History of the Banjo

by George R. Gibson

Uncle Dave Macon, the first star of the Grand Old Opry, was an extraordinary banjo player and entertainer. It is likely that black musicians as well as minstrel entertainers influenced his music. Earl Scruggs, who originated a unique style of bluegrass banjo playing, came from a mountain area where banjos and banjo songs had long been a part of the culture. Many mountain banjo songs became popular with early radio string bands, and later became bluegrass standards. When the banjo and banjo songs entered the mountains is a question that has not been definitively addressed.

Various writers, most from outside the mountains, have maintained that minstrel entertainers in blackface first brought the banjo to the mountains. That the banjo was foreign to Appalachia until after the Civil War is now a popular belief. It is maintained that the banjo was brought back by soldiers returning from the Civil War, or brought in after the Civil War by professional white minstrel entertainers who performed in blackface while touring with circuses, medicine shows, or on steamboats. Proponents of this theory did not consult mountain historians or folklorists. Also, there are no references in the mountains during or after the Civil War that cite the banjo as a newly imported instrument.

Most contemporary historians interested in the banjo are enamored with the banjo music of minstrels, which was documented in tutors published in the 1850s and 1860s. They have ignored the history of Appalachia, while developing theories attributing the origin of mountain banjo to minstrels. The message inherent in this theory is that it was necessary for professional musicians, mostly from the north, to teach mountaineers to play banjo. I attribute this in part to the ‘hillbilly’ stereotype that grips the popular imagination. This stereotype portrays the mountaineer as either an uneducated simpleton or an uncouth savage, and certainly does not allow for creativity or racial diversity. I believe the power of this stereotype, which has been perpetuated in the popular media for over a hundred years, explains the absurd lengths to which some have gone to establish minstrels as the deus ex machina for mountain banjo music. To properly address mountain banjo history, it is necessary to first provide an overview of minstrel music.


American musical theater began with stage performances of musicians in blackface in the 1840s. The five string banjo, fiddle, bones and tambourine were the primary instruments of these musicians, now known as minstrels. The history of the minstrels has been documented in several books, one of which is Hans Nathan’s Dan Emmett and the Rise of Early Negro Minstrelsy. Some musicians and dancers began performing in blackface while traveling with circuses in the 1820s and 1830s. They performed comedy routines and dances that poked fun at enslaved blacks. Black stereotypes developed during the minstrel era persisted well into the twentieth century.

During the winter of 1842-43 the four musicians who formed the Virginia Minstrels met by chance in a boarding house in New York City, and decided to play as a group. Dan Emmett played the fiddle, Billy Whitlock the banjo, Dick Pelham the tambourine and Frank Brower the bones. The first confirmed appearance of this group was February 6, 1843, at the Bowery Amphitheatre. This performance is commonly accepted as the beginning of minstrel theatre. The Virginia Minstrels became an overnight sensation, and in May 1843, traveled to England, where minstrelsy and the banjo also became immensely popular. Other minstrel troupes were quickly formed, including the Kentucky Minstrels, the Congo Melodists, the Christy Minstrels, the Ethiopian Serenaders, and many more. Minstrel theatre remained the most popular form of entertainment in America through most of the nineteenth century. Stephen Foster, composer of My Old Kentucky Home, wrote most of his songs for minstrel troupes. Dan Emmett, who played the fiddle, banjo and other instruments, became famous for his composition of Dixie, which became the most popular song of the Confederate south. Minstrelsy, much changed from its early origins, remained popular in schools and local theatres through the 1940s.

Joel Walker Sweeney, a white musician born about 1810 in east Virginia, is the first white musician to have been documented playing the banjo. References to any banjo players prior to about 1830 are very rare. Sweeney traveled and entertained in blackface during the 1830s, and later formed his own minstrel troupe. Sweeney had two brothers known to have played banjo. One brother, Samuel, was an orderly for Confederate General Jeb Stuart during the Civil War. He entertained Stuart and his fellow soldiers by playing banjo.

