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The Banjo in West Virginia

By Gerald Milnes

Clarence Tross (1884-1977) of Hardy County learned most of his tunes from his father, Andy (b. 1850), who was born a slave in 1850. Photo by Tom Evans, courtesy of Hardy County Public Library, Marjorie Zirk Collection.

The five-string banjo is a symbol of the Appalachian Mountains—from the older “plunky” sound of the old-time clawhammer style to the more modern, driving sound of the three-finger Scruggs, or bluegrass, style. The banjo provides the soundtrack for many festivals, family reunions, and community homecomings in the Mountain State. 

We’ve had our share of top-notch players who’ve gone on to recorded fame; people like Don Stover, Ray Goins, and Buddy Griffin are well known. Opry star Grandpa Jones advanced his career in 1938 playing over WMMN radio in Fairmont. Many players were unknown outside their communities, playing just at home, at family gatherings, or for local square dances. While collecting old-time music over 40 years, I’ve encountered many players who rarely played publically. 

Some say the banjo is the only “truly American instrument,” but that’s not quite correct. The banjos of today have greatly evolved from the crude homemade instruments that first found their way into what is now West Virginia. In fact, we can be sure that instruments played here—beginning as early as the late 18th century—were a far cry from the modern factory and custom-made banjos of today. Most of these early banjos probably were African in style, made by stretching a skin across the large end of a gourd or calabash with a protruding neck.

Those first banjos originated in West Africa. Actual banjos—or the concepts of how to make and play them—were brought across the Atlantic Ocean in slave ships. Early references in this country call the instrument a “banza” or “bangil,” which evolved into the colloquial “banjer,” noted in the Maryland Gazette in 1754. In 1781, speaking about African slaves, Thomas Jefferson said, “The instrument proper to them is the Banjar which they brought hither from Africa.” Many older West Virginians, like Frank George of Roane County, still refer to the instrument as a “banjer.”

In his classic book Trans-Allegheny Pioneers, Kanawha County historian John P. Hale described family slaves playing the banjo in the very early 19th century. Numerous early newspapers describe runaway slaves as banjo players. Considering that hundreds of slaves were brought to work in the Kanawha County salt industry in the early 1800s, it’s a sure bet that banjo music was introduced then to the Kanawha Valley. In pioneer days, the salt works that stretched from Malden 10 miles east to Charleston were a major destination for early white settlers, so it’s possible that the African style of banjo playing—notable by its down-stroke clawhammer style—started spreading throughout the region some 200 years ago. Historically, musicians have typically shared their art across color lines even as the general public has maintained segregated societies.

This African down-stroke method is still the predominant style of West Virginia’s old-time banjo players today. But there are other old-time styles. Some, like Clyde Case, played with a two- or three-finger up-picking style. Jimmy Dowdle of Webster County played a combination up-pick with a down brush. Mingo County’s Charlie Blevins played a “loping style” to back up his singing. Clyde Howes of Upshur County played popular old-time tunes around the lumber camps years ago in an up-picking style.

Today, the banjo is rarely played by African-Americans. One reason for this is the rise of minstrel shows in the mid-1800s. At minstrel shows, white performers, in black face, mocked and belittled all forms of African-American folk culture, including their love of the banjo. Minstrel shows were largely big-city entertainment, so, in some areas, such as rural West Virginia, African-Americans proudly played banjos into the late 20th century.

In the 1960s and 1970s, there were still a good number of African-American banjo players in central West Virginia and at the base of the eastern panhandle—in Hardy, Grant, and Pendleton counties. Clarence Tross was a Hardy County player of note who passed away in 1977. Uncle Homer Walker may have been the last black banjo player in southern West Virginia. He performed widely at music festivals in the 1960s and 1970s.

Old banjo player “Uncle Bud” Sandy of Braxton County learned “John Henry” from an African-American banjo player in the Burnsville area. Mose Coffman and Dena Knicely both knew of and learned tunes from black banjo players in Greenbrier County. Mose spoke of two “Johnson” brothers who were excellent fiddle and banjo players in that area. Dena and Mose credited black fiddle and banjo players as the source for the tune “Greenbrier River.” By the way, women banjo players were far from unusual. Other exceptional West Virginia banjo players have included “Aunt Jennie” Wilson of Logan County and Gussie King, Sylvia O’Brien, Phoeba Parsons, and Ruth Lyons, all of Clay and Calhoun counties.

Most older banjo players in the Mountain State started out on homemade instruments. The only evidence of African-style gourd banjos survives through early American artwork as time and use have turned the originals to dust. These were replaced by homemade hard-rimmed banjos of all sorts. Rims could be made from wooden hoops, coffee cans, or lard buckets. They were covered with heads using everything from flour pokes to groundhog and cat hides. Hand-carved wooden necks were fitted, and gut strings were standard. Woody Simmons of Randolph County made homemade strings by “raveling” out the wire of old screen doors to put on his childhood banjo, which his father made. The metal fret wires across the neck that change the pitch were not seen on banjos until the 1880s. Before that and well into the 20th century, the strings were noted on blank necks, like fiddles. The first tune most older banjo players learned—usually on fretless banjos—was “Old Man, Old Man, Can I Have Your Daughter?”

You can read the rest of this article in this issue of Goldenseal, available in bookstores, libraries or direct from Goldenseal.