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The true origin and craft of banjos

Updated: Apr 25, 2023

If you wander through Appalachia, you have a very low chance of finding any barefoot, banjo-playing hillbillies.

The banjo is an instrument that was created in the Caribbean. People from different parts of Africa and different cultures were brought to the Caribbean and created banjos from whatever materials they could find, such as gourds.

When Black people were brought to the mainland, white people noticed how they would play the banjo when they would sing and dance. White people then began to incorporate these instruments into comedy acts they called blackface minstrelsy, a form of imitation where white people would make their faces appear dark and copy what they thought of as Black mannerisms.

Since the minstrels needed to play banjos on a regular basis, their banjos needed to last a long time. These performers adapted drum-making techniques to make their banjos more stable. When these shows gained popularity, audience members wanted to learn to play the banjo. After many white people learned to play and made several modifications to the banjo, the instrument was brought into many white homes.

Because of the racist stereotypes of blackface minstrelsy, Black people stopped playing the banjo, and the Black origins of the banjo faded from memory. According to Banjo Roots and Branches, “Although the banjo became an instrument of professional northern musicians, by the 1850s, the first known white banjo pickers were southern.”

Gaining a more professional role, banjo performances were paired with the fiddle, an instrument that derives from Western Europe. They were used in storytelling, an important part of Appalachian culture, which helped move the banjo into the Appalachian region.

“I think it’s actually a beautiful instrument,” said Anne Ward, an organizer for the Boone Docs Film Festival. “It has a long history and a complicated history. Celebrating people who make really beautiful handmade instruments is in no way a reflection or a pushing of the stereotype of Appalachia.”

With the use of banjos in Appalachia increasing, so is the need for the creation of more. This desire for banjos in the region created the need for rapid production of the instrument. Over time, as vintage bluegrass music became popular, the desire for banjos shifted from a need for a performance accessory to a desire for a collection piece. This led to the making of banjos turning into a craft, mainly using wood rather than the metal drums that came before. These wooden banjos became known as the mountain banjo.

“So, they're hand carving the tops, they're hand carving the backs,” said Director Thomas C. Webb regarding his short film “Birth of a Luthier” about instrument makers. “You know, to get the correct thickness of the wood they're making sure that they're not ordering parts that some luthiers do. So, they really are taking chunks of wood and hand crafting every part of the process.”

With movies depicting Appalachians as hillbilly banjo players, most notably “Deliverance,” the true art of the banjo has been lost from modern day. However, a recent film sheds light on the true role of banjos in Appalachia. During the 2023 Boone Docs Film Festival at the Appalachian Theatre, documentary photographer Jesse Barber submitted a film called “Mountain Banjo Luthiers,” shedding light on this Appalachian craft.

According to a new release from The Appalachian Theatre for the Boone Docs Film Festival, “this film focuses on two mountain banjo luthiers in Watauga County and talks about the continuation of the craft.”

Working with South Arts,  a nonprofit regional arts organization empowering artists, organizations, and communities, Barber made his film in 2021 as part of his graduate education, focusing on luthiers John Peterson and Charlie Glenn. Barber interviewed these two luthiers and learned the craft from Peterson. The film shows how banjo making is being passed down and being carried out by the next generation.

“It was like stepping into that old world of Appalachia,” said Barber, “kind of like the stereotypical imagery is built on of like Ray Hicks and Stanley Hicks and all those kinds of people that were heavily documented during the ‘70s, ‘80s. But it was kind of like a process of reconfiguring my understanding of, ‘What is Appalachia?’ and ‘Who is Appalachian?’ and ‘What does it look like into the future?’, kind of moving away from this more traditional view of Appalachian people."

The banjo is anything but an instrument for hillbillies. This instrument has a complicated history, from traveling across the seas to crossing races to turning into art. The banjo’s design has changed over time, starting from gourds and transitioning to metal and wood. The history of the banjo is filled with both sorrow and joy, the instrument’s Black origins being forgotten yet bringing joy to so many people through Appalachian storytelling heritage. More representation of this side of the banjo is needed today and should be encouraged.

Photos 1 and 2 were taken from The Boone Docs Film Festival page. Photo 3 was taken by Nikki Chambers.


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