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Bluegrass Rambles

Everything you need to know about bluegrass, whatever that is

Ted is an IBMA-nominated music writer who travels to bluegrass festivals with his wife and picks guitar in as many jams as he can.

Bluegrass Rambles

Everything you need to know about bluegrass, whatever that is

Ted is an IBMA-nominated music writer who travels to bluegrass festivals with his wife and picks guitar in as many jams as he can.

What About the Banjo?

Wow. 

Ted, there are some important historical issues with your blog post. I'll highlight and respond to a few of them:



"The banjo developed through the 19th century, mostly in the South, as an instrument played by slaves in a dance situation or in minstrel shows."



The banjo developed in the Caribbean and later in the American South, but it was popularized and industrialized by the North. It's important to note that the banjos popularity in the 19th and early 20th century was primarily a Northern phenomenon, as was minstrelsy.



"Though the development of any instrument in terms of technique and style never runs in a straight line, the antecedents of the banjo are pretty clear. From its humble beginnings, it was played as a four-string (tenor) instrument in bawdy houses and jazz dives in New Orleans, and in minstrel shows, often presented in black-face during the vaudeville period, which was later killed by talking movies."



Even in its earliest forms, regardless of the number of long strings, the banjo retained the short string. The 5-string banjo was popularized through Antebellum minstrelsy, which predated the vaudeville era entirely. During this time period it was played stroke style, although there is also evidence of early "guitar style" playing, and it wouldn't be incorrect to say that fingerstyle banjo using three fingers was played at least as early as the 1860s. The banjo continued to rise in popularity, leading to the banjo boom of the 1880s-1890s, during which the popular style was 3-finger playing, now called "classic style". From the 1880s to the 1920s over 30,000 original compositions were composed for the banjo, and hundreds of thousands of players existed throughout the United States and the UK. The majority of banjoists were Northerners. Hundreds of thousands of banjos were built to feed the public's appetite for the instrument. The 4-string tenor banjo craze would follow later, starting in the 1910s and largely created by mandolin players looking for more volume to play with the newly popular dance bands. In the teens and '20s the 5-string banjo faded out of the limelight, replaced by the tenor banjo and jazz music. In the late '20s and '30s it made a slight comeback as a nostalgic, rural instrument on vaudeville, and this leads us to how the instrument is perceived today. 



Earl Scruggs was a great musician and was instrumental in the development of modern bluegrass, but the 3-finger style of playing predates him by many decades and was once an integral part of American popular music. I suggest you listen to old recordings of Fred Van Eps, Vess Ossman, and Olly Oakley to get a feel for how this earlier playing sounded.

Thanks for posting this, John. I'm sure it will stimulate some conversation. 

Bill Monroe did not adhere to the bluegrass purist's idea of instrumentation. He would not have a dobro in his band, but he did at various times include accordion and clarinet.