Gourd Banjos: From Africa to the Appalachians

African Gourd Instruments

Musical instruments made from gourds have been found in many cultures. Early travelers in Africa described various gourd instruments. Richard Jobson documented his travels up the Gambia in 1620-21 in The Golden Trade. He found a variety of cultures, some heavily influenced by Muslim invaders. He observed the following:

"There is, without doubt, no people on the earth more naturally affected to the sound of musicke then these people ... They have little varietie of instruments, that which is most common in use, is made of a great gourd, and a necke thereunto fastned, resembling, in some sort, our Bandora; but they have no manner of fret, and the strings they are either such as the place yeeldes, or their invention can attaine to make, being very unapt to yeeld a sweete and musicall sound, notwithstanding with pinnes they winde and bring to agree in tunable notes, having not above six strings upon their greatest instrument..."

Eileen Southern, in Readings in Black American Music, quotes Thomas Edward Bowdich, who traveled to Africa in 1819:

"The Mosees, Mallowas, Bournous and natives from the more remote parts of the interior, play on a rude violin: the body is a calabash, the top is covered with deer skin, and two large holes are cut in it for the sound to escape; the strings, or rather one string, is composed of cow's hair, and broad like that of the bow with which they play, which resembles the bow of a violin."

The most interesting instrument found in recent years is the Akonting, still in use by the Jola tribe in Gambia. It is a banjo-like gourd instrument with three strings, two longer and one short, which is played in a down stroke style similar to that used in the mountains. Daniel Jatta and Ulf Jagfors demonstrated this instrument at a banjo collector meeting in November 2000. It is likely that some early slaves in the Chesapeake area came originally from Gambia.

Gourd Banjos in the West Indies

Thereare several early reports of banjos in the West Indies. The best single source for these is Dena Epstein's Sinful Tunes and Spirituals, Black Folk Music to the Civil War. She quotes from numerous sources:

"From Jamaica Sir Hans Sloane described an instrument he called the 'strum-strum,' which seems to have been closely related to the banza, judging from its picture ... [he] wrote after his return to England in 1689: '... They have several sorts of Instruments in imitation of Lutes, made of small Gourds fitted with Necks, strung with Horse hairs, or the peeled stalks of climbing Plants or Withs. These Instruments are sometimes made of hollow'd timber covered with Parchment or other Skin wetted, having a Bow for its neck, the Strings ty'd longer or shorter, as they would alter their sounds ...'"
"In March, 1784, Johann David Schoepf saw this same instrument [the instrument described by Thomas Jefferson] aboard a ship carrying slaves to market in Providence in the Bahamas: 'Another musical instrument of the true Negro is the Banjah. Over a hollow calabash (Cucerb lagenaria L.) is stretched a sheepskin, the instrument lengthened with a neck, strung with four strings, and made accordant ... In America and on the Islands they make use of this instrument greatly for the dance. Their melodies are almost always the same, with little variation...'"
"A vitriolic attack on the slaves of the French colonies published in 1810 included their method of making banzas as an example of their barbarism: 'As to guitars, which the Negroes call banza, see what they consist of: they cut lengthwise through the middle of the calabash ... This fruit is sometimes eight inches and more in diameter. They stretch upon it the skin of a goat which they adjust around the edges with little nails; they make two holes in this surface; then a piece of lath or flat wood makes the handle of the guitar; they then stretch three cords of pitre (a kind of hemp taken from the agave plant, vulgarly called pitre), and the instrument is finished. They play on this instrument tunes composed of three or four notes, which they repeat endlessly; this is what Bishop Gregoire calls sentimental and melancholy music; and what we call the music of savages.'"

Epstein provides some evidence that African musical instruments were transported along with the enslaved Africans. She quotes Bryan Edwards describing slaves aboard ship:

"In the intervals between their meals, they [the slaves] are encouraged to divert themselves with music and dancing; for which purpose such rude and uncouth instruments as are used in Africa, are collected before their departure ..."

Sloane's description of instruments "in imitation of lutes" and his drawing illustrating these, which is reproduced in Sinful Tunes, describe two different construction techniques. He reports:

"They have several sorts of instruments... made of small gourds ..."; and then states: "These instruments are sometimes made of hollow'd timber..."

