh, and French settlers came to live in Appalachia. Most of the early settlers followed the Great Wagon Road from Pennsylvania southwest through Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Others traveled west from Tidewater Virginia and Charleston, South Carolina.

Both free and enslaved African Americans also lived in Appalachia. In the first half of the 19th century, approximately 10 percent of white households owned slaves, typically fewer than five. People in slavery worked in farming, mining, lumbering, riverboats, and hotels. Poor white tenant farmers and sharecroppers often labored alongside enslaved people at work parties, such as corn huskings. They also shared music and dance. Daniel Hundley wrote in 1860 about “industrious poor whites” and slaves in northern Alabama: “And when the long winter evenings have come, you will see blacks and whites sing, and shout, and husk in company, to the music of Ole Virginny reels played on a greasy fiddle by some aged Uncle Edward, whose frosty pow proclaims that he is no longer fit for any more active duty, and whose long skinny fingers are only useful now to put life and mettle into the fingers of the young huskers, by the help of de fiddle and de bow.”

The Roots of Square Dance

Southern Appalachian square dance is built on a foundation of circular Scots-Irish reels. The majority of the settlers in the southern mountains were Scots-Irish, and the early frolics that took place there consisted primarily of Scottish and Irish reels and jigs. A reel was not one particular dance. It applied to any number of set dances that had a characteristic weaving movement. Among the early Scottish reels were medieval ring dances, or rounds, which could include many couples. There was also a dance for three dancers called the “Reel for Three” and a variety of four-handed reels for four dancers.

One type of four-handed reel was the Square Four. The Square Four and other four-handed reels were well known in Scotland and Ireland in the early 19th century and became common in Appalachia. Some of the visiting-couple dance figures in the southern square dance most likely originated in the Square Four. Reels for three, four, or five couples were also danced in Scots-Irish communities in 19th century America.

Square Four reel - "Merrymaking at a Wayside Inn"
Square Four reel – “Merrymaking at a Wayside Inn”

The southern square dance also includes elements of the English country dance. This type of dance became popular in England in the late 16th century. By the end of the 17th century it had spread to France, where the name changed to “contredanse.”  This name implied its longways formation, which consisted of lines of opposing couples. The French contredanse name was changed to “contra dance” in America. Similar dances by this name can still be found today, especially in New England.

English Country Dance

The English country dance was popular in colonial America.  John Playford’s book The Dancing Master, first published in 1651, included tunes and instructions for 104 dances. In addition to the longways set, formations included “for four,” “square dances for eight,” and “rounds.” Though the English country dance was not widespread in the southern mountains, some of the visiting-couple figures in square dance (Figure Eight, Chase the Rabbit, and Shoot the Owl) likely originated in the English country dance.

A French dance called the cotillion became popular in America in the late 18th century. It was a square dance for four couples. Cotillions largely replaced the English country dance in American ballrooms, perhaps honoring the assistance provided by France in defeating the British during the American Revolution. By the 1820s, a new kind of French square dance, called a quadrille, had become the most popular dance of fashionable society in America. Its popularity spread by flatboat and steamboat, and the earlier Scots-Irish reels came to incorporate its four-couple form.

The Quadrille Figure: Lady and Gent” Advance and Retire

Dancing was an important part of the culture and religion of Native American societies. These dances were often in a circular ring formation. Sometimes they created a serpentine movement with a dancer leading the line in a spiral coiling into the center, then reversing itself to uncoil. These figures are also part of southern square dance, though it is impossible to determine whether they were inspired by Native American dance or earlier European dances that incorporated similar figures.

"Dance Generale" of the Natchez Indians
“Dance Generale” of the Natchez Indians

Ring dances were also common in African and African American cultures. In these dances, individuals take turns dancing in the center of the ring. This concept became part of southern square dance in the Bird in the Cage figure, which involves a lone dancer in the center of a circle. Perhaps the most significant contribution that African Americans made to the southern square dance is that of the dance caller.

