Blog 7, Noah Thomas

(National Museum of African American History and Culture)

Circa 1859 Gourd Banjo. Head of Banjo produced from a dried gourd, with some sort of animal skin stretched over it (likely goat, or possibly deer). Interestingly, the neck includes frets, which traditionally were not used in early banjos. Unknown creator, nearly all slave instruments produced by long forgotten creators, and passed within and across generations.

The earliest music I have memories of is bluegrass and banjo music, which my dad would play out of old cassettes. This folk music is nameless, it belongs to everyone, passing along musicians and generations. I’ve always been drawn to this freedom, which defies our modern ideas of freedom through ownership: it’s not anyone’s creation, no one has control over it, rights to it; it is free for whatever use, however the musician wants to sing it or play it. Music would have been one of the most fundamental social connectors and freedoms of expression for bondspeople, who either would’ve inherited their instrument or built it themselves. It’s brilliant how simple a gourd banjo is, but it’s sound is so unique and expressive. The materials they were constructed of, and how they were constructed, are so characteristic of the creator’s time and place, speaking a lot to their lives. Attached is a traditional banjo player, Clifton Hicks, playing a recreated gourd banjo where you can here it’s unique sound. He also has videos where he constructs banjos, from more modern styles to the earliest gourd ones, and plenty more videos of fret and fretless folk banjo music.

One issue of representing these banjos in there modern state is that this banjo here is missing many parts, it’s decrepit (for lack of a better word) state signifies crudeness, when these banjos in their hayday would’ve been quite beautiful creations. Museums would really need accurate recreations alongside the historic artifacts to give a clear picture of what they would’ve looked like, and more importantly, include audio clips of traditional gourd banjo music being played to convey it’s unique sound and the musician’s playstyle as opposed to modern banjo sounds and styles.


One thought on “Blog 7, Noah Thomas

  1. What a great find! I really enjoyed reading about your object label and your personal reflections about bluegrass and banjo music. Your label encapsulates a strong physical description of the banjo, but also importantly acknowledges the significance of this instrument as it passed through generations. I thought that your reflections about the freedom of music to be very profound. My cousin is a blues harmonica player and there is something really transcending about that style of music. Than you for sharing the additional information about banjos– I knew so little about them! I also think your critiques of how this object should be presented is important– I agree that it would be helpful if the museum included additional imagery or even an audio demonstration to accompany this object on display. Thank you for such a thought-provoking read!

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