Part 4:
A Stolen Identity


“The banjo is making the journey from Black culture into white culture.”

This is the beginning of the banjo being adopted by white musicians, it was in the early 1800s that we have the first awareness of a white guy picking up the banjo. Joel Sweeney.

The banjo is making the journey from the black culture into white culture. And it becomes a really popular instrument for a minstrel musician: white men in blackface playing these caricatures of African-Americans.

It’s a really, really vast topic. The idea of minstrelsy is so hard for us to handle, but I think it’s really important to put a spotlight on this music because the early times of minstrelsy, that music is the core of our folk music. It’s important to know where it comes from.

Minstrelsy was the most popular form of entertainment in America for 60 to 80 years, 100 years before rock and roll, people went nuts over minstrelsy. It’s a form of entertainment that is dehumanizing and degrading, that becomes seeped in the language of American culture. This absurd, awful comedic treatment of, of an oppressed people. And the banjo, is kind of an integral part of it.

So, this banjo that I have here is called a minstrel banjo, I’m gonna play something from 1855.


The adoption of the banjo by white musicians in minstrel

As with many cultural artifacts throughout American history,
appropriation played a pivotal role in changing the identity of the banjo.
As the banjo’s journey continued, a new technology would cement
its image in the eyes of the American public as a white instrument.

Continue to Part 5

On the Record