“Wherever black people went, the black string band went…and so did the banjo.”
You have the creation of the banjo in the Caribbean, and it just got transplanted up North. As folks are moved up the continent as enslaved people, the banjo and the banjo music goes with them.
And by like the 1700s, mid-1700s, the banjo is an emblem of the enslaved person. It is ubiquitous. People know what it is. They know it’s a black instrument, and then you have the creation of a very strong and important piece of the culture, which is the black string band. Wherever you had people, you had people who wanted entertainment. And at this time, entertainment was dance, it was a big part of life and not only the rich folk on their plantations, but also back in the quarters where enslaved people lived, they would have their own dances.
Black string bands quickly became the dance band, they’re learning English tunes, they’re learning Scottish tunes, Irish tunes, German tunes.
And they were kind of the first jukebox. This is an enormous part of American music and American culture. And I had no idea.
A very, very old black tradition, the black string band, they were everywhere. They were in the North, all over the South, wherever black people went, the black string band went.
How do we know about the banjo’s role in plantation life?
In the 1930’s, the Federal Writer’s Project interviewed former slaves about their lives and family histories.
They had a lot to say about the banjo.
Check Your Perspective
Now you’ve learned about the first 200 years of the banjo’s history.
Think back to the assumptions you had about the banjo at the beginning of this activity. How have they changed?