Gourd Banjos: From Africa To The Appalachians
by George R. Gibson
Part 4: Gourd Banjos on the Frontier
There are several references to banjos and banjo playing on the frontier. None that I have found describe the banjo in detail, indicating it was commonly known. It is likely that many frontier banjos were made from gourds; however, it is also likely that some had wood frames. Sir Hans Sloane described instruments made of "hollow'd timber," so there is no reason to suppose some of these weren't present in early America. Materials for a wood frame banjo were readily available, and frontiersmen were adept at constructing artifacts from materials at hand. Also, the references do not mention the number of strings; it is possible that the number may have varied in different areas.
The gourd banjo was on the frontier by the Revolutionary era. Debow's Review, a southern magazine, published Prof. George H. Stueckrath's historical article, The Upper Country of South Carolina, in December 1859 (Volume 27, Issue 6). Stueckrath discusses the early frontier history of Greenville, South Carolina. Following are some of his comments:
"The first settlements in the Greenville District were made about the commencement of the Revolutionary war … The most of the settlers were from Virginia…but there are several citizens now living who were the first settlers …Mrs. Green was about nine years old when the battle of King's Mountain was fought [Oct. 7,1780] …Mrs. Green gives the following account of an old-fashioned 'cotton picking,' which is too good to be lost: In those good old-fashioned times when high and low, the rich and poor, were alike attired in home-spun, made by the industrious and ingenious hand of the busy housewife - when split-bottom chairs, even, was a luxury never dreamed of , and a vehicle, other than the Jersey wagon, an ox-cart, or a sled, never contemplated - the neighbors in the various settlements would meet alternately at each other's house to pick the seed out of the cotton and prepare it for the wheel. These occasions presented a favorable opportunity to 'the young folks' to show their preference for each other, and was attended with much merriment. After the evening's labors were finished, they would join in a regular old-fashioned Virginia reel, and keep time with flying feet to the delightful strains drawn from a gourd banjo."
The cotton referenced by Mrs. Green was grown in frontier gardens for "home-spun" clothing. Picking the seeds from the cotton was quite a chore. The frontier was a great leveler of social classes; neighbor had to depend on neighbor for many things, including defense against Indians. Steuckrath reports: "Mr. Hite … was one of the first settlers of the Greenville District … about the commencement of the revolution Mr. Hite and most of his family were massacred by a band of this savage tribe [Cherokees]." The "high and the low, the rich and the poor" were not segregated as they were in Tidewater Virginia. Mrs. Green's description of the courting ritual for "young folks" sounds much like frolics featuring the banjo in eastern Kentucky. These were mostly affairs for young people to meet, play games, dance to the banjo, and socialize. I am convinced the banjo tradition in the mountains had its inception in the courting rituals and dances of young people of the "lower classes" in Maryland and Virginia.
The banjo was in Knoxville, Tennessee, by 1798. Robert M. Coates quotes James Weir in The Outlaw Years: "Rum shops lined the streets. 'I stood aghast!' wrote James Weir, who visited the town in 1798. He saw men jostling, singing, swearing; women yelling from the doorways; half-naked niggers playing on their 'banjies' while the crowd whooped around them…. 'The town was confused with a promiscuous throng of every denomination' - blanket-clad Indians, leather shirted woodsmen, gamblers hard-eyed and vigilant - 'My soul shrank back.' The whole town was roaring,"
The banjo was in Wheeling, West Virginia, by 1806. Wheeling was a wild frontier town at that time, with many taverns. Epstein quotes from Travels in America by Thomas Ashe:
"In 1806 Thomas Ashe visited a ball in Wheeling, where music was provided by 'two bangies played by Negroes … and a lute … [played by] a Chickasaw.' "
There were many African Americans on the early frontier. Several Indian tribes today have a pronounced African American heritage. The interpreter for the Shawnees at the siege of Boonesborough in 1778 was Pompey, an African American. The first person inside the fort to be killed was London, a slave who volunteered to go outside the fort to extinguish a fire that was threatening a cabin. The first settler in what is now Hazard, Kentucky had slaves. Following is what John Mack Faragher, in Daniel Boone, had to say about slaves at Boonesborough:
"Slaves were another important component of Boonesborough society. There were a number of slave families who should be counted among the settlers, although few found their way into the public record. One who did was a man known as Uncle Monk, owned by James Estill, who arrived with his family in 1775. Monk was one of the most valued men at Boonesborough, a superior hunter and marksman, an accomplished musician who played at all of the dances and frolics, and a blacksmith who knew how to make gunpowder from sulphur, saltpeter, and charcoal, an art he taught Boone …"
Hans Nathan, in Dan Emmett and the Rise of early Negro Minstrelsy, Quotes C. J. Rogers, manager of the Cincinnati Circus Company:
"…[Emmett] during the season of 1840, was a member of our orchestra, and while we were traveling in Western Virginia found a banjo player by the name of 'Ferguson,' who was a very ignorant person and 'nigger all over' except in color… Emmett ran up shouting: Ferguson will work on canvas, and play the banjo, for ten dollars a month… Ferguson was the greatest card we had…During this season Dan Emmett learned to play banjo."
