The Banjo In Appalachia


Author's Note: Jean Thomas and Dr. Josiah H. Combs, Kentucky folklorists, interviewed and collected folk songs from people for whom the Civil War was a vivid memory. None of the people interviewed made reference to the banjo being a newly-imported instrument. Indeed, I can find no such references in Kentucky, during or after the Civil War.
By George R. Gibson - 2000

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, Dr. Combs 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 25 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.

Dr. Combs says the following about mountaineers adopting outside music: "The Highlander assimilates and adopts much outside music, particularly love songs and humorous songs."

He describes the Highlander's humorous songs: "Some are survivals of stall ballads, others are American, and still others are adaptations of vaudeville and minstrel show songs."

In describing miscellaneous tunes, he is more specific: "... picked up here and there by the Highlander outside the mountains, or coming from circuses, vaudeville, etc., including a wide range of love song airs."

He comments about minstrels: "Genuine Negro songs have often been confused with songs of blackface comedians and vaudeville, and have been corrupted by them. After the Civil War, Negro music and song were seriously impaired by the compositions of cheap songwriters and publishers."

Dr. Combs is specific in saying that songs were adopted from vaudeville and circuses, which were venues for blackface minstrels. He makes no mention of the banjo being adopted at the same time.

Dr. Combs was interested in the origin of instruments, for in 1925 he correctly identified the German origin of the dulcimer, when others were claiming an English origin. He was not particularly fond of "blackface" comedians and had absorbed a dislike for banjo music from Katherine Petit, who felt the dulcimer was the proper instrument for old English ballads.

In 1902 Dr. Combs would have known banjo players who learned to play during and after the Civil War. Had the banjo come from "blackface" minstrels, then Dr. Combs would have happily documented this event. Such, however, was not the case.

Opportunities for contact between mountaineers and minstrel banjoists were numerous, and there is no doubt that there was a considerable amount of intercourse between the two groups. We have documentary evidence in Hans Nathan's Dan Emmett and the Rise of Early Negro Minstrelsy that a mountaineer named Ferguson taught Dan Emmett, perhaps the best-known minstrel, to play banjo.

There was regular commerce between frontier Kentucky and the coastal states, almost from the first days of settlement. Droves of horses, cattle, and swine were taken to markets in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Lynchburg, and the Carolinas. One Kentucky historian says so many hogs were driven through the Cumberland Gap to markets in Virginia that it was humorously referred to as the "Swine Gap."

After the advent of steamboats and trains, Eastern Kentuckians traveled to the nearest steamboat landing or railhead to begin long distance travel. There was travel from Eastern Kentucky to both the eastern and western states. Cowboy songs were popular in Knott County before the advent of the phonograph and radio.

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 1950s interview with an Eastern 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. He also said that, as a young man, he won third place in a banjo contest in Hyden, county seat of Leslie County. Tom Couch made no reference to blackface minstrels or African-Americans in connection with the banjo.

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. Some of the festival performances were recorded (Folkways CD F-2358, American Folk Song Festival), which can be ordered from Smithsonian Folkways and 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.

Ed Haggard reported seeing a gourd banjo in Winchester, Kentucky, between 1953 and 1956. He delivered newspapers during this period and would commonly step into his customer's house to collect money. The hallway of one house had a gourd banjo and a fiddle hanging side by side.

Larry N. Bare, who grew up in Perry County, Kentucky, saw a gourd banjo played at a pie supper at the Mud Lick School, at the head of Grapevine Creek, in 1945. He worked at The Homeplace on Troublesome Creek, in Perry County, in 1950 and 1951. Dances were held at the community house, and local people would, on occasion, bring musical instruments to play. He saw a gourd banjo played there in late 1950 or early 1951.

Mr. Bare did not, at the time, consider gourd banjos very unusual, because most banjos in that area were homemade. He described for me the first manufactured banjo he saw, while growing up on Grapevine Creek. It had been ordered from Sears & Roebuck.

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 homemade 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.

The banjo was brought from Africa, either physically or in the memory of enslaved Africans. By the mid-1700s, the banjo became the instrument of the "lower classes," which included enslaved African-Americans, free African-Americans, white indentured servants, servants free of indenture, and others economically deprived. Many of these people were early arrivals on the Virginia and North Carolina frontiers, where a class system soon developed that persisted for generations.

The first class, illustrated by Dr. Daniel Drake's family, included town-oriented farmers who strove for commercial success. People of this class did not adopt the banjo. They were more likely to have a piano or violin.

The second class included subsistence farmers, who hunted and trapped and were more likely to live in outlying areas. This second class is perfectly illustrated by Mr. Rector; a subsistence farmer, hunter, and trapper, who made his banjo strings from deer gut.

The perception of the banjo as an instrument of the lower classes persisted well past 1900 in the mountains and is evident in the following quote from the doctorial dissertation of Dr. Combs:

"The 'jail bird,' or prisoner, is a mighty singer of songs of almost every type known to the Highlander, with the exception of Primitive Baptist church hymns. The banjo is the musical instrument that accompanies him, and he seldom picks it without singing."

Dr. Combs has in his doctorial dissertation a song he collected from "Banjo Bill" Cornett, prior to 1925. "Banjo Bill" ran for the Kentucky State Legislature in 1956, the first year I voted. He visited my house, accompanied by an individual of some educational attainment. When I promised "Banjo Bill" I would vote for him if he played a tune on the banjo, his companion spoke up very quickly and said that Mr. Cornett had not brought a banjo.

"Banjo Bill," distinctly uncomfortable, confessed that he had put a banjo in the trunk of the car. He retrieved his banjo and played John Henry and two or three other tunes for me. "Banjo Bill's" companion and other people who were "educated" did not hold the banjo in high regard, when I was growing up in Knott County. "Banjo Bill," a truly remarkable banjoist, can be heard on the CD Mountain Music of Kentucky, which is available from Smithsonian Folkways.

In conclusion, mountaineers of both African and European ancestry used the banjo for frolics in remote frontier cabins before 1800. The transfer of banjo playing, from African- Americans to mountaineers of European extraction, occurred much earlier than has been assumed and was certainly not as simple as many claim, for some mountaineers have both African-American and European ancestry.

It is preposterous to believe that mountaineers of European ancestry ignored the music of African-Americans, 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 musical contributions of enslaved and free African-Americans began with the introduction of the banjo and continued through the introduction of railroad songs, as noted by Dr. Josiah Combs.

One of the best banjo players I ever heard, as a boy, was descended from a tri-racial, isolate group. His family had been in Knott County for several generations. Banjo playing has been a part of Knott County music since the first settlers, including enslaved African-Americans, who moved in the early 1800s to Carr Fork, a tributary of the North Fork of the Kentucky River.

George R. Gibson, 1801 Lago Court, St. Cloud, FL 34769, e-mail: [email protected], shares this story and photos with our readers. He is looking for more information from our readers to assist in his continuing research on the banjo. In particular, Mr. Gibson seeks information from anyone who may have seen a gourd banjo being played, knows where to find one, or knows how the gourd banjo was made. He is also looking for any references to pre-1900 banjos and banjo players found in oral history, local written histories, and other sources.