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.

Pluriarc
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.