Some minstrel banjoists, including Sweeney, are thought to have learned to play banjo from enslaved blacks. Proponents of the theory that minstrels taught mountaineers to play banjo, however, ignore the fact that slaves accompanied the earliest settlers into the mountains, or claim, apparently without research, that there were not enough slaves in the mountains to have maintained a banjo tradition.

We have documentary evidence in Nathan’s Dan Emmett and the Rise of Early Minstrelsy that a mountaineer from western Virginia named Ferguson taught Dan Emmett to play banjo in 1840. This fact is ignored altogether, or described as an anomaly, by those who claim minstrels taught mountaineers to play banjo.


Eastern Virginia is known to have had slaves that played banjo. President Thomas Jefferson added as a footnote to his Notes on Virginia: ‘The instrument proper to them [slaves] is the banjar, which they brought hither from Africa.’ Reverend Jonathan Boucher, a loyalist who lived in America prior to the Revolutionary War, began a dictionary after immigrating to England. He described the banjo as ‘A musical instrument …in use, chiefly, if not entirely, among people of the lower classes…’ He further states that the banjo in Maryland and Virginia was ‘…the favorite and almost only instrument in use among the slaves… The body was a large hollow gourd, with a long handle attached to it, strung with catgut, and played on with the fingers…’ It is interesting to note that Rev. Boucher states the banjo was used among the ‘lower classes.’ Newspapers were still referring to the banjo as an instrument of the lower classes during the rise in popularity of blackface minstrels.

The lower classes in the 1700s included slaves, indentured servants, apprentices and others economically deprived. The class system in the 1700s was based more on economics than race. White indentured servants, for instance, were treated no better than slaves. Joseph Doddridge devotes a chapter in his Notes on the Settlement and Indian Wars to cruelty to slaves and servants. He was an eyewitness to several horrendous punishments, and says, ‘Female servants, both black and white, were subjected to the whip in common with the males.’ Paul Heinegg says in Free blacks of North Carolina and Virginia: ‘Most of the free blacks of Virginia and North Carolina originated in Virginia where they became free in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries before chattel slavery and racism fully developed in the United States…When they arrived in Virginia, Africans joined a society which was divided between master and white servant – a society with such contempt for white servants that masters were not punished for beating them to death …They joined the same households with white servants – working, eating, sleeping, getting drunk, and running away together.’

It would be logical to assume that the banjo music of slaves and the fiddle music of indentured white servants began to be shared during this era. The mountain frontier of Virginia and North Carolina was populated in part by servants free of indenture and free blacks hoping to improve their circumstances.

Mr. Heinegg documents 400 free blacks families; many were the result of a union between a white female indentured servant and a slave. Descendants of these families were early settlers on the Virginia and North Carolina frontiers. It would be reasonable to assume some of these families maintained a banjo tradition. Mr. Heinegg says, ‘Many free blacks families in colonial North Carolina and Virginia were landowners… The light skinned descendants of these families formed the tri-racial isolate communities of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, and Louisiana.’ Tri-racial groups had European, Indian, and African ancestry. Some free blacks intermarried with their white neighbors on the frontier, and because of discriminative and punitive laws passed during the rise of virulent racism, began to conceal their blacks heritage from their children and their neighbors. By the Civil War era some families had apparently forgotten their African heritage. Some early settlers in Kentucky were members of a tri-racial isolate community. The majority of early settlers were of English ancestry, with a minority having German, Scots-Irish, Irish, African, French and Indian ancestry.


