The Banjo and African American Musical Culture
Joel Walker Sweeney (1810-1860), a white banjoist in blackface, on the cover of the sheet music for the song "Jenny Get Your Hoe Cake Done" (1840). (Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.)
By the late 1830s, white entertainers wearing blackface makeup and singing what they called black songs had adopted the banjo. Known as "minstrels" by the 1840s, they became widely popular, touring the United States, Britain, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand. They created horrid caricatures of African Americans that justified slavery and segregation, violence, and discrimination against free African Americans. Though much of their music drew on white American and European folk and popular music, even opera, minstrels claimed that they learned their music from African Americans. They made up fictitious sources like "Gumbo Chaff, A.M.A. First Banjo Player to the King of Congo" and frequented black neighborhoods, dances, work sites, and slave quarters to learn tunes. They adopted African American banjo songs and wrote their own songs with similar structures that, in turn, passed into black folk tradition. Real black performance clashed with the racist stereotypes that antebellum minstrelsy nourished. With a few minor exceptions, established minstrel companies excluded African Americans until the Civil War. Yet, minstrelsy spawned opportunities for black performers. A few black minstrel groups appeared outside the main minstrel venues and in the late 1850s white promoters put together an African American minstrel troupe that toured Britain without blackface.
Minstrels, especially Joel Sweeney, who began playing a four string gourd banjo, popularized banjos with four long strings and one short string, as well as wood frame rims rather than gourds to stretch the skin. A new string tuned four or five notes below the lowest string on the old four string banjos had been added. While rural blacks and whites continued to make gourd banjos into the 1900s, by the 1850s, even among the enslaved, frame-headed five string-banjos had become dominant. Still, many of the oldest African American banjo tunes, such as "Reuben" and "Old Joe Clark," can be played easily without the "new" fifth string, exactly as they could have been played on the original four string banjo.