Wrongly believed by many to be an American instrument, the banjo dates back centuries with its earliest origins found in the Middle East and Africa. While it slowly evolved for centuries, it was not until enslaved Africans brought the banjo to the American colonies that it received its significant gain in popularity.
Traced back centuries throughout the Middle East and Africa, banjos originated as drums with strings stretched over them and played bowed or plucked. With the Arab conquest of Spain and the Ottoman conquest of the Balkans, the original version of the banjo spread throughout Europe. The first written record of a banjo, according to some historians, is on the pages of Richard Johnson's diary. As Johnson explored the Gambra River in Africa in 1620, he wrote of an instrument "made of a great gourd and a neck, thereunto was fastened strings." It was through him that historians have what they believe to be is the first documented recording of the banjo.
When the slave trade took native Africans overseas, these enslaved Africans created banjo-like instruments based upon the instruments indigenous to their parts of Africa. A document discovered in Martinique from 1678 is the first to reference the banjo in the Western Hemisphere calling it the "banza." Also called "banjar," "banjil," "banza," "bangoe," "bangie" and "banshaw," the banjo prototype was introduced into the American colonies. Originally, the banjos altered in design since they were fashioned after the instruments from their African villages.
Banjo popularity increased prior to the American Revolution when white men began using blackface as a comic gimmick. The banjo was one of their choice props for these individual or group gimmicks. In the nineteenth century, banjo popularity rose significantly through Joel Walker Sweeney and his Sweeney Minstrels. Documented as the earliest white banjo player, Sweeney remade the banjo into an instrument for the middle class. By 1843, Sweeney embarked on a European tour thus further spreading the rise of the banjo as an urban instrument.
Rise in Popularity
Following the Civil War and World War I, knowledge and appreciation for banjos rose considerably. In a time of isolation, Americans turned to the banjo music for pleasure. Even though it became an integral part of jazz, the banjo's popularity plummeted with the stock market collapse of 1929. The only banjo still somewhat in popularity is the sixth string guitar banjo, which can be tuned and played like a regular guitar.
Beginning as a drum with strings stretched over it, the banjo has undergone multiple changes in appearance. The modern banjo comes from a collaboration of fourth and fifth string banjos. A sixth string version of the banjo was created by William Temlett, one of England's earliest banjo makers. This six-string or guitar-banjo became the instrument of preference for jazz legend Johnny St. Cyr.
- String Stories: Banjo Orchestra