It’s been my lot in life, probably to the everlasting dismay of some around me, to be enamored with that humble little musical instrument, the banjo. Originating in Africa, the twangy thump of banjo notes just seems to resonate with some primal part of myself. The cheerful sound of it once prompted Charles Schultz’s Peanuts character Linus to proclaim, “As soon as a baby is born he should be issued a banjo!”
Yet this joyful musical instrument has a sorrowful story to tell. The reason there were so many banjo players among the slaves on southern plantations was because the captured Africans were not allowed to play drums. Slave owners feared they would be able to communicate with secret drumming codes. And to encourage dancing to work their atrophying muscles on the long voyages from Africa, each slave ship included at least one banjo player.
As white people began longing to also play them, the minstrel show era was born with the banjo at its center. When white, and sometimes African, players toured the nation and exposed audiences to the catchy sound of banjos, everyone wanted one. Manufacturers could barely keep up with the demand. Unfortunately, the cruel stereotypes of Africans that were also part of those shows cast a shadow over the banjo for African Americans almost to the present. Only recently have they begun to reclaim their invention as black banjo players are beginning to return to the little half-drum, half-guitar instrument with the cheery, twangy tone that it has retained throughout its dramatic history.
I love the banjo and I love the banjo’s message: Adversity be damned! I won’t stop my happy song!