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Banjo

Objective: Students will explain some of the influences on the development of the banjo and banjo music and compare several different styles of banjo playing.

Introduction:
The banjo that we know today has its roots in the instruments that were played by the slaves who were brought from Africa. It was often called a banjer and accounts of it are found in the colonies as early as 1740. The early references to the banjer are of a stringed instrument with an animal skin stretched across the opening of a halved gourd for the sound chamber and strings of twine, gut, horse hair, or hemp. It was played in a thumping style with the thumb and finger that was later called clawhammer and was most often accompanied by drums. In 1794, North Carolina passed a law prohibiting slaves from playing drums. The banjo, however, was allowed and later even accepted and played by the whites. The fiddle and banjo pairing became much more common after the law prohibiting drums was passed. When banjo players today play in the old time style it is the clawhammer style that was brought from Africa.

By the 1840s, banjos were being manufactured with wooden rims. These were much more durable than the gourd type and were soon preferred by black and white players alike. The existence of many of the same songs in the black and white banjo playing traditions indicates that they shared songs back and forth and learned from each other.

Materials:
Black Banjo Songsters of North Carolina and Virginia, CD 40079, produced by Smithsonian/Folkways.

Procedure:
1) Listen to the two versions of John Henry on the CD. Discuss similarities and differences of the two versions.
2) Listen to Old Rattler. Dink Roberts chants the story of a fox chase over the rhythmic patterns of the banjo. Old Rattler is the dog. This song is played on a fretless banjo.
3) Listen to Jaybird March. This song is played on banjo by Etta Baker in her own guitar style. Compare it to the other styles already heard.
4) Ask students to tell why they liked a particular song. What did they find interesting about the music? Is it like other music they have heard?

Extensions:
Make a one string banjo.

Playing one string banjos

 

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