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Chris Smith: Words & Music

Essay: About the Irish Banjo

(Chris Smith)
Chris Smith
Music history reveals many examples of instruments migrating and mutating over time and across geographical boundaries. Some of these are simple stories, while others create a more muddled history; sometimes it’s just the “idea” of an instrument which is shared across adjacent cultures. Especially interesting is the case of the banjo, an instrument indigenous to North America but based on recollections of West African models.

Thomas Jefferson, in his Notes on Virginia (1782), mentions the “banjar,” a fretless plucked lute with three gut strings and a skin face stretched over a gourd, as a principal instrument of African American slaves, and many period illustrations confirm this (see Eileen Southern’s Iconography of Music in African-American Culture, 1770s-1920s for wonderful examples). In the period between the American Revolution and the Civil War, musical experimentation between whites and blacks—like other forms of cultural exchange—was very widespread even though largely undocumented. But it seems clear that the banjo began as an African-American recollection of various West African instruments, and was quickly adopted and adapted in various ways and to various traditions. By the 1840s, the banjo (with the fiddle, tambourine, and bones) was an essential part of the blackface musical/comedy idiom called minstrelsy, in which Caucasian performers (many of Irish ethnicity) dressed in ragged clothes, blackened their faces with burnt cork, and presented skits and songs that parodied Southern Black folkways. There’s no question that minstrelsy was racist and exploitative, but it also provided a significant and unique exchange of musical ideas: Irish dance tunes and song melodies were married with African-American rhythmic ideas, Irish dance steps mingled with African-American steps, and the result was the classic songs of Stephen Foster, vaudeville, and eventually much of 20th century American tap- and jazz dance (see Tyler Anbinder’s Five Points and Dale Cockrell’s Demons of Disorder for two fascinating studies of anti-Bellum Irish/African musical interactions).

It seems likely that the first banjos in the Irish tradition crossed the Atlantic with touring American minstrel shows in the 1840s. A late-19th century sketch in Captain Francis O’Neill’s Irish Minstrels and Musicians of piper Dick Stephenson and banjoist John Dunne shows Dunne holding a 5-string. By around 1915, influenced in the US by a collegiate craze for “mandolin orchestras” (employing a full consort of instruments from mandolin, through mandola, mandocello, and mando-bass, an instrument as big as a rowboat), and another for Latin ballroom dance, variant banjos were developed. These included the tango or tenor banjo, with a shorter neck, a smaller body, and four strings tuned in fifths. The similarity of the instrument’s tuning and stringing to that of the mandolin and violin made it a natural for Irish tunes, and its usage as the preferred rhythm instrument in early jazz made it a not-uncommon addition to 78s of Irish traditional music recorded in New York during the music’s “Golden Age” of the 1920s and ‘30s. Mike Flanagan, born in County Waterford in 1898, immigrated to the United States at the age of 10, and with his brothers ran a band and recorded a number of influential discs of songs and tunes, in which his high-tuned (CGDA) tenor banjo played a prominent role. The instrument was further popularized in the hands of Barney McKenna, a key instrumentalist in the “Dubliners” folk group of the 1960s; McKenna employed heavier string gauges and a lower tuning of GDAE, which preserved the fifth-interval relation, but placed the instrument an octave below fiddle.

“The Pearl,” the Irish tenor banjo I play most, was built Tom Cussens of Clarinbridge, Co. Galway. Unlike the classic Gibson and Weymouth tenor banjos of the 1930s, “the Pearl” is specifically designed to support the lower Irish tuning (GDAE) and playing techniques, with a 19-fret neck, and is constructed with a rock maple rim, neck, and resonator, rosewood fingerboard, bronze tone ring, and brass hardware.