Making Music: The Banjo, Baltimore, and Beyond

Posted by | January 14, 2014

Please welcome guest author Robert Winans. Winans is co-curator of the upcoming exhibit, “Making Music: The Banjo, Baltimore, and Beyond,” at the Baltimore Museum of Industry from April through September (Greg Adams and Pete Ross are the other curators). The exhibit will encompass most of the information conveyed in this article, and much more about William Boucher (the earliest known commercial manufacturer of banjos) and Baltimore, with lots of pictorial and graphic displays and at least 15 period banjos.


The banjo is frequently associated with Appalachia, appropriately in some regards, but many people still believe, wrongly, that the banjo originated there. Thomas Jefferson, in Notes on the State of Virginia (1781), correctly pointed out that the banjo had its roots in Africa: “The instrument proper to them [enslaved African Americans] is the Banjar, which they brought hither from Africa.” His statement that the banjo is “proper” to African Americans (meaning that it specifically belongs to their musical culture), is presumably based on his experience with African American slaves on his plantation, Monticello, and in the surrounding area.  As “squishy” as the boundaries of Appalachia are, I believe Monticello would fall within those boundaries, at the least at their eastern periphery.

The Old Plantation," watercolor by John Rose, 1785-95; scene about 40 mi northwest of Charleston, SC. Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, Williamsburg, VA.

The Old Plantation,” watercolor by John Rose, 1785-95; scene about 40 mi northwest of Charleston, SC. Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, Williamsburg, VA.

On the concept of “brought hither from Africa,” recent research on West African musical traditions has provided convincing evidence that the banjo’s roots are indeed in Africa. More than 60 plucked lute traditions in West Africa have been identified, any or all of which could be seen as precursors to the banjo, some being more likely candidates than others as specific precursors. Jefferson’s phrase “brought hither” is potentially misleading and needs clarification. The form of the banjo, as known from the mid-19th century on, did not come directly from Africa to Virginia. West African plucked lutes had gourd bodies (a few had carved wooden oblong bodies) and a round stick neck with strings tied off at different lengths along that neck. These West African plucked lutes have 3 or 4 strings, the highest pitched one being tied off very short, like the fifth string on a modern banjo.

Recent research has also verified that the next stage in the development of the banjo took place among enslaved Africans in the Caribbean in the 17th century. The African gourd body remained but the round stick neck was replaced, influenced by the encounter of enslaved African musicians with European lutes, by a flat neck board with 3 long strings attached to pegs in a peg-head and a short string attached closer to the gourd body. The only North American contributions seem to be the substitution of a circular wooden frame rim for the gourd body and the addition of another long string (of lower pitch than the other strings). However, the gourd banjo remained the most common form until the early or mid 19th century.

Reproduction of a Haitian "banza," the original of which was collected in Haiti in 1841 (Musee de la Musique, Cite de la Musique, Paris, France)

Reproduction of a Haitian “banza,” the original of which was collected in Haiti in 1841 (Musee de la Musique, Cite de la Musique, Paris, France)

This gourd banjo could well have been in play (pun intended) in North America from any time after enslaved Africans began arriving. However, the first documentation of the banjo in North America did not appear until 1736, and its location was not in Appalachia or any part of the south but in New York City. For the following 100 years, a total of 58 citations of banjo playing have been found in the documentary record.

The first thing to say about these citations is that only two refer to white banjo players, both of whom almost certainly would have learned to play from African Americans, and they do not appear until the 1830s. The two earliest known white players were Joel Walker Sweeney, of Appomattox VA, and Archibald Ferguson, place of origin unknown (although he may have been the son of an Archibald Ferguson of Buckingham County VA), but appearing in the record as being hired in 1840 by a circus in “Western Virginia,” probably in the vicinity of Abingdon VA. Sweeney, of course, went on to become a famous blackface entertainer; Ferguson, who taught Dan Emmett to play the banjo, might have followed a similar path, but died of yellow fever in New Orleans in 1841.  These two earliest known white banjo players could both claim Appalachia as “home.”

Sheet music cover, 1840, showing Sweeney as a circus performer. Lester Levy Sheet Music Collection, Johns Hopkins University.

Sheet music cover, 1840, showing Sweeney as a circus performer. Lester Levy Sheet Music Collection, Johns Hopkins University.

The other 56 citations refer to African American banjo players. Of these, seven could be considered Appalachian: Knoxville TN (1798), Winchester VA (1799), and on eastern periphery Appomattox County VA (1781), Spotsylvania County VA (1781), Rowan County NC (1796), and Appomattox County VA (1820s), and on the western periphery northeast of Lexington KY (1781).

