The Early Banjo in Appalachia
So when did the banjo come to Appalachia?
Ok, hold on, this question is actually a big knot, and we have to untangle it piece by piece. Let’s start with the last part: Appalachia. What is Appalachia?
There is the geographic region, which itself is much debated. In Jeff Biggers’ The United States of Appalachia, he offers this map, without counties designated, an amorphous shape sitting across mountain ranges. But he remarks, “Appalachia, as author Wallace Stegner once remarked about the American Southwest, has been more of a process than a place.”
And so what Appalachia is depends on who you ask, and the question “What is Appalachia?” almost always seems to be addressed when people are writing about it.
“Appalachia is, often simultaneously, a political construction, a vast geographical region, and a spot that occupies an unparalleled place in our cultural imagination,” writes Elizabeth Catte in What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia.
Stephen Stoll argues in Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia that, “The southern mountains are half a billion years old, but Appalachia did not exist before the industrial invasion of those uplands during the nineteenth century. It appeared as a location within the capitalist world when its coal and labor ignited the American Industrial Revolution.” I can say this industrial invasion postdates the arrival of the banjo in Appalachia.
In the introduction to Y’all Means All: The Emerging Voices Queering Appalachia, Z. Zane McNeill writes, “Appalachia is more than a geographic region—it is an environmental space with a history of natural resource extraction; a cultural construction fashioned by conservatives and liberals to support revisionist arguments of what ‘America’ is, and which bodies represent ‘America;’ and a politically contested space that pushes disadvantaged voices to the margins.”
“But ‘Appalachia,’ as we use the word, tends to be mostly understood as a cultural region, centered lower than New York but farther north than Alabama. This symbolism is both the dream and the evasion. At once the fantasy and shame of the republic. A South, at least imagined, without Blackness,” writes Imani Perry in South to America. That imagining, that dream and evasion, is why we have to understand and recognize the Black Appalachian experience. And it is a point I’ll come back to later.
[Appalachia is] A South, at least imagined, without Blackness" -- Imani Perry
I know we won’t agree on a definition of Appalachia, so for sheer reasons of practicality, let’s use the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) map, which is pretty generous. (I know most people have been actually asking me about Southern Appalachia when they say Appalachia, because they don’t mean Ithaca, New York, for example. But then we have to untangle even more knots.) Appalachian urban areas include Birmingham, Knoxville, Charleston, and Pittsburgh, but not Nashville, Greensboro, Atlanta, Lexington, Lynchburg, Columbus, Akron, or Harrisburg.
The Evidence of the Banjo in Appalachia
Nowhere in Weir’s journal does he mention the banjo.
In 2019, Lynn Niedermeir was able to go straight to the source: Weir’s journal. She is a librarian at Western Kentucky University, and a descendant of Weir donated the journal to their special collections. Niedermeir and her colleagues had heard that Weir’s journal mentioned banjos and African American music, and that would, in fact, be very valuable to people interested in music history and Black history. But Niedermeir could not find anything like what Coates wrote. In a blog post, Niedermeir quotes directly from the journal wherefrom Coates likely embellished: Knoxville was “Confus[e]d with a promiscuous throng of every denomination some Talked some sung but mostly all did profainly sware – I stood ag[h]ast, my soul shrunk back to hear the horrid oaths and dreadful Indignities offered to the supream Governer of the universe.”
She adds, “It’s a vivid portrait of a frontier community, but nowhere in Weir’s description is there a reference to either African Americans or banjos.” She goes on to note that in A History of Muhlenberg County (1913), the author accurately quoted the diary, but when Coates wrote his book, he embellished these accounts. No surprise, Niedermeir and I share a philosophy: “The story of the banjies-that-never-were is a lesson for all historical researchers: whenever possible, go straight to the source.”
Another account that comes up is from Greenville, South Carolina in the 1780s. Again, what people focus on is the vivid description: "After the evening's labors were finished, they [the white “young folks”] would join in a regular old-fashioned Virginia reel, and keep time with the flying feet to the delightful strains drawn from a gourd banjo."