Dr. Daniel Drake’s letters to his children, published in Pioneer Life in Kentucky, describes in detail his boyhood near Maysville, Kentucky, in the years 1788 to 1800. Mr. Rector, a neighbor whom Dr. Drake refers to as ‘Old Leather Stocking,’ depended mostly on hunting and trapping for his livelihood. Dr. Drake recounts, ‘Deer hunting seemed to have been Old Leather Stocking’s cherished pursuit. Its results were clothing, food, & fiddle strings for the Banjo.’ Mr. Rector had migrated to Kentucky from near Winchester, Virginia. Dr. Drake wrote, ‘What he [Mr. Rector] said about the Valley of Virginia indicated that it had, at the middle of last Century [1750], rather a rude, vulgar, and turbulent population.’ That ‘rude, vulgar, and turbulent population’ included slaves, freed slaves, indentured servants and servants free of indenture. This is most likely where Mr. Rector learned to make ‘fiddle strings for the Banjo.’

Dr. Drake’s father had come to Kentucky from New Jersey with several of his neighbors. Dr. Drake considered the settlers from New Jersey to be a better class of people than slave owning neighbors from Maryland and Virginia. Dr. Drake said of slaves in his 1851 Letters on Slavery: ‘…they sometimes assemble for public worship; but, in general, they deliver themselves up to visits, gossip, games, laughter, singing, ‘banjoing,’ fiddling, and dancing…’ Dr. Drake was the best-known physician, teacher, and writer in the mid-west during the second quarter of the nineteenth century.

Some of the first settlers in the mountains had slaves. John Mack Farragher states the following in the biography, Daniel Boone: ‘Slaves were another important component of Boonesborough society. There were a number of slave families who should be counted among the early settlers, although few have found their way into the historical record. One who did was a man known as Uncle Monk, owned by James Estill, who arrived with his family in 1775. Monk was one of the most valued men at Boonesborough, a superior hunter and marksman, an accomplished musician who played at all of the dances and frolics, and a blacksmith who knew how to make gunpowder from sulphur, saltpeter, and charcoal, an art he taught to Boone…Slaves made up 10 per cent of Kentucky’s American population…’ Monk was later freed after heroism in a battle with Indians.

Perry County Kentucky: A History, by the Hazard chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, prints the will of Elijah Combs. He owned slaves and was one of the first settlers in Perry County. He built his first cabin where the present eastern Kentucky town of Hazard is located. The first industry in Kentucky was salt mines. This industry employed many slaves. A road law of January 28, 1817, mentions salt works on the North Fork of the Kentucky River. The minutes of the Mountain Association of Regular Baptists, held in 1860 and printed in the Perry County history, lists a slave, Dick Johnson, as one of the licensed preachers.

My Adams and Hammons ancestors were slave owners in east Virginia, and moved to Wilkes County, North Carolina after converting to the then new Baptist faith. Moving to North Carolina or western Virginia from east Virginia was a migration route for many families. I believe the banjo song, East Virginia, is a musical record of that migration. Descendants of these families were pioneers in Kentucky, Tennessee and other frontier states. Slaves were fewer in the mountains, but were not as separated from their owners as was possible on the large plantations in east Virginia. One early traveler on the frontier noted that it was common for slaves to occupy the same dwelling as their masters. John M. Stamper said of an old cemetery on Carr Creek in Knott County, Kentucky: ‘Some of the oldest graves are slave and master, buried side by side.’

Katherine Pettit was a founder of the Hindman Settlement School in Knott County. She and others, including Cecil Sharp, collected folksongs in the area. She is thought to have collected songs from a student, Josiah H. Combs, who enrolled in the school in 1902. Combs was from a musical family, and immediately began collecting songs from his family and others in the area. He collected two versions of Whoa Mule from Cullie Williams in 1902. Williams was a blacks man who resided in Knott County on Breedings Creek, which was named for Elisha Breeding. According to Breeding family history, Elisha had several slaves when he moved from western Virginia in 1816. He freed his slaves sometime prior to or during the Civil War, and gave them land on Breedings Creek. Most blacks in Knott County have since lived at Redfox on Breedings Creek. Both blacks and whites have always attended the nominally ‘black’ Baptist church at Redfox.

