The Origin of the Banjo

(and that funny little 5th string)

The ancient ancestor of the banjo, an instrument called the rebec, originated in Arabia over a thousand years ago and spread along with Islam to North and West Africa. It consisted of a skin head stretched over a gourd or hollow body with a neck holding three gut strings including the half string. One of the nearest relatives to the banjo is the sitar. They have some common design features including the skin resonator and the drone strings. The ancient Egyptians played similar instruments and in fact this type of instrument is common in the history of the Near and Far East.

The ‘thumb’ string was possibly added in West Africa where they have an instrument called the bania (banyar) which has two or three strings, one of them a short thumb string.

In the 1600’s and 1700’s Negro slaves bought the bania to the United States from North-West Africa where the slave trade was most intensive. The bania was used for dancing and this was probably not considered as much of a threat as other instruments such as the drums which were used for religion and long distance communication. Evidence from early travel and slave trade records and drawings as far back as the 1600’s confirm this. In his ‘Notes on the State of Virginia’ (1785), Thomas Jefferson says the bania was the principal instrument of the American Negros.

Although Joel Walker Sweeney (1810 – 1860), a banjo player from Virginia, is commonly credited with having added the 5th string to the banjo about 1831, Sweeney himself didn’t claim to have added the thumb string. He claimed to have added a fifth string, in fact he added the Bass string (4th). There is other evidence from pictures to prove the thumb string is ‘Pre Sweeney’.

It has been suggested that the thumb string was added to imitate the drone of the Scottish and Irish bagpipes but there is no evidence to support this theory.

So, the evidence points to an African origin both for the basic design and the characteristic thumb string.

What about the two major styles of playing the banjo, namely ‘down picking’ and ‘finger picking’? Where did they come from?

Where did downpicking come from?

There are two ways to pick a banjo: You can pick up with the fingers like bluegrass pickers, or you can hit down at the strings with your fingernail or thumb. Downpicking (also called frailing, clawhammer, knock-down, rapping, to mention only a few names) is the oldest of the two styles.

Here is the evidence for an African origin for downpicking:

  1. In Africa there were and are many instruments, including the banjo’s Grandad, the bania, which are down picked. Fellow banjoplayer Ken Ring tells me he saw a T.V. documentary on the origin of the banjo which showed the African bania being played with a downpicking motion and that the bania and rebec are descended from skindrums (which are also struck). Remember, a banjo is only a drum with strings.
  2. There is no European precedent for this way of making a note on a stringed instrument.
  3. Slave trade records show the style came to America with the Negro and the bania. From the earliest days the banjar was downpicked almost exclusively by plantation blacks, then in 1800’s by black minstrels. By this time both the instrument and the style had developed a lot.

So it seems the downpicking style came from Africa, was developed into what we know as frailing or clawhammer by plantation slaves and then black minstrels. Later it spread to white musicians who used it to play tunes from their own Scottish and Irish tradition and they found the banjo lent itself well to their modal tunes.

Appalachian Mountain Banjo

Let’s talk about how the 5 string spread into the mountains of Appalachia.

What sort of people settled in the Appalachians?
Scottish / Irish immigrants to America arrived towards the end of the 1700s. They left their homes because of the English land bill which discriminated against them and also because of harsh treatment by the English Army. When they arrived in America they found the East Coast settled. Since they came from border regions in their own country they found a home in the then frontier land of the Appalachians which stretch from Pennsylvania to Georgia. They brought many things to the region; reels, hornpipes, ballads, the dulcimer, guitar, fiddle, bagpipes and a fundamentalist Presbyterian religion. Also came English people who had arrived as indentured servants. When their indenture ended they moved away from the East Coast where they were treated as second-class citizens and moved to Appalachia.

During the Civil War, even though the mountain people remained loyal to the Union they were unpopular with both Northerners and Southerners. This gave them even more reason to stay quietly in the hills which formed a natural barrier against intrusion of outsiders. The seclusion offered by the mountains was so attractive to these people who had no place in the more organized society of the East Coast that they stayed there in isolation from before the Civil War until WW II (many who came out of the hills during WW II had not been aware of WW I).

How the banjo got there is not clear. That it was picked up from Union or Confederate soldiers is not likely because the mountain people avoided both armies. What is more likely is that the banjo was brought by the Afro-American railway workers who built railway lines through the mountains at the close of the Civil War. These Afro-Americans played the banjo with a down-picking motion which became the frailing or clawhammer style prevalent in the Appalachians.

The mountain people found it easy to adapt the new instrument to the fiddle music and fiddle and banjo became a common line-up. The banjos were made from gourds, buckets, skillets, even car wheels.

However, while the banjo was readily accepted by most mountain people, it found a serious threat to it’s survival by some.