The drawing (the original is in the Newberry Library) shows two instruments with similar necks and different bodies. The first instrument has a rounded body and appears to be a gourd. Peter Ross made an elegant gourd banjo from the drawing, which was exhibited in The Banjo in Virginia, produced by Ferrum College. The second instrument shows a more elongated body, and may be a "hollow'd timber," or wood frame banjo. There is a wood banjo in the Smithsonian that some think may be the oldest extant American banjo. Stuart Jamieson donated this banjo to the Smithsonian after exhibiting it at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1984. Ring the Banjar! , by Robert Lloyd Webb, contains photos of banjos exhibited at MIT. Plates 1 and 23 show details of the Jamieson banjo, which somewhat resembles a gourd banjo Benjamin Henry Latrobe observed in New Orleans in 1819. Latrobe's drawing of the banjo he observed is also shown in Ring the Banjar!.

The oldest known gourd banjo in the world is in a Dutch museum. John Stedman found it in South America, probably in Surinam (formerly Dutch Guiana), in the 1770s. He wrote a book about his experiences, Narrative of a Five Years Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam. Stuart Jamieson, being on good terms with the director of the Rijks museum, helped convince the Dutch to send this banjo to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Banjo Exhibition in 1984. It was sent, according to Jamieson, "with a guard of Royal Dutch Marines." Plate 22 in Ring the Banjar! shows the Stedman banjo, and gives its dimensions. This banjo has four strings, three long and one short.

Gourd Banjos in Colonial America

That the banjo came to America from Africa with enslaved Africans has been thoroughly documented. The most famous quotation about the early banjo in America is from a footnote in Thomas Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia (1781-82):

"The instrument proper to them [Slaves] is the Banjar, which they brought hither from Africa, and which is the original of the guitar, its chords being precisely the four lower chords of the guitar."

Nicholas Creswell, in Journal of Nicholas Creswell, observed a gourd banjo in Maryland in 1774:

"... they [Negroes] generally meet together and amuse themselves with Dancing to the Banjo. This musical instrument (if it may be so called) is made of a Gourd something in the imitation of a guitar, with only four strings and played with the fingers in the same manner."

The guitar was commonly played in an up picking style different from the down stroke banjo style common in the mountains. Africans played several instruments in a guitar picking style, so it is possible that some also played the banjo in this manner. Mountain banjo players used both styles, although the down stroke style was preferred for dances. It is very possible that both styles originated from early African American banjo playing.

Dena Epstein documents the banjo in early America in Sinful Tunes and Spirituals. She quotes a description of the banjo from a dictionary begun by Reverend Jonathan Boucher, a loyalist who lived in Maryland and Virginia before the American Revolution:

"Bandore, n. A musical instrument ... in use, chiefly, if not entirely, among people of the lower classes ... I well remember, that in Virginia and Maryland the favorite and almost only instrument in use among the slaves there was a bandore; or, as they pronounced the word, banjer. Its body was a large hollow gourd, with a long handle attached to it, strung with catgut, and played on with the fingers ... My memory supplies me with a couplet of one of their songs, which are generally of the improvisatori kind; nor did I use to think the poetry much beneath the music:

Negro Sambo play fine banjer,
Make his fingers go like handsaw."

Reverend Boucher makes two separate statements about the people who played banjo. He first states that the gourd banjo was in use among the "lower classes," and secondarily defines it as "almost only instrument in use among the slaves ..." Reverend Boucher was very familiar with the class system in America prior to the American Revolution. He wrote about his life in Maryland and Virginia in Reminiscences of an American Loyalist (1738-1789). Class in Maryland and Virginia, prior to the American Revolution, was chiefly defined by economic status. The lower classes included people of limited means: indentured servants, apprentices, slaves, freed slaves, wage earners and small farmers.

The view of the banjo as a lower class instrument persisted into the twentieth century. A good description of this bias is in the liner notes to the CD, Rufus Crisp (Smithsonian Folkways). Dr. Marion Mayo, born in 1871, wrote the following:

"Dancing was frowned upon by all people devoted to the church. There was never such a thing as a dance held in our home or in any other Mayo home that I know of. There were, of course, dances held in the neighborhood and all I ever attended or knew about were either square dances or play-parties. A lone fiddler or banjoist often supplied the music. Banjo picking and dancing were often seen at our elections. There would usually be one or two dancers on the floor, dancing something like a jig. 'Classy' people did not engage in this diversion."

The Mayos were early slave owners in Floyd County, Kentucky; the family was originally from Virginia.

The name "Sambo" in the verse quoted by Boucher is interesting because Daniel Jatta and Ulf Jagfers have said Sambo is a very common name among the Jolas in Gambia. There are many references to this name in early America: James M. Wright, in The Free Negro in Maryland, cites "Negro Sambo and his wife Betty," freed by a 1709 deed in Somerset County; Eileen Southern, in The Music of Black Americans, cites an August 18, 1768, advertisement in the Virginia Gazette for a runaway slave:

"...a black Virginian born Negro fellow named Sambo ... He makes fiddles, and can play upon the fiddle..."

