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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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.

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spotify Playlist

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