The Banjo is the most quintessentially American musical instrument. Made from a drum with strings, the banjo tells a story of cultural exchange, blending African and European musical identities. Brought to America in the memories and traditions of enslaved Africans, repeatedly re-invented and refined, the banjo has shaped most every type of American music: the minstrel show, ragtime and early jazz, folk, blues, and of course country, bluegrass, old-time, and let's not forget the latest revival which has placed the banjo in every genre from indie to pop.
PBS Arts Fall Festival presents a new documentary called The Banjo Project (airs Nov 4th) that chronicles 300 years of American history and culture, featuring contemporary pickers such as Pete Seeger, Earl Scruggs, Bela Fleck, Taj Mahal, Mike Seeger, Alison Brown, Sonny Osborn and many more in interviews and performances, combined with rare archival footage, recordings, and first-hand narratives.
In it's long history, the banjo has symbolized patriotism and protest, pain and pleasure, low entertainment and sophisticated leisure. It's a been a black instrument, a white instrument, a laborer's pastime and a socialite's diversion, a young person's fad and an old-timers's friend. But mostly it has been a snubbed instrument; a symbolic prop for stereotypes about race, class, gender, region, and political persuasion right up tot he present day. Don't believe it? Just ask a banjo player to, "play that song from deliverance," and see what happens.
Despite the stereotypes that have plagued the banjo, it's an instrument gaining popularity and acceptance among a younger generation. I find this quite exciting, as the banjo is my instrument of choice, and I think the world needs the banjo.
Mark Twain sums up the banjo best when he wrote:
"But give me the banjo. . . . When you want genuine music — music that will come right home to you like a bad quarter, suffuse your system like strycnine whisky, go right through you like Brandreth’s pills, ramify your whole constitution like the measles, and break out on your hide like the pin-feather pimples on a picked goose — when you want all this, just smash your piano, and invoke the glory-beaming banjo."
For the sake of all banjo players, please watch the trailer:
–Dylan Macnab Nov 4th, 2011