The Most American Instrument

In the 2012 Oscar-nominated Broken Circle Breakdown, Didier, a shaggy Belgian banjoist, gives a loving sermon about the romantic immigrant America bluegrass music is said to come from. “The Spaniard had a guitar, the Italian had a mandolin, the Jew a violin,” he declares, “and the African a banjar, from which the banjo is descended.”

This incomplete pop culture blurry vision, which most Americans interested in traditional music, are happy to share, cries out for a sharpening of focus, which the writer Kristina R. Gaddy has delivered with Well of Souls: Uncovering the Banjo’s Hidden History (Norton, 284 p., $30), a rich, fascinating and lyrical historical study of the iconic instrument.

The invention of the banjo is above all a story about slavery and the forced deportation of people from at least 180 ports in Africa, and their communities forged by music and spirit in the Caribbean and the U.S. in the couple hundred years before the instrument became hip fashion in 19th century America, before minstrel shows and Stephen Foster ditties and Flat and Scruggs and Bela Fleck.

The banjo “was part of a culture extending from Suriname to South Carolina and New York,” Gaddy writes. “The banjo is the quintessential American instrument and an object in our material culture that can tell us the story of the United States. The banjo did not exist before it was created by the hands of enslaved people in the New World.”

The Banjo Player Music (1856) by William Sidney Mount 

It is not true, Gaddy emphasizes, that “the banjo is African.” Instead, “the banjo is a uniquely American instrument, crafted by people of African descent. It is structurally different from any African instrument.” As generation followed generation, African-Americans tinkered with traditional gourd instruments and fine-tuned what would become the banjo.

At the same time, Gaddy makes her readers feel in good hands with an ethnomusicologist’s mastery of the history of these African antecedents.

In Senegambia and Sierra Leone, the Jola play the akonting, while the gewel praise singers of the Wolof play the geseré and xalam geseré, all lutes with a long neck that sits in a notch on the rim of a gourd body. North of the Bight of Biafra, professional Kotoko muisicians play the gulum, while the Hausa play the gurmi and the gurumi, all two- and three-string instruments with a neck extending through the gourd or calabash body.

After the Middle Passage, enslaved peoples ended up in places that Gaddy sketches out specifically by chapter – Jamaica, 1687; Saint-Domingue, 1782; New Orleans, 1819; etc. – where they played and danced as part of festivals, feasts and religious ceremonies, cowered but not defeated by attempts to convert them to a version of Christianity that wouldn’t allow such a musically explosive culture.

Gaddy’s witnesses to this stunning cultural resilience and invention are people like Hans Sloane, the 17th and 18th century Anglo-Irish doctor and naturalist who saw a musical performance by enslaved people in Jamaica that included a banjo.

Almost everywhere the banjo is played before the Civil War, there are chains.

In 1748 and 1749, “advertisements were put out for the return of three different banjo players who escaped slavery in Maryland.” The ads “use different but similar words for the instrument – banjo, bonja, bangeo, bajoe, banger – which suggest that there was starting to be some standardization of the name, and the lack of description suggests that readers knew what the instrument was, what it looked like, and that the ability to play it was distinguishing enough to be included in a description.”

Well of Souls isn’t just the history of an instrument. It’s also an engaging and inspiring story of scholars and musicians, Gaddy and her partner Pete Ross, chasing down pieces of the puzzle. Their enthusiasm approaches the intensity of a spiritual quest. The “well of souls” refers to the inside of the instrument’s resonance chamber.

The well might also be the mystery they are chasing that surrounds the banjo’s origins. After all, there are less than 15 confirmed images of the banjo before 1820.

“Anybody who studies the banjo knows they are walking into a swamp of unknown players, scraps of primary sources, dead ends, flashes of brilliant understanding and also of utter despair,” writes contemporary African-American banjo star Rhiannon Giddens in the book’s foreword. “How is something so integral to American culture so badly understood and so widely misrepresented?”

One thing Broken Circle Breakdown — a movie I love, partly because it’s a synthesis of my Belgian and U.S. roots — gets right about the banjo is that it is an instrument that carries pain, of the rural poor in Appalachia and West Virginia (subject of our PBS film Moundsville), of heartbreak and loss, and, most of all, of African-American enslaved people and their descendants.

In Well of Souls, the banjo gets a multi-layered account of where that pain comes from, and why it matters.

John W. Miller

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