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The Banjo

A Short History by Mick Moloney

The beastly banjoThe early origins of the instrument, now known as the banjo, are obscure. That its precursors came from Africa to America, probably by the West Indies, is by now well established. Yet, the multitude of African peoples, languages, and music make it very difficult to associate the banjo with any specific African protoype. From various historical references, however, it can be deduced that the banjar, or bangie, or banjer, or banza, or banjo was played in early 17th century America by Africans in slavery who constructed their instruments from gourds, wood, and tanned skins, using hemp or gut for strings. This prototype was eventually to lead to the evolution of the modern banjo in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Until 1800 the banjo remained essentially a black instrument, although at times there was considerable interaction between whites and blacks in enjoying music and dance—whites usually participating as observers. What brought the instrument to the attention of the nation, however, was a grotesque representation of black culture by white performers in minstrel shows.

The very essence of minstrelsy was black-face caricatures which became increasingly popular toward the end of the 18th century, leading to fully fledged black-face skits and songs on stage throughout white America by the middle of the 19th century. [Note 1.] It was during this time that the banjo in all probability was first introduced to Ireland, when the Virginia Minstrels toured in England, Ireland and France in 1843, 1844 and 1845. The leader of the Virginia Minstrels was Joel Walker Sweeney who was born in Buckingham County, Virginia, in 1810. Sweeney, whose antecedents came from Co. Mayo, has become one of the most controversial characters in the history of the banjo, having been credited widely with introducing the fifth string, or chanterelle, to the instrument. In fact, there are early watercolour paintings well before Sweeney's time that show the fifth string on plantation banjos. [Note 2.] So Sweeney most certainly did not invent the 5-string banjo. What he did, however, with his minstrel show was extend the popularity of the banjo to an enormous audience all over the United States and Europe.

Stephenson and DunneThis leads to the question of what kind of banjo was initially introduced to Ireland. The overwhelming likelihood is that it was the 5-string banjo of the minstrels and not the earlier three or four string variety which was common on the plantations. This is supported by a late 19th century sketch in Captain Francis O'Neill's Irish Minstrels and Musicians of piper Dick Stephenson and banjoist John Dunne, where the fifth string and peg on Dunne's banjo is clearly visible. By this time the banjo had undergone several transformations of a technological nature...

The minstrel banjo also lacked frets and as a result, playing above the fifth string peg posed a lot of severe intonation problems. It wasn't until 1878 that frets were added to the commercially produced banjo, a development credited to Henry Dobson of New York State. It took three decades of animated controversy for the idea to catch on. So the earliest Irish banjos were also, it appears, definitely fretless. Up to the turn of the 19th century, banjos were plucked and strummed by the fingers. So the evidence, though it is circumstantial, would indicate that originally the banjo was used in Ireland for rudimentary accompaniment of songs and tunes, with perhaps some of the simpler melodies being plucked out by the fingers.

Banjo gentThis all changed dramatically at the turn of the century when steel strings were invented. Influenced by the use of the plectrum in mandolin playing, banjo players started to experiment with different plectral playing styles. The idea of tuning the banjo in fifths, just like the mandolin, caught on around this time as well. Many players started to remove the short drone fifth string from the banjo and before long banjo makers started manufacturing four string banjos, originally called plectrum banjos, which were full sized, 22 fret banjos just like the 5-string banjo, but lacking the fifth string. Then around 1915, the tango, or tenor banjo, was invented, coinciding with the popularity in America of this new dance form imported from Latin America, which was sweeping the nation at the time. The tenor banjo had 17 or 19 frets, a shorter neck tuned in fifths, just like the mandolin or fiddle, though not necessarily at the same pitch, and was played with a plectrum. The plectrum and tenor banjos became the preferred form of the instrument in Vaudeville, Music Hall, in Dixieland Jazz, Ragtime [Note 3.] and Swing [Note 4]. In fact, the 5-string banjo languished for years, except in Appalachia, until it was restored to popularity through Bluegrass and the revival of Old-Time traditional music [Note 5].