We assume here that because it is the 1780s, we also assume that the banjo player must be Black since white banjo playing was not yet common (again, more on this in Well of Souls), but the text doesn’t mention anything more about the player. During this time, there were not many Black people in Greenville County. While in 1780, more than half of South Carolina’s population was Black, however according to the 1790 census, only a little over 9% of Greenville County’s population was enslaved.
When I recounted all of this to my partner Pete Ross who builds gourd banjos and has also done a lot of research into early Minstrelsy, the fact that Green mentions a gourd banjo made it seem more plausible to him. He feels that if Green was stereotyping that a banjo was being played, by 1859 (decades into Minstrelsy), she might have been more likely to characterize it as a banjo (generally) or a wooden-rimmed banjo. “But, the gourd banjo was still known enough to be mentioned in the lyrics of early minstrel tune ‘Piccayune Butler’ and even at the end of the 19th century in places like S.S. Stewarts Journal,” he says.The gourd banjo was “part of general memory,” he adds, “but that still doesn't mean her memory is perfect and she's not describing something she saw at a different occasion and different date.”
I’m not sure that I agree, but it is possible that Green saw a gourd banjo in Greenville, South Carolina in the 1780s, but a second-hand (i.e. the source written by the author and not Mrs. Green herself), non-contemporaneous account is not a great source.
There is a third early-ish account (1833) from Appalachia that has also been cited in many places. I’m going to have a brief aside here on it, even though it postdates the earliest account (which is coming!) because it speaks to the trickiness of musical sourcing during this period.
In Dan Emmitt and the Rise of Early Negro Minstrelsy, Hans Nathan cites an account from East Tennessee in Sketches and Eccentricities of Col. David Crockett, of West Tennessee (1833) that again, has been cited without much thought. First, about the source: it is an unauthorized biography of David “Davy” Crockett that he disliked so much that he went and wrote his own autobiography A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett (published a year later, without any references to banjos…). According to the American Antiquarian Society, no one has been able to determine who the unauthorized biographer is, so it could have been someone sitting in New York, making up what they thought frontier life in Tennessee looked and sounded like.
Then, he goes on to play “Jim Crow,” which was by 1833 known as a Blackface Minstrel song. Hans Nathan writes the character of Jim Crow was “created and made famous by the actor Thomas D. Rice” in “the late [eighteen] twenties and early thirties.” According to an 1867 account of Rice’s rise in the Atlantic Monthly and recounted in Monarchs of Minstrelsy, Rice began performing as Jim Crow in Cincinnati, which is not in Appalachia, but on the border of the region and the nation’s frontier at the time. Rice had heard a Black stage-coach driver singing the famous lyrics “Turn about an’ wheel about an’ do jis so, An’ ebery time I turn about I jump Jim Crow.” Nathan thinks that the character Rice created had “something of the swagger of the real frontiersman and riverboatman. Their models indeed were Mike Fink and David Crockett…” and Black men Rice met in Cincinnati and later, Pittsburgh (which is in Appalachia). Maybe part of the reason that Crockett didn’t like the unauthorized biography was because he was depicted as one of the “colorful and lusty toughs,” as Nathan describes frontiersmen like Crockett and Jim Crow. “So the dance closed,” the unauthorized biography writes, “and not one of all that crowd danced more, got in a love scrape sooner, drank more whiskey, saw more fun, or sat up later than David Crockett…” The use of the comic banjo figure and the reference to Jim Crow in the 1833 Sketches and Eccentricities would make it seem like the whole passage was influenced by Minstrelsy.
This 1837 images features a band in Jamaica with a jawbone player. "Band of the Jaw-Bone John-Canoe" in Sketches of character : in illustration of the habits, occupation, and costume of the Negro population, in the island of Jamaica / drawn after nature, and in lithography, by I.M. Belisario, courtesy Yale Center for British Art.
