The Secret Life of the Banjo

If you're like most Americans, you probably picture one of two things when you hear the banjo -Kermit the Frog strumming away in the swamp or the inbred boy from Deliverance. How can one instrument conjure up images both so sweet and so repugnant? The answer lies in the history of the banjo, which stretches from Africa to Hollywood, with an extended stop in Appalachia.

Centuries ago, somewhere in West Africa, the banjo was born on the knee of griots -storytellers who improvised their lyrics as they performed. Almost like forerunners to today's hip-hop artists, griots interacted with their audiences using call-and-response patterns to liven up the crowd. Their instruments -strings and animal skins tacked across hollowed-out gourds- are considered the first banjos.

The earliest versions were easy to make and easily portable, so when Africans were forced aboard slave ships, they brought their banjos with them. Once in America, slaves had no trouble recreating the instruments wherever they went. The banjo spread across Appalachia, but it was quickly pigeonholed as a black instrument.


Big changes were in store for the banjo, though. In the mid-19th century, the newest and most popular form of entertainment was the minstrel show. White men and women toured the nation dressed in blackface while singing and dancing in a manner that mocked black people. And because they were lampooning all aspects of African-American culture -particularly African dance and music- the banjo was at center stage.

Minstrel shows also meant change for the instrument itself. The early "minstrel banjo" was a fretless, four-string instrument with strings crafted from animal intestines. But metal strings soon replaced those, and then a minstrel named Joel Walker Sweeney (aka the Banjo King) popularized the fifth string, which became the defining characteristic of the modern instrument.

During the next 50 years or so, a strange thing happened to the banjo. Although minstrel shows poked fun at black people, they made the banjo immensely popular among white people in the process. In turn, African-Americans increasingly wanted to distance themselves from an instrument that had come to represent oppression and bigotry. In the early 1900s, the banjo only played a small part in new forms of African-American music, such as blues, gospel, and jazz. Meanwhile, it was becoming all the rage in white communities, especially in Appalachia.


The 1930s saw the rise of the banjo in Appalachian country music, thanks to the Grand Ole Opry. A Saturday night variety show performed in Nashville and broadcast live on the radio, the Opry spread "hillbilly" culture over the airwaves. The banjo played a central role in this, accompanying the antics of comedians such as David "Stringbean" Akeman and Louis Marshall "Grandpa" Jones, both of whom became even more famous later on the TV hit Hee-Haw.

The banjo might have remained an instrument of redneck comedy forever if it hadn't been for one man -Earl Scruggs. Born in 1924 in rural North Carolina, Scruggs grew up listening to the Opry and became convinced that the instrument could do more than accompany stage acts. By inventing the jangly, three-finger technique of banjo-picking -the trademark of today's bluegrass music- Scruggs used his fast-paced twangy style to prove beyond a doubt that banjo pickers could be virtuoso musicians. Of course, the trend has lived on. Modern-day banjo masters like Bela Fleck, Tony Trischka, and Bill Keith all play with as much technical precision as concert violinists.

Ironically, Scruggs also recorded the soundtracks for Bonnie and Clyde (ever wonder why high-speed getaway music is always played on the banjo?) and TV's The Beverly Hillbillies. Both projects probably maligned the banjo's image as much as Scruggs earlier work had innovated it, though not everyone in the music industry agrees. In fact, Julliard-trained banjo legend Eric Weissberg thinks the soundtracks brought bluegrass into the lives of many people who would have otherwise never heard it.

Until the 1960s, bluegrass wasn't really played outside of Appalachia. And because it was considered regional music, record companies didn't distribute it nationally. But in 1963, Weissberg recorded an album with his friend Marshall Brickman called New Dimensions in Banjo & Bluegrass. The record didn't generate much attention at first, but five years later, the hills came alive with the sound of banjos when director John Borman wanted the song "Dueling Banjos" for his new movie Deliverance. Weissberg happily recorded a new version with musician Steve Mandell, and it turns out the song shouldn't have been called "Dueling Banjos" at all. It's actually a duet between a banjo and a guitar, but listeners didn't seem to care. The new cut was played as the background music in the movie's radio ad, and all of the sudden, all over the country, disc jockeys were answering phone calls from people who wanted to know where they cold get their hands on the song. In lieu of a soundtrack album, Warner Brothers added two Deliverance songs to the material from New Dimensions and released it in 1973 as Dueling Banjos. Weissberg, Brickman, and Mandell became rich overnight, and Deliverance's depiction of rural Appalachian life -with that foreboding, nine-note banjo melody -was burned forever into the American psyche.


