In the popular imagination, the banjo is an instrument played by white bluegrass or old-time musicians plucking out traditional Appalachian ballads on their front porches. Many folks associate banjo music with the theme from the “Beverly Hillbillies,” played by Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, or Eric Weissberg’s “Dueling Banjos” from the movie Deliverance. However, in 2016, Laurent Dubois’ The Banjo probed deeply into the instrument’s true origins, revealing that the banjo evolved out of enslaved communities in the Caribbean and North America as Black musicians preserved the sounds of their African cultures by fashioning instruments similar to the ones from their homes. Kristina R. Gaddy’s superb Well of Souls: Uncovering the Banjo’s Hidden History builds on Dubois’ work to provide an even more detailed look at the “culture and lived experience of the people of African descent who created, played, and listened to the banjo.”
Gaddy’s lively storytelling re-creates scenes from 17th-century Jamaica to 19th-century Washington, D.C., and beyond, illustrating not only the birth and development of the banjo but also its co-optation by white people. In 1687, the governor of Jamaica’s physician recorded his encounter with perhaps the earliest incarnation of the banjo, two- and three-stringed gourd lutes he called Strum Strumps, played during religious rituals by enslaved communities from West Africa. By the 18th century, the instrument—variously known as a banjo, bonja, bangeo, banjoe and banger—was being made and played by enslaved musicians on plantations, with some banjo players leading the wider community in song. In the 19th century, white performers who wore blackface in minstrel shows often included a banjo or two in their productions, mocking the Black musical experience while also popularizing the banjo. By the end of the 19th century, collections of slave songs had started to circulate, preserving the heritage of the banjo as an instrument used in religious ceremonies by Black communities.
Well of Souls’ coda points to the work of Rhiannon Giddens, Dom Flemons, Allison Russell and other Black musicians who are reviving the African history of the banjo through their albums, workshops and performances. Gaddy’s captivating book likewise recovers chapters in what is still a little-known history of this quintessential American instrument.