Fascinating in many ways, the banjo can brag about a rich history full of exciting twists and turns. Born somewhere in West Africa many centuries ago, this amazing musical instrument made it to the Hollywood blockbusters but it is safe to say, it is the diversity of images and feelings it conjures up that makes the banjo truly unique. In all this time, it has gone through numerous transformations to become a banjo we know and love today.
Even though we’re pretty sure you’ve heard of some of them, there are a lot more to discover. We bet you will be surprised by some of the fun facts about the banjo we have prepared for you. Enjoy!
Fun Fact #1: The Origin Of The Name
While the majority of experts agree that the banjo was invented in the early 1600s by West Africans in the Caribbean, the origin of this musical instrument’s name is still a subject of hot debate. For instance, if you take the Oxford Dictionary, you will see that banjo derived from the Portuguese word bandore, which is the name of a 16th-century plucked musical instrument that looked like a larger lute and had seven pairs of metal strings.
However, The Cambridge History of American Music suggests that the English word banjo came from the Bantu term mbanza which means string instrument, and offers several historical proofs of how those instruments were played on a territory of present-day Angola.
Fun Fact #2: The First Written Description
The very first clear description of an early banjo is dated back to 1687 and is a journal entry made by Sir Hans Sloane who was an English physician visiting Jamaica. Sloane called this Afro-Caribbean instrument a “strum strump”.
Fun Fact #3: Numerous Predecessors
The most recent research in rich West African music has revealed that over 60 plucked lute instruments show some resemblance to the banjo, and all chances are, many of them are predecessors to the banjo we know today.
Fun Fact #4: The First Manufacturer
Hannover-born William Boucher (1822-1899) was the earliest commercial manufacturer of banjos. His family moved from Germany to Baltimore and there in 1845, he started to sell banjos in his shop that was located in the central district next to the popular theatres. Boucher standardized the wooden frame rim and introduced a bracket system calling it the “screw-head banjo”.
Fun Fact #5: The First White Men That Played Banjo
Even though Sweeney (1810-1860) and Ferguson (1820/21-1841) are widely acclaimed for being the earliest known white men to play the banjo, this is not actually true. According to prominent southern folklorists and historians, it was Robert McAlpin Williamson (1804-1859), a renowned jurist from Texas who entertained his friends by playing banjo as early as at the beginning of 1828. He also sang and patted juba.
There is no written evidence to prove that Williamson was at the forefront of the banjo story but he is well remembered as he was an important figure of pioneer Texas society. More than that, oral history in Kentucky clearly shows that the white Appalachians were playing banjo by 1800.
Fun Fact #6: Banjo Orchestra
Who hasn’t watched Sesame Street? But did you know that Joe Raposo, a composer that created music for this famous children’s show, assembled a collection of different instruments to build a seven-piece banjo orchestra and record some of the music pieces?
Fun Fact #7: Craze For 4-String Banjo
The Roaring Twenties and their Jazz Age made the four-string version of the banjo a real hot ticket among the community. The craze didn’t last for too long and, unfortunately, around the 1940s, the four-string banjo was replaced by the guitar.
Fun Fact #8: Different Ways To Play Banjo
The banjo hides a whole universe of amazing sounds, which can differ depending on the way someone plays this instrument. While the traditional variant is when players pick the strings in an upward motion with their fingers and a downward motion with their thumb, for instance, the Clawhammer technique, which is also referred to as frailing, calls for taking advantage of almost solely down-picking.
Fun Fact #9: Banjo Knows No Borders
The banjo music can’t be squeezed into the tight frames of just one genre. It covers many popular styles and you can hear the banjo virtuosos playing rock, folk, jazz, R&B, and even classical music.
This is far from being an exhaustive list of all fun facts that make the banjo such an interesting topic. Indeed, this musical instrument has a lot to offer, both in terms of immersive music and engaging history that still has some “gaps” waiting to be filled.