Josiah Combs continued his education at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, and at the University of Paris, where his doctorial thesis, Folk-Songs du Midi des Etats-Unis, was published in 1925. D. K. Wilgus used Combs’s English draft and the French text to edit in 1967 an English version, Folk-Songs of the Southern United States. Mr. Wilgus’s edited version includes a 1959 interview with Dr. Combs, in which Combs describes Cullie Williams as follows: ‘When I was a boy, ‘Cull’ stayed at our house and worked for us at Hindman, Knott County, about the turn of the century. He was a great ‘banjer’ picker…He was intelligent, industrious, and withal a likeable fellow.’ The two versions of Whoa Mule that Combs collected from Williams are in Wilgus’s edited version, along with many other folk songs, including a version of Ellen Smith that Combs collected from my grandfather’s first cousin, Dan Gibson. My grandfather, George W. Gibson, and his cousin Dan were playing banjo in Knott County by the 1890s. My father, Mal Gibson, learned to play around 1905-10, and used more than fifteen different banjo tunings; however, he never used the lowered bass tuning commonly used by minstrel banjoists, nor did any other old timer I heard in Knott County.

Dr. Combs has the following to say in Folk-Songs of the Southern United States regarding banjo songs: ‘The Highlanders have adopted a considerable number of songs belonging to or originating among the Negroes. Some of these songs have long been current in the Highlands, from the days prior to the Civil War, and include banjo- and nonsense-songs, besides some spirituals and songs of the British type… Since the Civil War a number of Negro occupational songs have crept in, notably such well-known ones as ‘John Hardy,’ ‘John Henry,’ the ‘Yew-Pine Mountain,’ ‘Frankie,’ ‘Lynchburg Town,’ ‘The Kicking Mule,’ ‘Turkey in the Straw,’ and others.’ Later, he makes a more specific statement regarding this subject: ‘The Highlander has adopted many banjo airs from the Negroes, although the Negro population of the Highlands has never been extensive. Such airs came into the Highlands prior to the Civil War, while the Negro railroad songs came in afterwards, largely during the past twenty-five years [1900-1925]. The tunes of ‘Lynchburg Town,’ ‘Shortnin’ Bread,’ ‘Raccoon,’ Shady Grove,’ ‘Hook and Line,’ ‘Houn’ Dog,’ ‘Ida Red,’ ‘Little Gray Mule,’ ‘Big Stone Gap,’ and numerous others, are from the Negroes.’ Dr. Combs is very specific in stating that banjo songs came in prior to the Civil War; he did not feel it necessary to state the banjo also came in at the same time, for that was common knowledge at the time he was writing. In any event, it would be difficult to imagine banjo songs traveling without the banjo.

The earliest descriptions of slave banjos, including that of Rev. Jonathan Boucher, depict an instrument with a gourd body. Manufactured banjos supplanted gourd banjos in urban areas by the 1860s. Gourd banjos, however, were still being used in the Kentucky mountains as late as 1950. Leonard Roberts published a 1950′s interview with an east Kentucky family in Up Cutshin & Down Greasy: Jim Couch related, ‘My grandfather made one [banjo] that lasted for years. The box of it was made outten an old gourd. The strings was connected up some way on the neck, and that thing played right good, I thought.’ Jim’s father, Tom Couch, a banjo player born in 1860, said one of his forbears started the tradition of picking and singing by making himself a banjo from an old gourd.

Jean Thomas describes banjo making in Devil’s Ditties, published in 1931: ‘If a fiddle were not to be had, a man could, if he were so minded, make a banjo with pine or cedar for the neck, a coon skin or fox hide stretched tight over a hickory hoop for a sounding board, or he could even use a long necked squash for that purpose.’ She describes a small banjo made from a gourd in Ballad Makin’ in the Mountains of Kentucky: ‘The rounded side had been cut away and the opening covered with a scrap of brown paper made fast with flour paste. The strings were of wire.’ Thomas began the American Song Festival in 1931. Folkway’s CD F-2358, American Folk Song Festival, which can be ordered from Smithsonian Folkways, has in the liner notes a photo of a young lad sitting on stage with his gourd banjo. There is also a photo of this boy and his gourd banjo in Alan Eaton’s Handicrafts of the Southern Highlands.