Banjo playing in Tidewater Virginia is described in the Journal and Letters of Philip Vickers Fithian. Fithian was a tutor at Nomini Hall, owned by Robert Carter. The Carter family was one of the most prominent in Virginia. Carter employed, in addition to Fithian, both a dancing master and a music tutor. Fithian's diary entry for February 4, 1774, included the following about two of his pupils:

"This evening, in the School-Room, which is below my Chamber, several Negroes & Ben, & Harry are playing on a banjo and dancing!"

Fithian comments in a letter to a friend:

"And as to the Boys they are full of youthful impetuosity & vigor, & these compel them, when they are free from restraint, to commit actions which with proper management they had surely avoided."

The class bias in Tidewater Virginia would have prevented Ben and Harry from playing banjo for a white audience. Did they play a gourd banjo? We don't know because Fithian does not describe the banjo. It is probable that by 1774 the banjo was so commonly known that Fithian felt a description was unnecessary.

There may be an even earlier reference to whites playing a banjo-like instrument in Secular Music in Colonial Annapolis, The Tuesday Club (1745-56). The author, John Barry Talley, quotes a letter by one or the Tuesday Club members:

"Bacon wrote to Callister, 'Your strum-strum must wait til the garden will permit me a day or two's leisure to tinkle it at Oxford.'"

This could have been the 'strum-strum' that Sir Hans Sloane described in Jamaica.

The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Collection at Colonial Williamsburg has a watercolor, The Old Plantation, which was found in South Carolina. This painting, which is assumed to be late eighteenth century, depicts a four-string gourd banjo with three long strings and one short. This painting has often been cited as evidence that the short banjo string was not a later invention. John Huron of Bristol, Tennessee, made a replica of this banjo for Colonial Williamsburg.

There is a later description of a banjo-like instrument that appears somewhat different from those observed in the Chesapeake area. Fredrika Bremer visited America in 1849-50. Eileen Southern, in Readings in Black American Music, quotes Bremer's Diary entry for Columbia, South Carolina, on June 10, 1850:

"... another young Negro ... came and sung with his banjo several of the Negro songs ...The banjo is an African instrument, made from the half of a fruit called the calabash, or gourd, which has a very hard rind. A thin skin or piece of bladder is stretched over the opening, and over this one or two strings are stretched, which are raised on a bridge. The banjo is the Negroes' guitar, and certainly it is the first born among stringed instruments."

Southern says of Bremer:

"While in America, Bremer eagerly sought opportunities to come in contact with both free and enslaved blacks."

Bremer was an astute observer, so there is no reason to believe her description of a gourd banjo with "one or two strings" is incorrect. The number of strings varied on banjo-like gourd instruments described in Africa and the West Indies. Slaves may have introduced banjo-like instruments at different times and in different places. It seems likely, however, that the forerunner of the uniquely American banjo was introduced in the Chesapeake area of Virginia and Maryland in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Gourd Banjos on the Frontier

There are several references to banjos and banjo playing on the frontier. None that I have found describe the banjo in detail, indicating it was commonly known. It is likely that many frontier banjos were made from gourds; however, it is also likely that some had wood frames. Sir Hans Sloane described instruments made of "hollow'd timber," so there is no reason to suppose some of these weren't present in early America. Materials for a wood frame banjo were readily available, and frontiersmen were adept at constructing artifacts from materials at hand. Also, the references do not mention the number of strings; it is possible that the number may have varied in different areas.

The gourd banjo was on the frontier by the Revolutionary era. Debow's Review, a southern magazine, published Prof. George H. Stueckrath's historical article, The Upper Country of South Carolina, in December 1859 (Volume 27, Issue 6). Stueckrath discusses the early frontier history of Greenville, South Carolina. Following are some of his comments:

"The first settlements in the Greenville District were made about the commencement of the Revolutionary war ... The most of the settlers were from Virginia...but there are several citizens now living who were the first settlers ...Mrs. Green was about nine years old when the battle of King's Mountain was fought [Oct. 7,1780] ...Mrs. Green gives the following account of an old-fashioned 'cotton picking,' which is too good to be lost: In those good old-fashioned times when high and low, the rich and poor, were alike attired in home-spun, made by the industrious and ingenious hand of the busy housewife – when split-bottom chairs, even, was a luxury never dreamed of , and a vehicle, other than the Jersey wagon, an ox-cart, or a sled, never contemplated – the neighbors in the various settlements would meet alternately at each other's house to pick the seed out of the cotton and prepare it for the wheel. These occasions presented a favorable opportunity to 'the young folks' to show their preference for each other, and was attended with much merriment. After the evening's labors were finished, they would join in a regular old-fashioned Virginia reel, and keep time with flying feet to the delightful strains drawn from a gourd banjo."