From at least as early as the late 18th century, then, African American banjo players could be found in Appalachia. This fact is not surprising, since one would expect that they could be found wherever African Americans could be found. Many whites migrating into Appalachia from the east would have brought enslaved African Americans with them, some of whom would play the banjo. To illustrate this phenomenon, a fellow banjo researcher, George Gibson, has uncovered an account of the 1781 migration of the Upper Spotsylvania Baptist Church into Kentucky during which, when all were feeling the difficulties of their journey, the leader called on “one of his negro men” to play his banjo and sing to help them proceed “with lighter hearts.”

So, if the documentary record, in the present state of our knowledge of it, does not give us a plethora of references to banjo players in Appalachia, it does show a concentration of references to black banjo players in another area: the Chesapeake Bay region. The 58 citations from 1736 to 1840 include 35 (60%) that are in close proximity to the Chesapeake, in Maryland, Virginia, and Delaware. For the 18th century, the percentage is 66%, which then declines in the early 19th century to 50%. Clearly, the crucible of early banjo playing in this country was the Chesapeake area, and, just as clearly, that banjo playing was at the hands of African Americans.

When did whites begin to learn from blacks to play the banjo? Did it not happen until Sweeney and Ferguson were doing it in the 1830s? George Gibson believes that it must have happened long before that, a not unreasonable belief. But, despite serious efforts, he has found no indisputable evidence for this scenario.

What would be the motivation for whites like Sweeney and Ferguson to learn to play the banjo in the 1830s?   Here is one possibility. The 1830s were the period when a number “blackface entertainers,” such as Thomas “Daddy” Rice and George Washington Dixon, became very successful performers, imitating African Americans on stages throughout the settled parts of the country. Popular early blackface entertainers such as these did not play the banjo, but the songs they sang in pseudo-black dialect very frequently referred to the banjo as an African American identifier and an essential element of African American musical culture.

Photo of a white minstrel performer in blackface and outrageous minstrel costume, circa 1850s. Bollman Collection.

Photo of a white minstrel performer in blackface and outrageous minstrel costume, circa 1850s. Bollman Collection.

And white men like Sweeney and Ferguson, having grown up with direct exposure to African American banjo players, could have taken up the banjo in the hope, not ill-founded as it turned out, of using that skill to enter the ranks of successful blackface entertainers. Other whites, of course, could have learned to play the banjo at an earlier date without the need for such a motivation.

Bringing up blackface entertainers leads us to the topic of the blackface minstrel show, which comes into being in 1843 and becomes the first national American form of popular entertainment. Many minstrel troupes (as well as circuses which included minstrel performers) included Appalachian routes in their itineraries. The banjo was an integral part of the minstrel show ensemble, and, however many whites might have taken up the banjo prior to this time, the minstrel show’s massive popularity clearly had a large influence on the rising popularity of the banjo in the second half of the 19th century.

It is appropriate to note at this point that the “biography” of the banjo in America inherently involves issues of race and racism. In its early years it is an African American instrument; later it becomes a central icon of a racist popular white entertainment form, blackface minstrelsy (the first of many white co-optations of black musical culture; think ragtime, blues, jazz, rock ’n roll). One should not think about the banjo without an awareness of the racial issues.

Photo of William Esperance Boucher, courtesy of his descendants.

Photo of William Esperance Boucher, courtesy of his descendants.

Having arrived at minstrelsy, we have also arrived at my last topic, banjo maker William Boucher of Baltimore. Before the 1840s, banjos were homemade. William Boucher is the earliest known commercial manufacturer of banjos, starting around 1845. His shop (along with others in the musical trades) was in the same central Baltimore district as the theaters, in which minstrel performances were frequent. As a successful entrepreneur, Boucher saw opportunity in a rising demand for banjos and began making them. He standardized the wooden frame rim (easier to fit the parts together than with a gourd body) and what he called the “screw-head banjo” (meaning a bracket system rather than using tacks to attach the head).

Around 45 of Boucher’s banjos are known to exist today, about four times as many as for the next most prolific mid-19th century banjo maker, James Ashborn of Connecticut. The majority of the extant Boucher banjos were found in the Appalachian region, having been shipped down the same routes the settlers had taken to move there.

The Boucher banjo I own can be taken as a representative example of an Appalachian Boucher. I purchased it in the mid-1970s from an antique dealer in Spencer VA, on the eastern periphery of Appalachia. The dealer told me that he had acquired it from a local family (not named). The family told him that the banjo had belonged to a young man of the family before the Civil War and that as a soldier in that war he had carried it with him.

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