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The banjo can have four or five strings and is made from a gourd, used as the sound box, covered with hide or plastic. The instrument developed from African instruments (banjar, bandora, banza) that were introduced by slaves (Banjo). The banjo’s predecessor was played in seventh century Africa (Mazbrow). In the seventeenth century, the instrument consisted of a long pole and attached gourd with three or four strings, made from horsehair, catgut, or hemp plant. At first it was played by West African wandering musicians, but by the eighteenth century was played by slave musicians in the West Indies. Knocking and beating was the style used. Notes began to slide and bend once tuning pegs and a flat board for fingering was added (Banjo). This “banjar” instrument was played in Maryland and Virginia from the mid-eighteenth century. It had a skin head, pegs, and a short thumb string. In Africa, the banjar was played with the talking drums but, in response to a slave uprising in South Carolina, drums and horns became illegal, and the traditional way of playing was adapted to banjar solos (Banjo). The combination of banjo and fiddle, at the core of Appalachian music, was played exclusively by black musicians for about 100 years, before white musicians adopted it (Mazbrow). Just as spirituals were used to communicate escape plans, black banjo songs communicated subversive methods to survive slavery. Many of these songs used cunning animals, like foxes and snakes, to camouflage their message (Banjo). Black banjar music began to have a strong influence on the fiddle playing of Appalachian immigrants from Scotland and Ireland. Soon, white Appalachian musicians were playing the instrument in the same thumping style as the black Appalachian musicians. For some time, white banjo players depended on black banjo players, not only for rhythm and style, but even for acquiring a banjo in the first place (C. Conway 146). Mutual interest and instrument design collaboration soon modified the banjar, replacing the gourd with a wooden rim and open back. Sweeney, an Irish American added a fourth melody string, and the short drone thumb string was kept, so now the banjo had five strings (Banjo). Although African-American Appalachian musicians played the banjo throughout the nineteenth century, white Appalachian musicians dominated the emerging radio and recording technology (Banjo). The first white banjo player to achieve fame for his music, Joel Walker Sweeney, learned how to play the banjo from a neighboring plantation slave, and mid-nineteenth century white banjo players usually performed in black-face (Mazbrow). It was white performers whom people connected to hillbilly music, even though white banjo players had adopted a black musical tradition (Mazbrow). In fact, there has always been a lot of white pride in fiddle and banjo music, by those whose tradition came from Appalachian ancestors, and would never conceive of any black African American contribution to their musical heritage (Mazbrow). Appalachian fiddle and banjo music is popularly thought to be Irish and Scottish, but is syncopated and polyrhythmic, showing African history (Mazbrow). Polyrythm is alien to European music and central to African (Mazbrow). The typical way of strumming the banjo is to brush down with the backs of the fingernails while the thumb plucks the ...Show more

Summary

Name April 6, 2013 Instructor Course The Banjo in Black Appalachian Music There is a popular impression, in society, that Appalachia is white, and that the history of Appalachian music is white, having its roots in Europe. Actually, however, Black Appalachian music merged the African banjo with the European fiddle, and this formed the instrumental center of Appalachian music (Mazbrow)…
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