Ferguson was mountaineer; there is a remote possibility he may have had free African American ancestors. Heinegg, in Free Africans in North Carolina and Virginia, lists a William Ferguson as the head of household of "8 free colored" in Wilkes County, North Carolina, in 1820. Wilkes County is near western Virginia.
John P. Hale, born in 1824, reminisced about his boyhood in the 1830s in western Virginia (now West Virginia) in Trans-Allegheny Pioneers. He describes items to be packed for a fall hunt:
"At the appointed time one or more wagons would start out with bedding, linen, etc… a banjo and a fiddle …"
Charles A. Johnson wrote, in 1938, A Narrative History of Wise County, Virginia. He was associated with the office of the Clerk of Court in Wise County for some forty years. He assembled material about early Wise County history, and consulted with people who were present when Wise County was formed. There was a large gathering on the first session of court in 1856. Johnson describes some events of that day:
"On a mossy boulder west of the little courthouse were a younger set, eating, drinking and making merry, to the tune of 'Sourwood Mountain' ringing from an old fiddler's violin…Out near the spring old time hoedown dancing to the tune of 'Shortnin' Bread,' rattling off from the catgut strings of a homemade banjo…"
There is an early reference to the banjo in Kentucky. Dr. Daniel Drake, in Pioneer Life in Kentucky, discussed his boyhood on a frontier farm near Maysville, Kentucky, in the 1790s. Mr. Rector, a neighbor whom Dr. Drake refers to as "Old Leather Stocking," depended mostly upon on hunting and trapping for his livelihood. Dr. Drake recounts: "Deer hunting seemed to have been Old Leather stocking's cherished pursuit. Its results were clothing, food, & fiddle strings for the Banjo." Unfortunately, Dr. Drake does not describe the type of banjo for which Mr. Rector made strings. It seems likely, however, that it was a gourd banjo. Mr. Rector had migrated to Kentucky from near Winchester, Virginia. Dr. Drake commented: "What he [Mr. Rector] said about the Valley of Virginia indicated that it had, at the middle of the last century , rather a rude, vulgar, and turbulent population."
William Byrd was one of a party surveying the line between Virginia and North Carolina in 1728. He states the following in the History of The Dividing Line:
"We had encamped so early that we found time in the evening to walk near a half mile in the woods. There we came upon a family of mulattoes that called themselves free, though by the shyness of the master of the house, who took care to keep least in sight, their freedom seemed a little doubtful. It is certain many slaves shelter themselves in this part of the world, nor will any of their righteous neighbors discover them … Nor were these worthy borderers content to shelter runaway slaves, but debtors and criminals have often met with like indulgence."
These pioneer North Carolinians sound much like the "rude, vulgar and turbulent population" Dr. Drake describes as being resident around Winchester, Virginia in 1750. Both Dr. Drake and William Byrd had an upper class view that colored their perception of frontier families.
Freed slaves were welcomed on a frontier where neighbor had to depend on neighbor. Many of the "mulattoes" married into white families. There would have been no class inhibition for banjo playing among children of these frontier families. There were also slaves on the early frontier - they lived in much closer intimacy with their masters than was common on big plantations.
Charles Doe visited Danville, Virginia, near the North Carolina border, in 1850. Following are his observations in a letter dated Feb. 22, 1850 (Archives and Manuscripts, Accession # 38743, Library of Virginia):
"Their [blacks] national instrument is the banjo; some of them play on the violin. The whites play the banjo a great deal, at least as much as northerners do the flute. But the flute is hardly known here."
Although Doe does not describe the banjos whites played, it is likely that some may have been made from gourds.
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