Mrs. Green's description of the courting ritual for "young folks" sounds much like frolics featuring the banjo in eastern Kentucky. These were mostly affairs for young people to meet, play games, dance to the banjo, and socialize. I am convinced the banjo tradition in the mountains had its inception in the courting rituals and dances of young people of the "lower classes" in Maryland and Virginia.

The cotton referenced by Mrs. Green was grown in frontier gardens for "home-spun" clothing. Picking the seeds from the cotton was quite a chore. The frontier was a great leveler of social classes; neighbor had to depend on neighbor for many things, including defense against Indians. Steuckrath reports:

"Mr. Hite ... was one of the first settlers of the Greenville District ... about the commencement of the revolution Mr. Hite and most of his family were massacred by a band of this savage tribe [Cherokees]."

The "high and the low, the rich and the poor" were not segregated as they were in Tidewater Virginia.

The banjo was in Knoxville, Tennessee, by 1798. Robert M. Coates quotes James Weir in The Outlaw Years:

"Rum shops lined the streets. 'I stood aghast!' wrote James Weir, who visited the town in 1798. He saw men jostling, singing, swearing; women yelling from the doorways; half-naked niggers playing on their 'banjies' while the crowd whooped around them.... 'The town was confused with a promiscuous throng of every denomination' – blanket-clad Indians, leather shirted woodsmen, gamblers hard-eyed and vigilant – 'My soul shrank back.' The whole town was roaring,"

The banjo was in Wheeling, West Virginia, by 1806. Wheeling was a wild frontier town at that time, with many taverns. Epstein quotes from Travels in America by Thomas Ashe:

"In 1806 Thomas Ashe visited a ball in Wheeling, where music was provided by 'two bangies played by Negroes ... and a lute ... [played by] a Chickasaw.'"

There were many African Americans on the early frontier. Several Indian tribes today have a pronounced African American heritage. The interpreter for the Shawnees at the siege of Boonesborough in 1778 was Pompey, an African American. The first person inside the fort to be killed was London, a slave who volunteered to go outside the fort to extinguish a fire that was threatening a cabin. The first settler in what is now Hazard, Kentucky had slaves. Following is what John Mack Faragher, in Daniel Boone, had to say about slaves at Boonesborough:

"Slaves were another important component of Boonesborough society. There were a number of slave families who should be counted among the settlers, although few found their way into the public record. One who did was a man known as Uncle Monk, owned by James Estill, who arrived with his family in 1775. Monk was one of the most valued men at Boonesborough, a superior hunter and marksman, an accomplished musician who played at all of the dances and frolics, and a blacksmith who knew how to make gunpowder from sulphur, saltpeter, and charcoal, an art he taught Boone ..."

Hans Nathan, in Dan Emmett and the Rise of early Negro Minstrelsy, Quotes C. J. Rogers, manager of the Cincinnati Circus Company:

"...[Emmett] during the season of 1840, was a member of our orchestra, and while we were traveling in Western Virginia found a banjo player by the name of 'Ferguson,' who was a very ignorant person and 'nigger all over' except in color... Emmett ran up shouting: Ferguson will work on canvas, and play the banjo, for ten dollars a month... Ferguson was the greatest card we had...During this season Dan Emmett learned to play banjo."

Ferguson was mountaineer; there is a remote possibility he may have had free African American ancestors. Heinegg, in Free Africans in North Carolina and Virginia, lists a William Ferguson as the head of household of "8 free colored" in Wilkes County, North Carolina, in 1820. Wilkes County is near western Virginia.

John P. Hale, born in 1824, reminisced about his boyhood in the 1830s in western Virginia (now West Virginia) in Trans-Allegheny Pioneers. He describes items to be packed for a fall hunt:

< blockquote>
"At the appointed time one or more wagons would start out with bedding, linen, etc... a banjo and a fiddle ..."

Charles A. Johnson wrote, in 1938, A Narrative History of Wise County, Virginia. He was associated with the office of the Clerk of Court in Wise County for some forty years. He assembled material about early Wise County history, and consulted with people who were present when Wise County was formed. There was a large gathering on the first session of court in 1856. Johnson describes some events of that day:

"On a mossy boulder west of the little courthouse were a younger set, eating, drinking and making merry, to the tune of 'Sourwood Mountain' ringing from an old fiddler's violin...Out near the spring old time hoedown dancing to the tune of 'Shortnin' Bread,' rattling off from the catgut strings of a homemade banjo..."

