Richard Crowson: Long Live the Humble Banjo!

Jun 22, 2012

Comedian Steve Martin once said, “It’s impossible to play a sad song on the banjo.” That statement gets to the heart of the issue: the banjo is a happy-sounding instrument. So happy, in fact, that cartoonist Charles Schulz once had Linus say, “The way I see it, as soon as a baby is born he should be issued a banjo!”

Of course, universal banjo care of that sort would really set off the anti-socialism crowd, but I think it’d be a great government program.

At any rate, there is an uplifting story about triumph over adversity found within the history of the humble banjo. This instrument, so famous for its cheerful plunking tone, has its origins far away on the continent of Africa. During the dismal slave era of our nation’s history, the African captives who were brought to our shores in slave ships brought with them the ancestor of the present-day banjo. Because there was fear that if they brought drums on the ships they would be able to communicate in code with one another and plan uprisings, only instruments like the banjo were allowed. They were played aboard the ships during the long voyages while the captives were made to dance so that their muscles wouldn’t weaken over time. Sorrowful beginnings, indeed, for the banjo in America.

But it was the banjo which accompanied the slaves, adding its uniquely hopeful tone of happiness to their songs of woe and hardship. The instrument’s unrelentingly cheerful notes droned on throughout their ordeal and eventually let forth the jubilant melodies that celebrated their post Civil War freedom.

Victoriously, the humble banjo swept across American popular culture and won over the hearts of millions with its perky, percussive tones. It became synonymous with cheer. The banjo persevered.

Today, it’s shedding the racist connotations that it acquired during the minstrel show era and continuing its happy march through America’s music. Long live the humble banjo!