The Banjo and African American Musical Culture
Six times a year, the editors of the Oxford African American Studies Center provide insights into black history and culture, showing ways in which the past and present interact by offering specially commissioned featured essays, photographic essays, and a selected list of articles that will further guide the reader. The latest Focus On looks at the history of the banjo in the context of African American culture.
Banjos arose as folk instruments powering the dances of New World Africans, but when American stages were opened to African Americans after the Civil War, black banjoists became national and international stars. Banjo rhythms inspired ragtime, and in the second decade of the twentieth century, James Reese Europe led New York's orchestras with dozens of black banjoists. Rural banjo dance traditions continued into the mid-twentieth century in banjoist Gus Cannon's blues recordings, and until the 1940s, jazz banjoists were integral components of the bands that brought jazz to the world.
Popular musical tastes changed later in the twentieth century, however, and the banjo quickly receded from African American music of all kinds. Recently, though, a twenty-first century revival of interest in the African antecedents, Caribbean birth, and African American history of the banjo has brought about a renaissance of black banjo playing, returning a number of African American banjoists to prominence within both African American music and the banjo world.
In this photo essay, African American National Biography contributor, banjo scholar, and performer Tony Thomas traces the tumultuous journey of the banjo across several centuries. Thomas draws upon a vast wealth of historical knowledge, his own skilled musicianship, and a close connection to the community of black banjo enthusiasts in order to provide readers a deeper understanding of the continually-evolving role of the banjo in African American history and culture.
View photo essay
The following entries have been selected to help guide readers who want to understand more about the banjo and the role of music in African American history and culture. (Access to the following articles is available only to subscribers.)
Primary Source Documents