The Banjo And Religion.
(Rewritten from Heritage Banjo’ by Jeff Yates)

While the banjo was readily accepted by the mountain people, it also found in the mountains a serious threat to its survival in the form of religion. There is an old Gaelic tale of music being a gift of the fairies and this is one reason why the church tried to repress music and dancing in Britain. One Scottish-American story has it that you learned to be a good fiddler by going out into the local graveyard and trading your soul to the devil for a few tunes. Until as late as the end of the 19th century the fiddle was considered to be the devil’s instrument , ‘the devil’s riding horse.’ The theory about music and the devil was not exclusive to the mountains; black jazz and blues players, guilt laden with oppressive white religions after the Civil War believed that should they die while playing their instrument, they would go straight to hell. Jelly Roll Morton, the great piano player, died screaming for holy oil and forgiveness for his playing.

In the mountains sermons were actually delivered against it. Earl Scruggs’ book on the banjo quotes one minister as saying “You might as well buy your son a ticket to hell as buy him a five string banjo!” Many good musicians (i.e. Wade Mainer and Doc Boggs) gave up the banjo because they thought (or were told) that it was sinful for them to play the banjo. Anyone who admitted to playing or enjoying the banjo was considered a roughneck and a buffoon.

Part of the reasoning behind the religious fervour against the banjo was much the same as the Victorian attitude that helped spell the end of the minstrel show: The banjo (and the music of common people in general) was earthy and full of emotion. The church, like the Victorians, insisted on propriety and restraint.

Another reason was that the modal tunes (like Little Sadie and Shady Grove, the minor tunings of the banjo and the ‘blue’ notes gave the banjo music an eerie, lonesome sound.

Despite heavy opposition, the banjo persisted in the mountains, usually out by the still. It was kind of like the liquor, some people partook, but they didn’t always talk about it much with the preacher. With the persistence of banjo players and the softening of religious attitudes after exposure to the rest of the country following World War II, the banjo survived.

‘Cindy got religion, she had it once before,
But when she hears my old banjo,
she’s the first one on the floor.’

The Origin of Three Finger Picking

Let’s look at how all those tricky fingered ‘Yankee pickers’ from the North Eastern States influenced the Southern down-pickers and how they in turn evolved their own styles which eventually culminated in bluegrass, the style we all know so well.

From 1900 to 1930, vaudeville was very popular and this helped the spread of the three-finger style. Vaudeville shows featuring classic banjoists such as Fred Van Eps and Vester Ossman toured regularly in the Southern U.S. exposing local musicians to the new style. At first all of these touring musicians were from the North East United States, but later southern performers such as Uncle Dave Macon started playing the circuits. Fred Van Eps and particularly Vester Ossman toured extensively in the South. Fred Bacon was another northern player who toured the South playing schoolhouses, tent shows and giving lessons.

According to the experts, one thing is certain: the rural southern banjoists, who until this time had a tradition of downpicking, didn’t learn the three-finger style from instruction books, because very few of them could actually read music. They learned the new styles of fingerpicking from the North East orally, not only from touring musicians but also from recordings. Van Eps had been recording cylinders since 1897 with the Edison Company and records were a popular source of entertainment in the South in the early part of the century.

Banjoists in the South had been using two finger picking since at least the turn of the century. These styles were based partly on extinct Negro folk styles, but they differ substantially from the three finger way of playing and it must have been a bit of a blowout for some of the Southerners to hear this explosive and complicated style rippling out tunes such as ‘Home Sweet Home’.

At first the local pickers learned the classic style as it was played in the North East but quickly adapted it to their own tunes and songs. Some of them like Doc Walsh and Charlie Poole used only basic rolls to accompany songs or tunes while Frank Jenkins and others developed a complex lead styles. All of this evolved into the styles that we call Old Time Three Finger Picking and by the 1920’s that style was widespread and popular in the South.

Old Time 3 Finger Picking

After the Classic style swept through the Southern states of the USA in the first part of this century, many Southern pickers learned the new way of picking the banjo. As well as playing standards in the Classical repetoire like Van Eps Dixie Medley, they adapted the new style to the local music. In the 1920’s the banjo was still in it’s traditional role as a rhythm instrument but was increasingly being played in finger style [the new NE USA style] not downpicking [the older Southern style] backing fiddle and voice on every thing from wild Irish reels to blues; Southern ballads to dance tunes. To back this type of music most pickers only used simple rolls and rhythmic licks to accompany the fiddle and other lead instruments.

A hundred different regional styles of two- and three finger picking evolved. Bands in the 1920’s, like Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers,often only used the banjo as a rhythmic accompaniment. At the time of writing this I am listening to recordings of Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers made between 1926 and 1930.

