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From West Africa to Baltimore: New Exhibit Explores The History Of The Banjo

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Banjos built by William Boucher on display at “Making Music: The Banjo in Baltimore and Beyond."
Jerad Walker/WAMU
Banjos built by William Boucher on display at “Making Music: The Banjo in Baltimore and Beyond."

A new exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Industry explores the banjo’s fascinating history — from its origins on the shores of West Africa to its mass production in the workshops of Maryland and finally to its appearance in homes and on stages across the world.

Greg Adams isn't just a historian; he’s also a talented musician. Like Bob Winans and Pete Ross, the other two curators of “Making Music: The Banjo in Baltimore and Beyond,” Adams has been playing banjo for most of his life. Today, he’s performing “Yankee Doodle Dandy” on a replica of a banjo built more than a hundred and sixty years ago by William Boucher in Baltimore, Maryland. It’s a fairly innocuous looking instrument, but Adams says it was the catalyst for an incredible, sometimes ugly, and largely untold part of Maryland history.

“This exhibit looks at the banjo as a Maryland tradition since at least the late 1740s,” says Adams. ”And the main themes of the exhibit are looking at the convergence of slavery, minstrelsy, and industry and how is the banjo a part of those intersecting cultural expressions.”

Pete Ross says the exhibit also hopes to quickly dispel any notion that the modern instrument is solely a product of folk art.

“It’s not simply this traditional object that’s just appeared magically in the Americas,” Ross says. “It is in a lot of ways a commercial construct and so much of that history is here in Maryland.”

Greg Adams, noted musician and historian Stephen Wade, Pete Ross, and Bob Winans. Adams, Ross, and Winans are co-curators of “Making Music: The Banjo in Baltimore and Beyond." (Jerad Walker/WAMU)

So, why Maryland?

Bob Winans shows me a map of the United States dotted with 58 points, each representing known colonial-era banjo sightings. More than half of the dots are in Maryland.

“There’s clearly a large slave population and clearly among those enslaved Africans you have lots of banjo players,” says Winans. On top of that, Ross says Baltimore in particular was the perfect home for the first mass-produced banjo.

“[During this period] Baltimore is a cross roads where the agrarian South and the industrialized North met,” explains Ross. “So we have this African technology— the engineering it took to make a banjo was common here as Bob showed you on the map. And then we have the largest industrial center below the Mason Dixon line. So this was all present here. That’s reason number two that the banjo happened here.” The three men also unearthed a surprising third reason.

“We found as we worked on this project that there were all of these music shops and instrument makers over 4 or 5 blocks of downtown Baltimore starting in the first half of the nineteenth century,” says Ross. “Also, throughout the area were a large number of theaters.”

Those theaters introduced the banjo to white American culture as a part of minstrel shows in the 1830s.

“As the pop music craze we know as the minstrel show—guys performing in blackface, imitating, mocking black people. That’s white guys imitating black people. As it takes off, these instrument makers couldn’t have missed [the fact that] there’s this new instrument. People are all excited about the banjo as a centerpiece of the minstrel show. There was opportunity.”

By the early 1840s, a German immigrant and instrument maker named William Boucher set up the first banjo workshop in Baltimore. Builders like Boucher modified the instrument with European technology—adding key components like a drum body and tuning pegs. Other shops soon opened in Baltimore to meet the demand of the banjo-starved public—and demand was intense. As shocking as it may seem today, minstrelsy actually became a worldwide phenomenon.

“It’s one of those watershed moments in our popular music history,” says Ross. “It’s like Elvis. It’s like The Beatles landing. It’s like Louis Armstrong hitting records. Everything changed. Everybody was obsessed with it. And more so than those moments, this is the moment where in the writings of the time people are saying this is our first really American thing. This is us. This is not coming from cultures we brought with us from the Old World. This is our first identifiable indigenous contribution to world music.”

Painting called "The Banjo Player" by William Sidney Mount (American painter, 1807-1868) featuring a Boucher banjo.

An African instrument, American story

In a way, Ross says this instrument’s flawed history mirrors America’s own imperfect story.

“The more I learn about it the more perfect I think it is to call it America’s instrument because it covers so much turf in the history of our country—the race stuff, the class stuff, the capitalist stuff."

And the exhibit doesn't pull any punches. While celebrating the cultural impact of the banjo, “Making Music” doesn't shy away from the racism associated with the instrument’s minstrel past. Adams says the purpose isn't to shock visitors—he just hopes to answer a simple question.

“How do we take the complexities of racism, slavery, appropriation, commodification, and industry and find ways of bringing them out to affect the conversations that people are having out in the real world, not just in these safe spaces? This is what the American experience is all about. All of these things — good, bad, and ugly. This is our shared heritage.”

A heritage rooted in Africa, influenced by Europeans, and assembled in Baltimore.

You can catch “Making Music: The Banjo in Baltimore & Beyond” at the Baltimore Museum of Industry through Oct. 18.

And tune in to WAMU’s Bluegrass Country at 105.5 FM in Washington, D.C. on Friday, June 27 at 6 p.m. as Jerad Walker presents an hour-long in-studio session with the three curators of this exhibit hosted by Bluegrass Country’s Rosemarie Nielsen.

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