Dr. Laurent Dubois Delivers the Sesquicentennial Lecture In History
As the Opening of the 2013-2014 Marcus Orr Center for the Humanities Season
Dr. Laurent Dubois delivered the Memphis Sesquicentennial Lecture for 2013-2014 on the evening of September 26 in the theater of the University Center, speaking on “The Banjo: Roots, Routes, and Ideas about ‘America.’” The lecture was the opening event of the Marcus W. Orr Center for the Humanities 2013-2014 season.
Before the lecture, Randal Morton performed on the 5-string banjo, playing pieces in several styles of 3-finger picking (including, by popular request, the legendary Foggy Mountain Breakdown). Randal has been a banjo picker since he was about twelve years old, and he won the title of National Bluegrass Champion in Winfield, Kansas, on his 21st birthday. He and his twin brother Greg (a championship guitar player) were members of the Don Ho Show in Hawaii for a time. Randal is a prominent figure in Memphis bluegrass music, but Greg now lives in Tucson, Arizona.
Dr. Tom Nenon, interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and a former director of the Marcus W. Orr Center, welcomed the audience and outlined the purpose and programs of the center. He asked Randal to perform one more selection before turning the introduction of the speaker over to Dr. Andrew Daily of the Department of History.
Dr. Dubois began by explaining the projected image that was the backdrop for the first part of his lecture, a banjo belonging to Pete Seeger and inscribed with the words “THIS MACHINE SURROUNDS HATE AND FORCES IT TO SURRENDER.” It was similar to the slogan “This machine kills Fascists" which Woody Guthrie put on his guitar in 1943, and was ultimately inspired by signs from industrial plants during World War II. He noted that the banjo has been constantly “re-invented” over the centuries, but with each reinvention presenting the instrument as being “old.”
Undoubtedly of African origin, the banjo in America today is almost always played by white musicians and is a symbol of country music, especially of bluegrass. Dr. Dubois noted that his approach would be centered on the Caribbean, his area of scholarly research. The banjo was mentioned first in the Caribbean, long before North American references, and the Caribbean received vastly more slaves from western Africa than did the mainland.
There was a great variety of stringed instruments in western Africa, including the xalam and the akonting, but a constant feature of them was a drum head, often a gourd with an animal hide as a sounding board, and often with one string shorter than the others. (European instruments had at one time used similar instruments, but diverged toward the use of wooden bodies at an early date.)
Banjo-like instruments were mentioned in Jamaica as early as 1687 by Sir Hans Sloane, who described several Jamaican instruments the left. The earliest North American reference to the banjo was in the New-York Weekly Journal in 1736, but the newspaper did not include an illustration.
A close approach to the banjo as it is known today came in a painting done in Beaufort County, South Carolina, in the late 1700s or early 1800s (the date is uncertain). One of the most commonly reproduced paintings that show slaves on a plantation, it includes a rather detailed rendering of a seated slave playing the banjo. (A very similar painting, possibly a copy and modification of this one but with less detail about the banjo, is in the Mint Museum of Art in Charlotte, N.C.) The instrument has only four strings, but one of them is short, being pegged on the neck about halfway to the bridge. The performer is probably finger-picking, but possibly strumming or using a technique like clawhammer or frailing.
One of the most important instruments in documenting the history of the banjo in the American area is a Haitian banza, which was collected in 1841 and sent to a museum in Paris. Parts of it were discovered by a scholar in 1997 in separate boxes, and the scholar eventually realized that the parts belonged together to make a complete instrument.
Advertisements in the colonial period for runaway slaves sometimes mentioned that they were banza or “banjer” players. The association of the instrument with black performers was strengthened by the rise of blackface minstrelsy in mid-19th-century America. Dr. Dubois said that groups like Christy’s Minstrels created a craze for the banjo, such that eventually there were banjo choirs all over the United States, nearly all of them consisting of white performers. But after the Civil War minstrelsy was sometimes performed by black musicians. Some of the music could be subversive, such as “Uncle Gabriel,” which told of the execution of a slave named Gabriel who was “chief of the insurgents” in an aborted slave insurrection in Henrico County, Virginia, in 1800. It contained the refrain “Hard times in Old Virginny.”
The banjo eventually became a common instrument in Appalachian music, where it linked up with the tradition of balladry from the British Isles. Bluegrass music, in which the banjo is virtually mandatory as a lead instrument, developed after 1945. Dr. Dubois noted that the emergence of bluegrass corresponded to a period of economic crisis in Appalachia, when many workers left to work in northern factories. As with the banjo in the Caribbean among black exiles from African homelands, it became a favorite among white exiles in America. Dr. Dubois mentioned that early support for bluegrass music often came from urban audiences, despite the popular perception of it as working-class music.
Dr. Dubois is the Marcello Lotti Professor of Romance Studies and History and the director of the Center for French and Francophone Studies at Duke University. His books include Haiti: The Aftershocks of History; Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution; and Soccer Empire: The World Cup and the Future of France. He is, along with David Garner and Mary Caton Lingold at Duke University, responsible for the website Banjology, where you may find additional materials about the history of the banjo in the Afro-Atlantic world.
Professor Emeritus of History
The University of Memphis
Professor Emeritus of History
The University of Memphis