Part 3:
An American Sound — The Black String Band

The next major influence on the banjo was the movement of the slave trade in the early 1700s from the Caribbean to what would become the United States.

“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.
“In those days there were many Negro musicians who were always ready to furnish music from their banjo and fiddle for the frolics. If a white family was entertaining, and needed a musician but didn’t own one, they would hire a slave from another plantation to play for them.”
Isiah Greene Georgia (born approx 1865)
“The only musical instrument we had was a banjo. Some made their banjos. Take a bucket or pan a long strip of wood. 3 horse hairs twisted made the base string. 2 horsehairs twisted made the second string. 1 horse hair twisted made the fourth and the fifth string was the fine one, it was not twisted at all but drawn tight.”
Betty Curlett
“They had big dances at night, sometimes. Somebody would play the fiddles and some the banjo and sometimes had a drum..”
Baily Cunningham Virginia (born approx. 1840)
``I used to be one of the best banjo pickers. I was good.”
James Davis Arkansas (born approx. 1843)

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?

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Share Your Thoughts

Type your response below.

If the banjo was exclusively a Black instrument for the first century of
its existence, how did it end up with the reputation it has now?
That change begins with the next step of Rhiannon’s journey.

Continue to Part 4

A Stolen Identity