Eliot Wigginton and his students edited the popular Foxfire books. The second chapter of Foxfire 6, Gourd Banjos and Songbows, has the following statement regarding Ernest Hedges, whom they had met in 1977: ‘Since Mr. Hedges is a concert violinist and violin maker, we were surprised to learn that his first musical instrument was a gourd banjo made for him when he was a small boy in the mountains of North Carolina by his grandfather. He related details of how his grandfather constructed the instrument out of a long neck gourd, a tomcat’s hide, and a hank of horsehair. We’ve asked a lot of people since then about gourd instruments and found that they were not uncommon at one time in our region’s history.’ Leonard Webb, of Macon County, North Carolina provided the students a detailed description of his procedure for making a gourd banjo.


The rise of blackface minstrelsy coincided with the rise of virulent racism in the United States. Banjo players in the mountains would have been aware of the racial stereotyping and low comedy that connected the slave with the banjo. I believe this is one reason more references are not found to mountain banjo in the era prior to the Civil War. Another reason is the primitive nature of the home made banjo – early on it was an artifact used in remote cabins; it was not displayed for the casual visitor. Cecil Sharp collected folk songs and ballads in the mountains early in the 1900s when banjos were relatively plentiful. He apparently did not hear a banjo played. He made the following observation in his 1917 book English Folk Songs in the Southern Appalachians: ‘I came across but one singer who sang to an instrumental accompaniment, the guitar, and that was in Charlottesville, Virginia.’ Mountain folk are very hospitable, and generally try to provide a visitor’s wants, which in the case of Sharp were old English ballads sung unaccompanied.

In conclusion, the banjo was brought from Africa, either physically, or in the memory of enslaved Africans. By the mid-1700s the banjo was transported to the Virginia and North Carolina frontiers by the ‘lower classes,’ which included enslaved African, free blacks, white indentured servants, and servants free of indenture. Mountaineers of both African and European ancestry used the banjo for frolics in remote frontier cabins before 1800.

The transfer of banjo playing from Africans to mountaineers of European descent occurred much earlier than has been assumed and was certainly not as simple as many claim, for some mountaineers have both African and European ancestry. It is preposterous to believe that mountaineers of European ancestry ignored the music of blacks, enslaved and free, with whom they had lived rather intimately for well over a hundred years, and then suddenly adopted the banjo after the Civil War. The contributions of enslaved and free blacks began with the introduction of the banjo, and continued through the introduction of railroad songs as noted by Dr. Josiah Combs. Folk banjo music, a mixture of European and African influences, has been in the mountains since the days of first settlement.


I recommend three recordings for those who would like to listen to mountain and minstrel banjo playing:

  • I heard Banjo Bill Cornett of Knott County, Kentucky, play when I was a boy. His intricate style was typical of that of a few older white banjoists in the area. He can be heard on the CD, Mountain Music of Kentucky, from Smithsonian Folkways.
  • There are several excellent banjoists using tutors from the nineteenth century to record minstrel banjo music. These tutors, in my opinion, do not represent the diversity of minstrel music as it was actually performed. A representative recording of minstrel banjo music is Old-Time Minstrel Music by Bob Flesher, which can be ordered from County Sales. The minstrel style, as recorded by Bob, is noticeably different from the styles in the above recordings.
  • Black Banjo Songsters of North Carolina and Virginia, also from Smithsonian Folkways, is a superb collection of recordings of black mountain banjo players. Banjo Bill Cornett’s playing style is very close to some heard on this Article
    Banjo History
    ©2001 All rights reserved.
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