By Sarah Rahman
The four-, five-, six- stringed instrument that we call a “banjo” today has a fascinating history tracing back to as early as the 1600s, while precursors to the banjo appeared in West Africa long before it was in use in America. Explore these fun facts about the banjo through a journey back in time.
- The banjo was in use among West African slaves since as early as the 17th century.
- Recent research in West African music shows more than 60 plucked lute instruments, all of which, to a degree, show some resemblance to the banjo, and so are likely precursors to the banjo.
- The earliest evidence of plucked lutes comes from Mesopotamia around 6000 years ago.
- The first definitive description of an early banjo is from a 1687 journal entry by Sir Hans Sloane, an English physician visiting Jamaica, who called this Afro-Caribbean instrument a “strum strump”.
- The banjo had been referred to in 19 different spellings, from “banza” to “bonjoe” by the early 19th century.
- The earliest reference to the banjo in North America appeared in John Peter Zenger’s The New-York Weekly Journal in 1736.
- William Boucher (1822-1899) was the earliest commercial manufacturer of banjos. The Smithsonian Institution has three of his banjos from the years 1845-7. Boucher won several medals for his violins, drums, and banjos in the 1850s.
- Joel Walker Sweeney (1810-1860) was the first professional banjoist to learn directly from African Americans, and the first clearly documented white banjo player.
- After the 1850s, the banjo was increasingly used in the United States and England as a genteel parlor instrument for popular music performances.
- The “Jazz Age” created a new society craze for the four-string version of the banjo. Around the 1940s, the four-string banjo was being replaced by the guitar.
Sarah Rahman is a digital product marketing intern at Oxford University Press. She is currently a rising junior pursuing a degree in English literature at Hamilton College.
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