But the first published version of a Blackface Minstrel song about jawbones doesn’t come until J.W. Sweeney’s “De Ole Jawbone” in 1840, seven years after this account . The lyrics in the 1833 book don’t match Sweeney’s, another undated song called “De Ole Jaw Bone,” or Cool White’s 1844 “Walk Jaw Bone.” The lyrics to “Jim Crow” in the book also don’t match T.D. Rice’s song, except for the three words “jump Jim Crow.” Sketches and Eccentricities post-dates Rice’s success with the song, and the author could have easily copied his lyrics (they wouldn’t have been worried about copyright), they didn’t. Here is, seemingly, a Black banjo player singing another song with a familiar phrase, but not Rice’s song (and he only ever heard the two-line chorus).
So could Sketches and Eccentricities actually have come from a writer in the region who was familiar with this music? Could these two transcriptions, even though they seem tainted by Minstrelsy, actually be from Black vernacular sources? I don’t think I can say definitively. Early Minstrelsy isn’t well documented enough, and Black music certainly wasn’t documented well enough. If yes is the answer to either of the questions, then it would suggest that perhaps some of what Blackface Minstrels said about getting music from Black musicians was true, and not just something they said to bolster their authenticity. It might also suggest that Minstrels including T.D. Rice and Dan Emmett took songs from Appalachia and the Appalachian border regions, regions we now associate strongly with old time stringband music, to the Minstrel stage, rather than those songs originating on the stage and spreading them outward from there.
What is the earliest account of the banjo in Appalachia?
One of the most interesting things to me in this account is that it is very clearly a social occasion: they are in a ballroom, and others are playing cards. Before the 1790s, we almost exclusively see the banjo as part of a religious/ ritual dance from New York to Suriname (I fully explore this in Well of Souls). That’s not what we see here. This might be a function of the religious practices waning, which started with the Second Great Awakening. It also seems to be an integrated crowd, with the Black banjo players and Native American flute player, and a white crowd. Again, prior to the 1790s, we almost always have banjos being played by people of African descent for the religious/ ritual dance where only people of African descent participate. We have white observers of these dances (which is how we get the accounts). Then we have Black musicians playing fiddles and flutes for white audiences in ballrooms. Here, we have both.
Early Banjo Accounts in Near Appalachia
Another thing I want to point out is the proximity of banjos to the Appalachian region before the Wheeling account and the connectedness of Appalachia to other parts of the country.
In 1781, Thomas Jefferson writes from Charlottesville (a town that borders the Appalachian region) that "the instrument proper to them [enslaved people] is the Banjar, which they brought hither from Africa.” In 1790, Abdiel McAlister put out an ad in a York, Pennsylvania paper to solicit the recapture of Nathan Butler who “plays well on the banjoe.” McAlister leased 3000 acres of land outside York known as Spring Forge, and it starts to get mountainous around there, but it's not quite Appalachia under any definition. (McAlister died in 1792 and may or may not have been the owner of Butler; McAlister did not own any enslaved people in 1789, and may have been leasing Butler.) Six years later, Anthony Peele put out an advertisement for the recapture of a man named Will who “plays on the banjo.” Peele lived “on the Yadkin river, near the Bald Mountain, in Rowan County” North Carolina. In 1796, Rowan County included today’s Davie and Davidson counties, and again, is right on the border to the Appalachian region as defined by ARC.
While Appalachia was less densely populated than some places to the east, it wasn’t completely isolated. In Travels to the westward of the Allegany Mountains, in the states of the Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee, in the year 1802, the authors point out that the merchants in Knoxville “obtain their supplies by land, from Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Richmond, in Virginia, and in return, send, by the same channel, the production of this country, which they buy from the farmers, or take in exchange for their goods.” There’s also trade with New Orleans by river. The author of The journal of a tour into the territory northwest of the Alleghany Mountains ; made in the spring of the year 1803 notes that “boats are constantly used for the purpose of trade down the [Ohio] river, or the transportation of various articles of produce, &c. to the place of deposit at New Orleans.” And, enslaved people arrived in this region from somewhere else, so it is not impossible to imagine someone being sold from Baltimore to western North Carolina who continued his banjo playing.
Why are there no 18th century accounts of the banjo in Appalachia?
