The Banjo and African American Musical Culture
In "The Old Plantation," painted in South Carolina between 1785 and 1790, a banjoist, a drummer, and percussionists play for dancers. The African Americans are slaves of South Carolina plantation owner John Rose, who is assumed to be the painter. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)
This is the oldest depiction of African American dance and music, and the oldest known image of a banjoist. However, 1785 was nearly fifty years after the first record of banjos in the current United States. On 7 March 1736, the New-York Weekly Journal published an anonymous and probably fictitious letter that begins with a description of an enslaved black servant tuning up his "banger" (banjo). It describes New York's common, filled with "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 [sic] to the grating rattling Noise of Pebles [sic] or Shells in a small Basket, others plied the Banger." Across the eighteenth century, newspaper articles, books, runaway slave advertisements, and other documents describe black banjoists from Massachusetts to Louisiana. The highest concentration was in areas of Maryland, Virginia, and Delaware around the Chesapeake Bay. The eighteenth century appearance of African American banjoists coincides with a shift in the origin of the enslaved in North America, from the early and mid-seventeenth century's Central African castoffs from Dutch, Spanish, and Portuguese slave ships, to the late seventeenth- and eighteenth-century infusion of enslaved West Africans, who had often "seasoned" in or were purchased from the British Caribbean. The banjo originated in the Caribbean in the 1600s and was transported to North America in the 1700s.