The Banjo

Three banjo-style instruments, including an akonting
Three instruments representative of the banjo's history.

NPS collection.

The banjo is an instrument with a storied history. While it is heavily associated with Appalachian bluegrass culture, its roots trace back much further. The first appearance of what is recognized today as the banjo is probably from several hundred years ago in Gambia, with the Jola people and the African instrument, the akonting. Still played today, the akonting is an instrument made from a gourd body and stretched out goatskin.

Enslaved Africans managed to bring these lute gourd instruments through the Middle Passage and early version of the banjo begain appearing through plantations in the American South. Meanwhile in port towns across the Caribbean, millions of Africans with varying languages and cultures turned to music to communication. They called their instruments "banjars," "bangies," "banjers," or "banzas," possibly in reference to the fiber "bang julo" that was used in the making of the akonting.

In early 19th century America, the banjo was making its way around the country through minstrel shows. Popular at the time, these prejudiced shows commonly featured white entertainers in black face, playing banjos to caricature enslaved people. Additionally, as infrastructure increased in Appalachia and railroad and steamboat workers migrated to the area, black musicians taught their fellow workers how to play the banjo. This spread of the banjo’s popularity led to its commercialization, with Luthier Henry Dobson being credited with adding frets to the banjo neck in the 1870’s, and adding a resonator to the back of banjos, creating the modern resonator banjo.

During a folk music revival that spanned the mid-1900’s, led by people from around the Blue Ridge Mountains, such as Earl Scruggs, Cherokee Elder Walker Calhoun, Samantha Bumgarner, and Bill Monroe, the banjo became a solidified part of the folk music that is still central to Appalachian culture. Whether the style is claw hammer, drop thumb, or a lightning-fast Scruggs-style forward roll, the banjo has solidified its treasured place in the region’s musical history.

There are still many practitioners of banjo traditions found today across the Blue Ridge region. From Saturday night concerts at the Blue Ridge Music Center, to community events and festivals in the communities adjacent to the Parkway, the sounds of the banjo ring out from the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Last updated: February 24, 2023

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