The Banjo and African American Musical Culture
Eleven Hampton Institute members of a typical turn-of-the-century college banjo, mandolin, and guitar club, Hampton, Virginia, ca. 1898. (Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.)
The working class whites of the minstrel shows, Southern folk banjoists, and African American country banjoists could not pay for expensive banjos and might make their own if they needed one. Consequently, the nineteenth century commercial banjo industry created a market for the banjo in the proper middle class, and even in upper class Victorian parlors. Philadelphia capitalist S.S. Stewart published a cascade of books, pamphlets, sheet music, and his S.S. Stewart's Banjo and Guitar Journal, championing the idea of "elevating the banjo" and often denying the African ancestry and black origin that had been accepted by all until after the Civil War. Using the guitar banjo style and demanding sight reading from standard musical notation (and thus the purchase of the sheet music Stewart and others sold), a parlor banjo movement joined parallel operations for the mandolin and the guitar to set up clubs in neighborhoods, work sites, and colleges that played sentimental, light classical, and pseudo-black music sold by Stewart and his competitors. The banjo lessons that Edward VII, Queen Victoria's son, took from the Bohees registered the success of Stewart and his competitors in repositioning the banjo in the late Victorian world.
Middle class African Americans later set up black banjo, mandolin, and guitar clubs. In the early 1900s black newspapers across the country covered the concerts of the most important black club, Washington D. C.'s Aeolian Mandolin, Guitar, and Banjo Society, as "society" news. In April 1902 the Aeolians had performances scheduled in Washington, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. In April 1903 more than two thousand filled Washington's Zion Baptist Church for a program featuring the Aeolians.
This movement fostered the musical literacy and technical skill that the generation of African Americans born after emancipation used to create their own new music, "ragtime," which was rooted in the rhythms of black string band dance music popular in Kansas and Missouri, and applied older banjo syncopations to the piano. In 1895, ragtime's foremost composer Scott Joplin set up his shingle in Sedalia, Missouri, as a teacher not only of the piano, but of parlor music's trio, the banjo, the guitar, and the mandolin.