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.

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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.