In The Banjo: Music, History, and Heritage, you will explore the history of banjo music from African spirituals to jazz club standards to activist folk numbers. Taught by acclaimed musician and MacArthur grant recipient Rhiannon Giddens, the 10 jam-packed episodes take you across time and cultures to uncover the hidden history of a sonically rich American instrument.
The Banjo: Music, History, and Heritage
Rhiannon Giddens is a singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist who cofounded the Carolina Chocolate Drops. For her work as a soloist and collaborator, she is a two-time Grammy Award winner and an eight-time nominee. She is the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, and she also received a Legacy of Americana Award from Nashville’s National Museum of African American History and the Americana Music Association. Additionally, she is the artistic director of Silkroad and a member of the band Our Native Daughters. She obtained a bachelor of music degree in Vocal Performance from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music.
01: Hearing the Banjo's Journey from Africa
Jump into the history of the banjo! As you will discover right away, there is much to learn about this versatile instrument—starting with its origins in Africa and its link to African American culture. Explore the anatomy of the “gourd banjo” and consider the cross-cultural conversation between African and European music.
02: The Banjo and the Fiddle Together
Continue your exploration of the gourd banjo as an African instrument and see how music as an entertainment crosses racial lines. You will learn about the connection between the banjo and the fiddle as you dig into the old-time country music of the African American string-band musician Joe Thompson.
03: Minstrel Banjo
As musical and comedy entertainment, minstrel shows have left a scar across American history due to the legacy of blackface. Although difficult to study today, minstrel shows play an important part in the banjo’s history, as it was through these shows that the banjo became a mainstream instrument in America.
04: The Spiritual Roots of the Banjo
While we may think of the banjo as an instrument for entertainment, the buried history reveals it has powerful spiritual roots in African and Caribbean culture. Delve into the connection between religious symbols and the early banjo—and reflect on the complex processes of cultural appropriation.
05: The Banjo in Ragtime and Jazz
The late 1800s and early 1900s saw an explosion in historical, cultural, social, and technological change, and this change paved the way for the great American art form of jazz. From ragtime to New Orleans jazz, examine how the banjo’s capabilities for syncopation earned the instrument a prominent spot in exciting new music.
06: The Irish Banjo
While African American music was transitioning from minstrel shows to jazz clubs, Irish immigrants were bringing their own cultural experiences to America—and the banjo fit right in with the rhythms of traditional Celtic music. Meet some of the early figures of the Irish banjo, which has strong connections to Afro-Caribbean culture.
07: The Banjo's Evolution in Ireland
Just as music is always changing, the instruments we play also evolve. You’ll see how the gourd banjos transitioned and eventually led to the development of the tambourine. You’ll also study the evolution of technique, which included the development of American-style “cross-picking” popular in bluegrass today.
08: Migration, Music, and Commercialization
The banjo today is most strongly associated with bluegrass, and that’s because bluegrass elevated the banjo from a backing instrument to the star of the show. After surveying the rise of bluegrass with luminaries Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs, dive into the cross-cultural exchange made possible by the banjo. Then see how Béla Fleck elevated and redefined the instrument yet again.
09: The Banjo in String Bands and Bluegrass
If African Americans invented the banjo, why did they stop playing it? Here, learn about the 20th century’s Great Migration, the birth of the recording industry, and the way banjos became associated with older, rural culture. Then, witness the rise of folk music, which tapped into rural working-class stringed instruments.
10: Banjo Revival and Our Collective Story
The folk revival gave renewed life to an old instrument, but the evolution of the banjo continues in the 21st century. Bands such as Mumford and Sons, Billy Strings, and the Carolina Chocolate Drops continue to reinvent what is possible with the banjo, remixing classic sounds for new audiences. The course ends with a look back—and a look forward.
11: Performance of "Kitchen Girl" with Enda Scahill
Performance of "Kitchen Girl" with Enda Scahill
12: Performance of "Old Corn Likker" with Justin Robinson
Performance of "Old Corn Likker" with Justin Robinson
13: Performance of "Better Git Yer Learnin'"
Performance of "Better Git Yer Learnin'"