There is an early reference to the banjo in Kentucky. Dr. Daniel Drake, in Pioneer Life in Kentucky, discussed his boyhood on a frontier farm near Maysville, Kentucky, in the 1790s. Mr. Rector, a neighbor whom Dr. Drake refers to as "Old Leather Stocking," depended mostly upon on hunting and trapping for his livelihood. Dr. Drake recounts: "Deer hunting seemed to have been Old Leather stocking's cherished pursuit. Its results were clothing, food, & fiddle strings for the Banjo." Unfortunately, Dr. Drake does not describe the type of banjo for which Mr. Rector made strings. It seems likely, however, that it was a gourd banjo. Mr. Rector had migrated to Kentucky from near Winchester, Virginia. Dr. Drake commented: "What he [Mr. Rector] said about the Valley of Virginia indicated that it had, at the middle of the last century [1750], rather a rude, vulgar, and turbulent population."

William Byrd was one of a party surveying the line between Virginia and North Carolina in 1728. He states the following in the History of The Dividing Line:

"We had encamped so early that we found time in the evening to walk near a half mile in the woods. There we came upon a family of mulattoes that called themselves free, though by the shyness of the master of the house, who took care to keep least in sight, their freedom seemed a little doubtful. It is certain many slaves shelter themselves in this part of the world, nor will any of their righteous neighbors discover them ... Nor were these worthy borderers content to shelter runaway slaves, but debtors and criminals have often met with like indulgence."

These pioneer North Carolinians sound much like the "rude, vulgar and turbulent population" Dr. Drake describes as being resident around Winchester, Virginia in 1750. Both Dr. Drake and William Byrd had an upper class view that colored their perception of frontier families.

Freed slaves were welcomed on a frontier where neighbor had to depend on neighbor. Many of the "mulattoes" married into white families. There would have been no class inhibition for banjo playing among children of these frontier families. There were also slaves on the early frontier - they lived in much closer intimacy with their masters than was common on big plantations.

Charles Doe visited Danville, Virginia, near the North Carolina border, in 1850. Following are his observations in a letter dated Feb. 22, 1850 (Archives and Manuscripts, Accession # 38743, Library of Virginia):

"Their [blacks] national instrument is the banjo; some of them play on the violin. The whites play the banjo a great deal, at least as much as northerners do the flute. But the flute is hardly known here."

Although Doe does not describe the banjos whites played, it is likely that some may have been made from gourds.

Gourd Banjos in the Kentucky Mountains

It is difficult to document gourd banjos in the mountains because early banjos were home made. A gourd banjo, therefore, did not excite curiosity – it was just another hand made instrument. There are, however, a few sightings and descriptions of gourd banjos. Jim Fee, an outstanding bluegrass pioneer in the Orlando area of Florida, grew up in Harlan County, Kentucky. He was playing bluegrass on a local radio station in Harlan by 1956. He saw a gourd banjo in Harlan County when he was a boy. He didn't observe it closely because it was "just another old banjo."

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 a 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 in the mid-1940s at a pie supper and dance at the Mudlick School, which was near the head of Grapevine Creek. He worked at Homeplace on Troublesome Creek in Perry County. Dances were held at the community house, where 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 that time consider a gourd banjo unusual, because most banjos in that area were home made.

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 a 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."

Thomas also describes a banjo made from a gourd in Ballad Makin' in the Mountains of Kentucky:

< blockquote>
"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."

There is a photo of a lady and small boy with a gourd banjo in Ballad Makin' ; the caption of the photo is Lady Elizabeth and Little Robin.

Thomas began the American Song festival in 1931. Some of the festival performances may be heard on Folkways CD F-2358, entitled American Song Festival, which can be ordered from Smithsonian Folkways. The liner notes of the CD have a photo of a young lad sitting on stage with his gourd banjo. There is better photo of the same young boy with his gourd banjo in Alan H. Eaton's book, Handicrafts of the Southern Highlands. The caption reads as follows: Babe Caldwell, Youngest Ballad Singer in the American Song Festival, Plays a 'Gourd Banjer' made by his 'Grandsir.

Leonard Roberts, a Kentucky folklorist, published the songs and tales of an east Kentucky family in Sang Branch Settlers (a more abridged version was published in Up Cutshin & Down Greasy). He interviewed the Couch family in the early 1950s. 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 some way up the neck, and that thing played right good, I thought."