African American Ring Dance
African American Ring Dance

The Square Dance Caller

The European dance forms that preceded the square dance, including Scots-Irish reels, English country dance, and French cotillions and quadrilles, were not prompted by a dance caller. People learned the dances at dancing schools and from itinerant dancing masters. Having the time and money to learn these dances distinguished the middle and upper classes from the lower classes, both in Europe and America. Dancing schools and traveling dancing masters taught the “latest and most fashionable” European dances by the early 18th century in cities and towns throughout colonial America.

African American fiddlers often provided music for dancing schools, masters, and society dances. As they played their instruments, some also learned the dances and figures. Many of these musicians were enslaved and played music at dances for others in slavery. At some point, fiddlers began to call out the figures to English and French dances while the music was being played at plantation frolics. This was the start of the dance calling tradition that is so characteristic of square dancing.

All of the historical accounts of early dance callers, from the mid-18th through early 19th centuries, describe black or mixed-race callers. The fact that these accounts were widespread from New Orleans to New England suggest that the tradition may have begun in the West Indies. Many of the people sold into slavery in North America had been taken from West Africa to work in the Caribbean Islands for “seasoning” prior to entering the mainland.

European Americans were calling dances by the mid-1830s. Published dance manuals began including tips and instructions for calling by the 1850s. This new custom was not received well by all, however. Dancing teacher Charles Durang called it “a vile custom, marring the melody of the airs.” Nonetheless, dance calls made the European dances accessible to all, regardless of class or race.

Dance calling was well established in Appalachia by the end of the 19th century. Different styles emerged, with some taking on more rhythmic and rhyming characteristics. Through dance callers, the figures of the Scots-Irish, English, French, Native American, and African American dances converged into the southern square dance.

Square Dance Recordings

Barn dance radio programs gained popularity through the 1920s. These were variety shows that featured the old-time dance music of rural America. When record companies began releasing old-time records in 1923, some of the recordings included dance calls. The calls were generally not timed and sequenced to actually be used to guide a square dance. They were primarily there to provide down-home color to the recordings. Records companies marketed these recordings as “Barn Dances with Calls.”

These recordings are a great resource to hear and study regional dance calling styles. The first recordings to include square dance calls were made by banjo player Samantha Bumgarner from Jackson County in Western North Carolina.

There are two African American callers on record from the 1920s: Sam Jones and Jim Baxter. Baxter was an African American-Cherokee guitar player from north Georgia.

Jamison’s book Hoedowns, Reels, and Frolics provides a complete listing and analysis of the 78-rpm recordings of southern dance callers made from 1924-1933. Some of these recordings are provided in the Spotify playlist at the end of this blog post.

Square Dance Traditions

Dancing was an important social activity throughout the rural South in the 19th century. Dances often took place in homes, with all of the furniture moved out of the largest room. As Harden Taliaferro recalled of dances in Surry County, North Carolina in the 1820s: “As soon as night came, or the work was done, the fiddle sounded, and they danced and courted all night.” In the early 20th century, dances moved out of private homes into community spaces such as VFW halls, schoolhouses, and firehouses.

The 1930s saw the rise of the Western square dance. As country musicians moved away from the negative connotations of the mountain hillbilly image, the Western singing cowboy was born and popularized through movies and recordings. Though its roots were in the southern mountains, square dancing became associated with the West.

Western Square Dance

In the 20th century, people started to promote folk dances, including the square dance, in schools and dance clubs.  Their motives ranged from helping to preserve America’s cultural heritage to blatantly racist attempts to promote what they perceived as white culture. While based in fact, it is important to not allow the racist aspects highlighted in the video below to overshadow the value of the square dance as a truly American hybrid.

While the popularity of square dancing has ebbed and flowed through the years, it is an American tradition that is still enjoyed in many communities in the United States.

Spotify Playlist

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 18th 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.