The banjo is a four, five or six stringed instrument with a piece of animal skin or plastic stretched over a circular frame. Simpler forms of the instrument were fashioned by Africans in Colonial America, adapted from African instruments of similar design. The banjo is usually associated with country, folk, Irish traditional music and bluegrass.
At the age of ten, [banjo player Earl Scruggs] developed a style utilizing three fingers that was to become known world-wide as "Scruggs-Style Picking." The banjo was, for all practical purposes, "reborn" as a musical instrument due to the talent and prominence Earl Scruggs gave to the instrument.
Although the precise evolution of "Garfield" seems impossible to determine, the number of African-American elements in each of these variants, including Lunsford's (e.g., the lyricism, the paratactic structure, the interweaving of talk and song, the propensity for the cante fable form, the sympathetic tone toward the murderer, the ironic response of the central character, the varied number of stanzas in different texts by the same singer, the nature of the banjo accompaniment, and the large number of black variants), certainly suggest an African-American source and form for this banjo song.
Mountain Rhythm - Dueling Banjos
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Wade [Mainer] kept the sound of America's greatest indigenous instrument, the five-string banjo, alive during the lean years of the 1930s, when it was rejected as old-fashioned and corny by many country music fans and an emerging country music industry that sought broader, less regionalized markets. Wade's distinctive two-finger picking technique was emulated by young musicians like Ed Amos, Ralph Stanley, Wiley Birchfield, Hoke Jenkins, and others who kept the sounds of early banjo music current until the Earl Scruggs three-finger roll came to define bluegrass and dominate old-time music in the early 1950s — and even Scruggs owed something to Wade's distinctive version of "Old Ruben," recorded, released, and largely overlooked in 1941...
The plectrum banjo was born at the turn of the last century as the change in popular musical tastes forced banjo players to come up with new innovations and techniques for playing their favorite instrument. Many 5-string banjo players who performed with pop dance bands switched over to the plectrum-style in order to get more volume out of their instruments and better facilitate single-line melody work and chordal "comping." As the short thumb string was pretty much useless and a hindrance when it came to playing with a flat-pick, plectrum-style players simply removed the offending 5th string from their standard banjos.
From the 1840s through the 1890s the Minstrel show was not the only place to see banjo players. There are records of urban Banjo contests and tournaments held at hotels, race tracks and bars, especially in New York to the enthusiastic cheering and clapping of sometimes inebriated crowds. Most of the contestants were white in the early contests but there are records of black players taking part in the post-civil war era. During this time (c. 1857) metal strings were invented. It seems they were cheaper than the normal professionally made gut strings and more long lasting then the home-made fiber or gut variety.
While minstrel groups eventually used a variety of instrumentation, in the first five years of the phenomenon, as Robert Winans notes, the banjo, along with the tambourine, was "indispensable." It was "at the heart of the sound of the minstrel ensemble," he concludes, and the banjo's was the "most common solo" to be heard (fig. 1–9).
While they differed in what they were called, these instruments all shared certain structural characteristics:
A drum-like gourd body, topped with a taut head (soundtable) made of animal skin.
A "full-spike" stick neck which ran under the head for the length of the gourd body to pierce its tail end.
3 to 4 strings. The most commonly documented string configuration was that of the 4-string instruments. This was 3 long strings with the top 4th string being short drone, akin to the short 5th "thumb string" on the later 5-string banjo.
A footed, floating (movable) bridge which stands upright on top of the instrument's "head."
There are a number of theories about the origins of the word banjo. Some folks believe it’s derived from the Kimbundu language. Kimbundu, also known as North Mbundu, is a language spoken largely in the south-central region of Africa. In Kimbundu the banjo, in its older incarnations, may have been called “mbanza.” Other people believe it derives from the Portuguese word “bandore.”
Other theories include such Americanized words as “banjar,” “banjil” and “banza.”
Banjos belong to a family of instruments that are very old. Drums with strings stretched over them can be traced throughout the Far East, the Middle East and Africa almost from the beginning. They can be played like the banjo, bowed or plucked like a harp depending on their development. These instruments were spread, in "modern" times, to Europe through the Arab conquest of Spain, and the Ottoman conquest of the Balkans. The banjo, as we can begin to recognize it, was made by African slaves based on instruments that were indigenous to their parts of Africa.
Steve Martin & Earl Scruggs - Foggy Mountain Breakdown
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