Roberts also interviewed Jim's father, Tom Couch, a banjo player born in 1860. Tom said one of his forbears started the tradition of picking and singing by making himself a banjo from an old gourd. It would seem from Tom Couch's statement that his family had been making gourd banjos for at least two or three generations prior to 1860. The ancestors of Tom Couch moved to eastern Kentucky from North Carolina and southwest Virginia.

Tom Couch did not mention African Americans in connection with his families’ banjo picking tradition. There is, however, a reference to African Americans with a gourd banjo in Couch family folktale # 143 in Sang Branch Settlers. This folktale has a description of two slaves, Sambo and Golder:

"And he had him a gourd and he made him a banjer out of it. Well, when he sent Sambo to hunt for Golder he found him under that rock pickin' on that old banjer and a-singin', 'Jango bum and a bungo jing; and a jingo bum and a bungo jing.'"

Having African Americans associated with the gourd banjo in one of their folktales, while not recalling African Americans in association with their families' banjo tradition, gives some indication of just how long the gourd banjo had been in the folk tradition in the mountains.

Gourd Banjos in the Mountains of North Carolina

The series of Foxfire books, edited by Eliot Wigginton and His Students, are wonderful reading. They document many aspects of folk life in the North Carolina and Georgia mountains. Foxfire 6 contains a chapter entitled Gourd Banjos and Songbows. The songbow, found in some areas of the mountains at one time, may also have an African origin. The students said the following about Ernest Hodges, whom they met in 1977:

"Since Mr. Hodges is a concert violinist and violin maker, we were surprised to learn that his first musical instrument was a gourd banjo made for him when he was a small boy in the mountains of North Carolina by his grandfather. He related the details of how his grandfather constructed the instrument out of a long-necked gourd, a tomcat's hide, and a hank of horsehair. We've asked a lot of people since then about gourd instruments and found they were not uncommon at one time in our region's history."

The students later met Leonard Webb of Macon County, North Carolina. Mr. Webb had learned the art of making gourd banjos from his father, and consequently made a gourd banjo for the students. The details of its construction are documented in considerable detail with both photos and text. There is some discussion of gourd fiddles, which may have been more common in some areas of the mountains than gourd banjos. The section ends with speculation on the origin of gourd instruments in the mountains. Unfortunately, the students merely repeat theories developed by revival musicians not familiar with mountain history and culture.

Information about the construction of the wooden "mountain" banjo is contained in Foxfire 3. Some banjos of this type look remarkably like gourd banjos. They were probably made as a durable alternative to the more fragile gourd banjo.

Gourd Banjos, Dance and Banjo Songs

The gourd banjo was one of several contributions African Americans made to mountain folk life. Among these are the songbow, gourd fiddles and early fiddle music, dance, patting for dance and possibly puzzles. There is a need for a study that analyzes all African American contributions as a whole - doing so would provide a much better perspective on the uniquely American amalgamation of African and European folkways and music.

The gourd banjo came to the mountains with dance and banjo songs. Because the gourd banjo was so intimately associated with dance and song – most early observations confirm this - I feel some discussion of this is necessary.

Cecil Sharp observed the Running Set in Kentucky in three different locations:

Hindman, Hyden and the Pine Mountain Settlement School. He published his description of this dance in The Country Dance Book, Part V, 1918. After analyzing the Running Set Sharp concluded: "... the Kentucky dance belongs to a stage in the development of the Country-dance earlier than that of any dance known to us."

Following are Sharp's observation of a dance at Hindman, Kentucky, where the music was supplied by fiddle and banjo:

"The fiddler and banjo-player each have an assistant, a 'beater,' who, sitting at right angles to the instrumentalist, 'beats' the strings between the bridge and the player's left hand with two pencil-like, wooden sticks. These sticks being flexible, strike all the strings simultaneously and this produces a rhythmical, drone effect which if the 'beater' is deft in his movements and skillfully varies his rhythms, adds depth to the tune and gives material aid to the dancers."

Dancing in east Kentucky was associated with the banjo – most dances in the Knott County area featured a lone banjo player with observers patting to help keep time. I have had two old timers describe for me the practice of "beating" on the banjo strings with objects similar to knitting needles. The description of the fiddling at Hindman is not very different from that described by W. C. Handy in Father of the Blues:

"A boy would stand behind the fiddler with a pair of knitting needles in his hands. From this position the youngster would reach around the fiddler's left shoulder and beat on the strings in the manner of a snare drummer."