Paramount headstockUndoubtedly, the first Irish banjo player to record commercially was Mike Flanagan, born in County Waterford in 1898, who emigrated to the United States at the age of 10. Like many of the Irish banjo players in this century, he started on the mandolin and learned on his own simply because there was nobody to learn banjo from. Mike, who at the time of writing [1986] is very much alive in Albany, New York, recorded prodigiously with his brother, Joe, accompanied during the early years by another brother, Louis, who passed away at a young age. Other banjo players to record in the 1920s were Michael Gaffney from New York and the late Neil Nolan from Maine, who played with Dan Sullivan's Shamrock Band in Boston. There was great life and exuberance in those early recordings, in part because the music was designed for lively dancing, but also because the banjo was at that time traditionally tuned higher than nowadays—still in fifths, but with the top string pitched at B or sometimes even at C. There are a few players in America who still favour the old tuning, most notably Jimmy Kelly in Boston. Most of the younger players, however, favour the GDAE tuning, which is by now "standard" for Irish music on the tenor banjo.

It's not hard to pinpoint when this "standardization" occurred. Before 1960, a number of styles and instruments co-existed in the modest fraternity of banjo players in Ireland. Some players favoured the 5-string banjo, some the banjo-mandolin, while others favoured varieties of the 4-string instrument. Some players used a pick, while others used a thimble.

Bacon and Day banjoIn the early 1960s, the meteoric rise to commercial success of The Dubliners in the Irish and English folk revival was to have a profound effect on the fortunes of the banjo in Irish music. Bearded, affable Barney McKenna, ace tenor banjoist in the group, became a household name among traditional music fans. [Note 6.] Barney's skill and wide visibility helped bring scores of new devotees to the instrument, almost all tuning their banjos as Barney did—GDAE, an octave below the fiddle.

Now in the mid-1980s, there are literally hundreds of accomplished Irish banjo players in Ireland, England and America. The instrument has most certainly come of age, after years of occupying a marginal position in the traditional music.

Introduction to
Gerry O'Connor and David McNevin
50 Solos for Irish Tenor Banjo
Walton's, Dublin 1986

Additional resources:

Note 1.

Moloney over-simplifies the history of minstrelsy. Black stage characters during the late 18th century were generated by the slavery debate and had no connection to any black tradition. The first minstrel performers, in the sense of whites imitating black styles, appeared around 1830. At first they were whites who had lived in the South, or among free black communities in the North. In this early stage much real black folk material appeared in the performances.

The twenty years leading up to the Civil War were the times when the caricature performances reached their peak. (The caricatures included Native Americans as well as blacks.) This was encouraged by the political climate of the time. During this period minstrels performed only in the North, not in the South. There were, however, at least a few black performers at this time.

After the Civil War, a large number of blacks entered minstrel shows, performing for both white and black audiences. They removed much of the objectionable repertoire and introduced new folk material from genuine black culture. The white minstrels of this time diversified by introducing insulting caricatures of the immigrants now flooding into America, including the Irish. Back

Note 2.

The four-string banjos in some early pictures already had the chanterelle string. If Sweeney did add another string, it was another regular string. Back

Note 3.

By 1915 there was very little true ragtime still being played. Ragtime banjo was played finger-style on a gut-strung fretted five-string banjo, the most noted player being Fred Van Eps. Perhaps Moloney is referring to vaudeville tenor banjo players like Harry Reser, but that is not really true ragtime. Back

Note 4.

One of the characteristics of swing music was that the banjo was dropped in favour of the guitar. The Duke Ellington band was the first to make the switch. Guitar companies brought out the tenor guitar, which was tuned like a banjo, for the benefit of banjo players who wanted to keep on working but didn't want to learn a new tuning. Back

Note 5.

The "Old-Time traditional music" in fact sounds very much like the minstrel style of fiddle and banjo, but usually with a guitar added. Thanks to the invention of steel strings and the new designs from the Martin and Gibson companies, guitars had become much louder than they had formerly been. Back

Note 6.

When he joined The Dubliners, McKenna turned down an offer from another Irish band that was just starting up—The Chieftains. Back

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