Something similar could hold true in Appalachia. In Well of Souls, I explore how the banjo was central to African diasporic religions and rituals including banyaprei, Vodou, Junkanoo, and Pinkster. To perform a danced and sung religion like these, you need a group of people. Perhaps enslaved people were too dispersed in Appalachia to practice these religions (assuming they had once practiced them or their families or communities had), and so without the religion, there was no banjo until it became more secular at the turn of the 19th century. It could also be that during the period of expansion into Appalachia at the beginning of the 19th century, the people of African descent who moved into the region did not practice these religions and so did not bring the music, dance, and instruments that were central to the religions into the mountains.
Researcher Wilma Dunaway has also suggested that slavery in Appalachia was more brutal than in the plantation south. Taking that idea and applying it to music and dance, perhaps slave owners in the region were not as permissive as plantation managers and owners in the South, and did not allow for dances or banjo playing. In Well of Souls, I write about how the large numbers of enslaved people on one property had easy contact with one another and people on nearby plantations, and that could lead to uprisings. Manager and owners allowed for dances like the calinda and banyaprei in part as a way to deter unrest.
Despite the banjo’s identification with Appalachia and especially southern Appalachia, the banjo arrived in the region later than the Chesapeake, New York, and the Carolinas. We also don’t have many pre-1840 accounts from the region, which may be due to the fact that there were not that many banjos to be seen; that there are fewer records (for example, the earliest western Virginia newspaper according to Chronicling America was published in 1789); and as always, that we haven’t found them yet. If you have a pre-1840, contemporaneous account of the banjo in Appalachia, I’d love to see it!
 In her book African Banjo Echoes in Appalachia, Cece Conway misquoted Coates as saying Weir was there in 1789.
 The Lester Levy Sheet Music collection at Johns Hopkins has a version of Sweeney’s from 1848, but Nathan reprints an 1840 cover in his book. Hans Nathan’s Dan Emmett and the Rise of Early Negro Minstrelsy is a great resource, but Nathan presents information in a way that people may find offensive today, and he reprints Blackface Minstrel lyrics and images, which are ugly and racist. John Jeremiah Sullivan wrote an article for Oxford American trying to figure out how the jawbone might have been used in Kentucky music, which is worth reading: https://oxfordamerican.org/magazine/issue-99-winter-2017/death-rattle
 There is one account I’ve found in Virginia where this is not the case, but it seems that the enslaved man playing the banjo is being forced to do so for a white audience rather than it being an occasion for Black people.
 TJ is wrong on this point, but the date and location are what is important.
 John Craig Hammond, “Slavery, Settlement, and Empire: The Expansion and Growth of Slavery in the Interior of the North American Continent, 1770-1820,” Journal of the Early Republic, Vol. 32, No. 2 (Summer 2012), pp. 175-206. https://www.jstor.org/stable/41478766
 James B. Murphy, “Slavery and Freedom in Appalachia: Kentucky as a Demographic Case Study,” The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, Vol. 80, No. 2 (Spring 1982), pp. 151-169. https://www.jstor.org/stable/23379577
 For more on the general history of New Orleans, I recommend Ned Sublette’s The World that Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square (Lawerence Hill Books: Chicago, 2008) and City of a Million Dreams: A History of New Orleans at Year 300 by Jason Berry (UNC Press: Chapel Hill, 2018).
This is part of Banya Obbligato, a series of blog posts relating to my book Well of Souls: Uncovering the Banjo’s Hidden History. While integrally related to Well of Souls, these posts are editorially and financially separate from the book (i.e., I’m researching, writing, and editing them myself and no one is paying me for it). So, if you want to financially support the blog or my writing and research you can do so here.
Tony Thomas MFA
4/12/2023 07:05:19 pm
I have spent about 25 years dealing with this issue both as a banjo historian and as someone whose mother was raised in a coal camp in West Virginia, and have examined some of the primary sources Kristina references here directly for years. This article is completely correct
4/13/2023 12:22:03 pm
Kristina, this is such an important snapshot into the banjo in Appalachia. Thank you for sharing your research. I hope to meet you in person one day!
4/13/2023 01:13:40 pm
Fascinating stuff. Thanks for posting this important research.
4/13/2023 05:14:49 pm
Kristina—I appreciate your always well-researched writing!
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