Following is Sharp's description of the dance at the Pine Mountain Settlement School:

"Throughout the dance the onlookers and the performers also, when not actually dancing, should enforce the rhythm of the music by 'patting,' i.e., alternately stamping and clapping. 'Patting' is done in various ways, but the usual method is to stamp with the right foot on the strong accent and clap the hands on the weak one, the executant throwing his head back, inclining his body to the left and emphasizing the movement of feet and hands so that the rhythm may be seen as well as heard. In 6/8 time the hands are usually clapped on the third and sixth quavers, but the "patter" will often strike his thighs, right hand on right thigh on the second and fifth quavers, and left hand on left thigh on the third and sixth, stamping, of course, on the first and fourth quavers. As an accompaniment to the dance, the 'patting' is almost as effective as music; so effective, indeed, that at Pine Mountain, where the dancers were wholly dependent on it, the absence of instrumental music was scarcely felt."

The patting observed by Mr. Sharp is very similar to an African American rhythmic sequence, "patting juba," which is described in some detail in the books referenced above by Dena Epstein and Eileen Southern. A good description is given by the editors of John Jay Janney's Virginia – An American Farm Lad's Life in the Early 19th Century:

"'Juba' is dancing to rhythmic patting. The name had died out – and the practice almost so – in the editor's youth, but at least we learned the rudiments of the fast patting of hands on thighs and chest. Harold Bell, stopping at our father's store, would pat time for his own buck-and-wing dancing."

"Patting juba" is called the "hambone" in Kentucky. Ed Haggard, from Winchester, Kentucky, learned an elaborate version from an elderly African American in the 1950s. Losses Slone, a bluegrass banjo player in Knott County, Kentucky, saw a customer at his Caney Creek store perform an elaborate hambone. Losses also described a neighbor, Dixon Johnson, performing a version of the hambone while singing African American blues. Dixon's father, Sambo Johnson, was the first person Losses remembers hearing play banjo.

Sharp described the Kentucky dance as "unlike any other folk dance," and commented on unusual moves made by the dancers:

"There are no skipping or slipping-steps although, especially in the Promenades, the dancers often improvise step-variations of their own, e. g. kick up their heels, drag their feet lazily on the floor, or do a hoe-down step or two, i. e., a heel-and-toe, shuffle, or a clog-dance step."

Sharp defined the unusual dance steps he observed as "a species of step- or clog-dance, locally known as the hoe-down." The dance steps he observed were clearly influenced by African American dancing. Daniel Jatta and Ulf Jagfors have a video of members of the Jola tribe dancing to the music of the Akonting. The dance steps used by the Jolas looked remarkably similar to the mountain "hoe-down."

Dr. Josiah Combs was from Hindman, Kentucky. He collected songs from an African American banjo player near Hindman in 1902. He did his doctorial dissertation, Folk-Songs du Midi des Etats-Unis, at the University of Paris in 1925. D. K. Wilgus used Comb's English draft and the French text to edit in 1967 an English version, Folk-Songs of the Southern United States. Dr. Combs has this to say about mountain banjo songs:

"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 ... The tunes of Lynchburg Town, Shortnin' Bread, Raccoon, Shady Grove, Hook and Line, Houn' Dog, Ida Red, Little Grey Mule, Big Stone Gap, and numerous others are from the Negroes."

The "banjo airs," according to Dr. Combs, "came into the Highlands prior to the Civil War." The banjo, of course, accompanied these banjo songs. Dr. Combs does not mention East Virginia, a banjo song common throughout the mountains, possibly because he thought it did not have a Negro origin. A common refrain in the song is, "I am from old East Virginia, To North Carolina I did go..." Most of the other verses in the song vary considerably. They are what Buell Kazee calls "vagrant" verses. Monroe County Folklife, edited by Lynwood Montell, contains a version of East Virginia with the following verse:

Captain, Captain, I am dying,
Won't you take these words for me,
Take them back to east Virginia,
Tell my darling she is free.

I believe East Virginia was written by some of the first Virginia pioneers in North Carolina.

The favored tune for square dancing in the Knott County area was Hook and Line. This tune, according Cecilia Conway in African Banjo Echoes in Appalachia, was common among the blacks she recorded in North Carolina. Lee Sexton (b. 1928), from Letcher County, Kentucky, states in the liner notes to his CD, Whoa Mule:

"We'd go to square dances and bean stringings, corn shuckings, just things like that ... We'd hoedown then, the old hoedown dance, just flatfoot you know. And it started from that to square dancing ... They didn't have no guitar or fiddle. I'd sit right there and play the banjo all night 'til the blood would run from my fingers. Hook and Line was the tune I played all the time."

Hook and Line has a hypnotic and repetitious rhythm that seems close to some of the early descriptions of African dance music. Also, it is played on the first three strings of the banjo. I believe it may be the oldest tune that came with early settlers into east Kentucky.

