The Banjo and African American Musical Culture
"The Sabbath among Slaves," illustration from "Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, an American Slave," 1849. (Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.)
Across the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth century, the banjo energized dances among the enslaved and the "freed." Scholars such as Samuel Floyd and Michael Gomez explain that these dances were among the sites where African Americans forged a unified culture out of disparate African cultures. Like its West African ancestors, the banjo joined small drums, homemade percussion instruments, hand clapping, and the stomping dancers' feet to create polyrhythms. Dances that were born in Africa merged with European and European American dances like the Virginia Reel and the quadrille, all with West African-inspired harmonies and rhythm. The banjo provided these dances with a driving beat, the syncopated counterpoint of shifting accents, and endless rhythmic and melodic variations.
Judging by newspaper articles, runaway slave advertisements, and narratives of the enslaved, African American banjo playing had been relatively rare compared to black fiddling in the 1700s. Yet similar materials and the memories of former slaves gathered by the WPA in the 1930s suggest that banjo playing spread widely in the first half of the nineteenth century. The forced migration of hundreds of thousands of slaves from Virginia and Maryland, where banjo playing had first been concentrated, to slave states across the Appalachians and in the Cotton South, spread the banjo and intensified the role of its dances in bringing African Americans together.
Changes in banjos popularized by the white minstrels made banjo more accessible to the enslaved. Frame-headed banjos were easier to make than the old gourd banjos. Not needing a harvest of gourds, the enslaved used old cheese boxes, grain measures, barrel rims, and wood they bent themselves to make banjo heads. Even homemade frame-headed banjos were louder and sturdier than the old gourds. Moreover, a growing number of slaves who "worked out" for some wages, as well as others who gained cash in the underground economy of selling what they produced behind their masters' backs, were able to purchase manufactured banjos. The minstrels' popularization of the banjo and black music gave black banjoists opportunities to make money busking on street corners and at gatherings such as elections, holiday celebrations, and markets.