By the time Marshall Brickman received his $160,000 royalty check for Dueling Banjos, he'd already left the musician life to write scripts for The Tonight Show and Candid Camera. He began working alongside up-and-coming filmmaker Woody Allen, and together they wrote he Academy Award winning screenplay for Annie Hall in 1977. In Hollywood, Brickman became the missing link in the "Dueling Banjos"-to-Kermit-the-Frog axis of American pop culture. With his buddy Jim Henson, he wrote the script to a TV special that was later fine-tuned into The Muppet Show. In Brickman's opinion, Kermit just wouldn't have been Kermit without the banjo. "I try to picture it quickly -Kermit with another instrument- and I can't," Brickman says. "Not only figuratively, but literally, that banjo is nailed to his hand."


The above article was written by Robbie Whelan. It is reprinted with permission from the Scatterbrained section of the November-December 2007 issue of mental_floss magazine.

Be sure to visit mental_floss' entertaining website and blog for more fun stuff!

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Other seminal figures in the rise of the banjo in western culture a half-century ago are Pete and Peggy Seeger. His HOW TO PLAY THE 5-STRING BANJO, in USA (I have the 1962 3rd edition), and her THE 5-STRING BANJO: AMERICAN FOLK STYLES, in UK, taught aspiring musicians outside the bluegrass belt just what to do with their instruments. Their brother Mike's band, The New Lost City Ramblers, also spread pre-Scruggs styles. Pete was a familiar figure with his customized long-necked 5-string. The Seegers may not have had mass popular followings, but they influenced generations of musicians.

The tremendous banjo frenzy in USA of the late 1800's led to many curious hybrids. Many folks knew how to play guitar, mandolin, other stringed-fretted instruments, and manufacturers slapped necks from those git-fiddles onto banjo-head bodies. I have my grandfather's banjo-mandolin (circa 1890) and a banjo-ukulele. But banjo-mandolas (double-size mandolins), banjo-guitars, even banjo-basses and double-basses, spread across the land, as did banjo orchestras featuring the entire panoply of hybrids. I'm not sure, but I think a banjo-mandola, with single-strings rather than pairs, was the ancestor of the 4-string banjo of jazz-rag-trad bands -- primarily a rhythm instrument.

And of course, there are homemade tin-cup or ten-cup banjos. Take a metal saucepan (it's OK if it has holes in it). Carve a neck from a stick or a broken wooden chair leg. Attach neck to pot handle. Cover the pot with resonating material, whatever works. Run one or two or three strings over it. Cheap and easy.

Somewhat related are the products of Zeynelabidin Cümbü? in Turkey, originally developed as machine-age replacements for the hand-crafted lute and oud or 'ud. Such has a fretted or fretless neck attached to steel pot covered with a banjo head. They range in size similar to those in banjo orchestras I mentioned above. I have two guitar-sized Cümbü?'s, one 11-string fretless and tuned as an 'ud, the other 12-string fretted and tuned as a guitar. It sounds like the loudest, raunchiest banjo you've ever heard! I especially like to torture it, playing bottleneck-slide blues. Bystanders pay money just to make me stop. :)

Banjos shall live forever! Longer than I will, anyway.
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Strange that the article makes no mention of the original composer of the song, Arthur "Guitar Boogie" Smith who wrote the song in 1955 and won a landmark infringement suit for not been given any credit (or compensation) when the song appeared in the movie.
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Another source for great string music/banjo:

Talented original bluegrass performers.
Great original stuff as well.
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