The banjo is one of the most undervalued instruments in the world, yet it comes from a time and a people who defined American culture. From its structure to its sound, its sheen to its individuality, the banjo has changed what we think of when we think of Great Design.
What’s more American than the banjo? For decades, the piercing, metallic sound of a banjo, like the unique noise of jazz, has represented a sweet spot on the melodious soul of America’s DNA. A stringed instrument played by picking individual notes in rapid succession in order to make a sound greater than any one could muster itself.
Yes, I know that sounds like the description for almost any stringed instrument, but the banjo one was built just for this purpose. Sure, you can strum it like a guitar, that’s almost a happy accident in the nature of the banjo. What about a bass, you ask? That’s just there for support, and you know it. “Okay” you must be thinking, “what about the mandolin?” Well, I don’t want to insult your intelligence here, but anybody worth his or her minor in musicology knows the mandolin is actually two strings plucked at the same time, so we obviously don’t need to go any further that, do we? No, the banjo stands alone here. What makes the banjo so American (other than the fact that it was invented, and is almost exclusively played here) is its ability to collect such an eclectic set of notes, and fold them into a greater piece, all while allowing each note its individuality. These notes aren’t strummed along in unison, falling in line like a well behaved mob of Orwellian drones. Banjo notes scream, each one of them, in their own unique voice. And those voices come together to create something beautiful.
But this form of American organization is not limited to the strings. The banjo as a whole is of the same nature. While the guitar, bass, and yes, even the mandolin are all traditionally made of wood alone, with the banjo, wood is just one of the pieces of the puzzle. Like all things great in American music, the banjo was stolen from the black community (though at the time, they weren’t exactly referred to as a community) and made a white man’s instrument. But even in its first days of existence, the banjo was made with a piece of animal hide stretched taut over the body, at the time a gourd, giving it a sound like no other instrument could make. The gourd was soon replaced with a drum-like box by a minstrel performer named Joel Walker Sweeny, which, let’s be honest, is an awesome olde-time American name. Over time, the canvas would become interchangeable with plastic, and an important new element, metal would be added, further separating the sound of the banjo from any instrument on earth.
Added to this audible embodiment of our nation’s motto, E Pluribus Unum (from the many, one), is the fact that the banjo is staunchly independent. It’s an instrument that doesn’t require any support. An instrument for a single red-nosed drifter picking his way across the Eisenhower Interstate System. It’s a sound for box cars and back porches. From the tops of the highest mountains to the swampy depths of the bayous. Sure, it’s nice to have a good upright double bass, maybe an acoustic guitar, and even a snare drum, but these all seem superlative when talking about the banjo. Now, that’s not to say that the banjo can’t be a team player. No, it works quite well with others, as a matter of fact. Some of the best banjo music I know is less solo, and more collective. Hell, even the song Dueling Banjos is played with a guitar. But even when it’s part of something much bigger, the banjo remains true to its nature; independent.
The perception of the banjo has changed a lot recently. From the three toothed yokel sitting on a broken down poach in Appalachia, the most prominent image of a banjo player has become a bespectacled art-collecting well-coiffed millionaire. Indie-rock bands, and modern composers like Sufjan Stevens use the banjo with grace and prestige. Could it be that this change will allow our children’s children to grow up in a world where the banjo is considered high class? An instrument played and practiced by the elite few at institutions like Julliard? It very well could be the case. This could be the transitional period that takes the banjo from an instrument of the people to an instrument of the professionals. So don’t be surprised when we see more five-string finger pickers on stage at the Grammy’s than at the Country Music Awards.