The banjo has been called by many names over its history, but they all refer to the same sound—strings humming over skin—that has eased souls and electrified crowds for centuries. The Banjo invites us to hear that sound afresh in a biography of one of America’s iconic folk instruments. Attuned to a rich heritage spanning continents and cultures, Laurent Dubois traces the banjo from humble origins, revealing how it became one of the great stars of American musical life.
In the seventeenth century, enslaved people in the Caribbean and North America drew on their memories of varied African musical traditions to construct instruments from carved-out gourds covered with animal skin. Providing a much-needed sense of rootedness, solidarity, and consolation, banjo picking became an essential part of black plantation life. White musicians took up the banjo in the nineteenth century, when it became the foundation of the minstrel show and began to be produced industrially on a large scale. Even as this instrument found its way into rural white communities, however, the banjo remained central to African American musical performance.
Twentieth-century musicians incorporated the instrument into styles ranging from ragtime and jazz to Dixieland, bluegrass, reggae, and pop. Versatile and enduring, the banjo combines rhythm and melody into a single unmistakable sound that resonates with strength and purpose. From the earliest days of American history, the banjo’s sound has allowed folk musicians to create community and joy even while protesting oppression and injustice.
Dubois illuminates the banjo’s complicated cultural history…This lively account is not without surprises.
Dubois attempts to trace the evolution of the modern instrument from its African antecedents to the present day, prudently noting that a linear account is likely to be misleading…There is enough anecdote and lore to satisfy both the casual and the specialist reader.
Dubois relates here a history of the instrument that is both learned and entertaining. His enthusiasm shines through every page.
[A] riveting history of the banjo…While the story Dubois tells is primarily historical and sociological, it is also musical, and he never lets us forget the magical hum that distinguishes the banjo from the guitar and other stringed instruments…Dubois combines erudition with obvious enjoyment. His limpid prose easily bears the weight of his impressive research.
In his astonishing work The Banjo: America’s African Instrument, DuBois convincingly and compellingly demonstrates the instrument’s historical role as both symbol and product of diaspora and dislocation…The Banjo is a masterful accomplishment that reframes the broader cultural history of the world. By following the instrument from precontact to postmillennium, this celebrated historian has created a powerful tribute to the music, its performers, and its listeners…With its depth and power, The Banjo achieves an impact commensurate with its namesake.
This is one of the very best books on the banjo published to date…It is also one with a grand scope of the life of the banjo. If you are interested enough in the banjo to understand the instrument and its uses more fully, you cannot do better than to read this lively, superb account.
If you own a banjo you should probably own this book. But fair warning, it will probably lead you to buy more banjos, maybe even one made from a gourd. If you enjoy history on a grand but approachable scale…you will also find the book fascinating.
A wonderful offering, and a fascinating and illuminating read. This is the most comprehensive book yet about the history of the banjo. The instrument’s story is told here with such depth and detail that it comes alive. I loved reading this.
Following the strings of the banjo from Africa across the Atlantic to the Caribbean and then to the United States, Laurent Dubois provides a new perspective on the African diaspora. The Banjo: America’s African Instrument is a rich, original view of our sonic landscape. It is impossible to follow Dubois’s trail without a smile and the satisfaction of hearing the world anew.
Dubois reveals the banjo as a vital medium for the ideas and struggles of the people who make it, play it, and hear it. Combining storytelling and scholarship as seamlessly as the banjo condenses rhythm and melody, this special book is a melodious read by an extraordinary writer of Atlantic history.
- 384 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Belknap Press
From this author
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