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.
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.
Black Banjo Songsters of North Carolina and Virginia, CD 40079, produced
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?
Make a one string
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