Blacks in North Carolina referred to square dances as "frolics." Cecil Sharp notes this was the usual term for dances in east Kentucky. The Oven Fork Baptist Church, established in 1820 in Letcher County, Kentucky, had ten "Rules and Regulations." The ninth was, "Frolics not permitted in the home of church members." Families often referred to the frolics as "playing." This allowed young people to attend "play parties" without the stigma of dancing.


Some authors have postulated an introduction of the banjo into the mountains some 250 years after the first slaves were introduced in Virginia. The historical record, some of which is presented here, does not support this view. The number of references to the banjo, in widely separated locations, indicates it was fairly common on the frontier. The gourd banjo was probably on the early Colonial frontier in Virginia and North Carolina by 1750, and spread to other frontier areas from there. The banjo, banjo songs and dance certainly came into east Kentucky well prior to the Civil War.

There will probably be no way to determine exactly when early European Americans first began adopting the African gourd banjo. The first blacks were introduced into Virginia in 1619 when John Rolf bought "twenty Negars" from a Dutch man-o'-war. There are records in the early Colonial era, beginning in the 1600s, of white and black workers fraternizing in early America. The best analysis of American slavery I have found is Ira Berlin's Many Thousands Gone. Berlin says of early slavery:

"Through the first fifty years of English and African settlements on the Chesapeake, black and white workers lived together in ways that blurred the racial lines...By mid-century [1650] ...Small communities of free blacks sprang up around the perimeter of the Chesapeake Bay, with the largest concentration on the eastern shore of Virginia and Maryland ... Many blacks and whites appeared to enjoy one another's company, perhaps because they shared so much. Behind closed doors ... black and white joined together to drink, gamble, frolic, and fight. Indeed it was the violence that followed long bouts of 'drinkinge and carrousinge' that time and again revealed the extent of interracial conviviality ... Inevitably conviviality led to other intimacies ... Bastardy lists suggest that the largest source of mixed-race children in the seventeenth century Chesapeake was not the imposition of white planter men on black slave women but the relations of black slaves and white servants. Fragmentary evidence from various parts of Maryland and Virginia affirms that approximately one-quarter to one-third of the illegitimate children born to white women had fathers of African descent..."

Paul Heinegg, in Free African Americans in North Carolina and Virginia, documents the genealogies of most free black families of those states in the 1790 census. He has evidence that many descended from the union of a slave and a white servant woman in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Some in the free African American community married Indians or slaves; however, others married members of the white community. These people had thousands of descendents by 1800; many had moved to the frontier as laws regarding free African Americans became more restrictive.

Thomas Jefferson only mentions the banjo briefly in a short footnote. The early descriptions of the banjo in America are mostly provided by travelers from elsewhere, such as Creswell, who was from England. Newspaper advertisements describing banjo-playing runaway slaves began in the mid-1700s. These advertisements do not describe the banjo; the advertisers assume readers are acquainted with the instrument. The newspaper readers would have been wide spread around the Chesapeake; therefore, the banjo must have been well known throughout this area by 1750. If the banjo was commonly known over a large area by 1750, as I assume, then it must have been introduced two or more generations prior to 1750. It is likely, therefore, that the amalgamation of music from Africa and Europe, and the adoption of the banjo by whites, began during the early colonial era, from 1620 to about 1670 when the distinction between indentured servants and slaves was not clearly defined in law. This was also a time when "black and white joined together to drink, gamble, frolic and fight."

The gourd banjo was known and described earlier in the West Indies and South America than in America; however, the banjo did not survive in those places as a folk instrument. Early slaves imported to the West Indies and South America were mostly male, and black families did not begin to be established there until much later than in America. Berlin asserts that free black communities were being established on the Chesapeake by 1650. Communities consist of families; therefore, free black families were being formed alongside those of white servants and wage earners. Families are, I believe, the necessary mechanism through which banjo playing, dance and other folkways are passed from one generation to the next.

About the Author

George R. Gibson began playing old time banjo in Knott County, Kentucky, ca. 1950. He learned from his father, Mal Gibson (b. 1900, d.1996), and a few neighbors. His grandfather, George W. Gibson (b. 1876, d. 1963) played banjo. George is also a banjo collector.

George has a CD: Last Possum up the Tree, JA 0079 D, June Appal Recording. He has some banjo songs on a compilation CD: Banjer Days, JA 0077 D, June Appal Recording.

George welcomes comments about the preceding article. You can contact him here. His mailing address is 1311 California Ave., St. Cloud, FL 34769.