Charlie Poole was born on March 22, 1892 in Spray, North Carolina. He grew up in a poor family and started learning the banjo at the age of ten. He didn’t listen to recordings because he couldn’t afford the coin-operated cylinder players then only available in theatre lobbies. Probably because of this he developed his own unique style of playing but was later influenced by Classicists Fred Van Eps and Dana Johnson. He also listened to Blind Blake, a country blues performer. The song I’m listening to at the moment ‘What Is A Home Without Babies?’ has Poole singing and playing a very simple 3/4 ‘boom – chuck- chuck’ chordal accompaniment. On other tracks he plays simple, flowing rolls punctuated by rhythmic licks. Charlie Poole was however adept at playing Classic banjo and developed his style into a melody-orientated sound very similar to Scruggs’ and this was in the early thirties! Charlie Poole was preparing to go to Hollywood to record a movie soundtrack when he fell ill and died on May 21, 1931, at his sister’s home in Spray. He had just turned 39. His style bridges the gap between Classic, Old Time and Bluegrass banjo.

Gid Tanner and The Skillet Lickers were a wild group. They had two lead fiddles played by Gideon Tanner and Clayton McMichen and they were backed by Fate Norris on banjo and Riley Puckett, a blind singer and guitar player from Georgia. These guys travelled around parts of the South playing school-houses dances and concerts in the 20s and 30s but then the banjo started to decline in popularity with the influx of newer styles of music.

Bluegrass banjo or Scruggs Style

After the turn of the century, the 5 string banjo faded in popularity. The advent of jazz was one factor in its decline. The short fifth string was dropped which of course completely killed the distinctiveness of the instrument. The neck became shorter, heavier strings were used and the banjo was strummed. The four string or tenor banjo was much more adaptable to jazz combos. The five string survived only in a few remote areas in the South.

By 1930 even the tenor banjo was fading out. The five string was only heard on country music stations like WSM’s Grand Old Opry. Banjos stopped being manufactured. Many people define this point as the beginning of the Decline of Western Civilisation !

By the 1940’s the only people playing the five string were novelty solo performers such as String Bean and Grandpa Jones, usually dressed as clowns. Even though these people were fine banjoists, their main attraction was their humour and goofy costumes. This image of the banjo as an ‘idiot’ instrument has survived until today unfortunately and it’s very difficult to have the banjo taken as a serious musical instrument, capable of sensitive expression. [Anyone who snickers, loses their teeth!]

In 1945 however, Earl Scruggs, a twenty one year old five string banjo picker from Flint Hill, North Carolina, played his sparkling and dynamic style on the Grand Old Opry and the banjo rapidly became more popular. Demand for the instrument grew and companies started making them again. The rest, as they say, is history.

Everybody credits Earl Scruggs with having singlehandedly invented the style of Three Finger Picking called Bluegrass or Scruggs style. However, after having heard recordings of people that taught Scruggs ie Snuffy Jenkins and Smith Hammett, it’s clear that many people were developing the Three Finger style into what was almost Scruggs style.

Don Reno was born in February 21, 1927. He started playing at the age of five. In 1938, when he was 11 he met Snuffy Jenkins and Snuffy taught him the Three Finger style. He became a professional the next year when he joined the Morris Brothers. Zeke And Wiley Morris were using the guitar, mandolin, banjo, fiddle and bass instrumentation that later became standard.

Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys didn’t use a banjo until two years later. In 1943 Don had the opportunity to join Bll Monroe’s band but he enlisted in the army and went to Burma. Scruggs later took the job in Monroe’s band where he met Lester Flatt the guitarist , singer and songwriter. Together they left Bill’s band to form the Foggy Mountain Boys in 1948.

Don Reno returned to the States to find Scruggs a famous banjo picker and the style he had developed being referred to as ‘Scruggs Style’. Disillusioned, he invented his own style which is called ‘Reno’ style and is becoming increasingly popular as banjoists explore types of music not traditionally played on the 5 String for example jazz and Celtic music.

So, what did Scruggs do that made him so famous? How come everybody calls it ‘Scruggs Style’? While it’s true that Scruggs seemed to be in the right time at the right place, so to speak, there are other reasons.

Scruggs’ playing is far better technically than any of his contemporaries. He used a greater number of rolls and employed them in sparkling arrangements. He developed his technique to perfection until he was the undisputed King of the Banjo. He was in an excellent band and Lester Flatt certainly contributed his share to their success. We are indebted to Scruggs mainly for the boost in popularity for the banjo that he achieved through his recordings and concerts in the fifties and sixties. (Somewhere in there is also a keen business mind and career manager.)

So it seems that there were a surprising number of people who played in a bluegrass-like, three finger style before Earl Scruggs did. He was however the first to perfect the three finger, North Carolina style of picking. Go put on a record of the Foggy Mountain Boys and see if anyone has ever gotten a sweeter sound out of the ol’ five string!