Plucked from the Past

A young boy strums a banjo. The banjo has a complicated history. Photo by Annika Mayne.

 

Often associated with the Confederate South and the movie Deliverance, the banjo is more well known for its hillbilly affiliations than its musicmaking qualities. However, the instrument actually made its way to America with the African slaves, originally known as the akonting, from the Jola people in Gambia. The banjo gained popularity in America when Joe Walker Sweeney became the first documented white banjo player, famous for his touring minstrel shows. Sweeney and his musicians would dress up in blackface and imitate stereotypes of slaves while playing music. Thus, the banjo in White America has always been directly affiliated with racism. A few black musicians have revived the banjo through its roots, like the Carolina Chocolate Drops and Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton. “That’s my direction. To find the music that relates to my culture,” says Paxton on the Great Big Story special “Funk + One.” Rhiannon Giddens, the lead singer and violinist for the Carolina Chocolate Drops, created an entire album based on slave narratives and music from the plantations.

Despite its roots, the banjo has grown and evolved with White American culture. Arguably, the instrument became famous in mainstream culture through the 1972 film Deliverance, a drama focused on four adult men who decide to go on a canoeing trip in rural Georgia. When the men are refilling their truck at a one-pump gas station in nearly the middle of nowhere, Drew, one of the main characters, pulls out his guitar and starts picking. An inbred young boy a few yards away starts copying Drew’s patterns on his banjo, and soon a joyous song known as “Dueling Banjos” ensues. This famous scene not only showed a bridging of cultural gaps, but a connection between musicians and two people who would have never connected otherwise. Although one of the lightest scenes in the film, it still holds dark undertones of an unintelligent community destined for failure, burdening its offspring with the same curse. This scene continued the impression of the banjo in White America, furthering its association with with racism, deplorables, and the South.

Although many negative implications accompany the banjo, Franklin musician Jesse Fuller (11) emphasizes the importance of knowing the history of one’s instrument. “Studying [an instrument’s] history will undoubtedly bring you across the great players [of] that instrument, and interest in them and their [music] is super helpful towards becoming a better musician.” Banjo “greats” are lesser known than moguls of other instruments, but their existence is still prominent in the music industry, especially that of Bluegrass. Earl Scruggs, arguably the most prominent banjo player in recent history, popularized the three-finger style of playing, also known as “Scruggs style.” Scruggs is directly associated with Bluegrass, as the genre could not exist the way it does today without the master musician’s influence. His songs “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” and “Cripple Creek” are synonymous with the Bluegrass style, and any musician introduced to the genre would find difficulty avoiding these tunes.

Additionally, Steve Martin, revered comedian and actor, is a professional banjo player who has collaborated with the bluegrass band Steep Canyon Rangers since the 2000s. Together, they have written and released two albums that exhibit Martin’s and the band’s musical talents. Although Martin has been playing banjo since a young age, he has helped bring the instrument into the mainstream culture it has not often presided in. Furthermore, the Coen brothers’ film O Brother Where Art Thou and the band Mumford and Sons continue to push the banjo into the limelight.

The banjo has undergone much historical change. Although much of its true history has been cast aside, select black musicians are bringing back the banjo’s history while bluegrass banjo continues to progress and become more well known. Currently the instrument continues to grow in popularity throughout mainstream American culture in movies, music, and advertisements. Perhaps, as Steve Martin says, the banjo’s popularity can be attributed to the fact that “the banjo is such a happy instrument —you can’t play a sad song on the banjo —it always comes out so cheerful.”

Leave a Reply