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BMI shows Baltimore was the heart of banjo production

Pete Ross says that a survey of printed material

in the United States between the 1730s and the 1830s turns up 58 different references to the banjo-and 57 of those citations describe the instrument as being played by black Americans. Ross, one of the three curators for the exhibit

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Making Music: The Banjo in Baltimore & Beyond

, now at the Baltimore Museum of Industry, repeats this, to be sure we understand that as late as the 1830s, this instrument was played almost exclusively by Africans and their direct descendants.

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Moreover, Ross adds, much of that activity was right here in Maryland. When the Waverly instrument maker put each of those 58 references on a map, now hanging on a museum wall as part of the BMI exhibit, a plurality were clustered around the Chesapeake Bay, while the others were widely scattered about the Eastern U.S.

The instrument those early musicians played looked quite different from today's banjos. The bodies were made from large, hollow gourds with one side sliced off and covered with an animal hide. The necks were long sticks, usually rounded in Africa and flattened in the Caribbean. By the Civil War, slightly more than three decades later, most banjos built in America looked very much like the instrument we know today: a large, backless tambourine for the body and a guitar-like neck. How, where, and why did this sudden transition take place?

That's the question this small but fascinating exhibit sets out to answer. The surprising solution to the "where?" riddle turns out to be Baltimore. The "how?" and "why?" puzzles are more complicated, but the history of the banjo has a lot to tell us about the larger history of the United States. For it was William Boucher Jr., a German immigrant running a music store on East Baltimore Street, who perfected the mass manufacture of banjos, and it was the troubling phenomenon of the minstrel show that spurred the mass demand for the instrument.

"The banjo has been in America for 400 years," says Smithsonian archivist Greg Adams, another curator, "and it's only here because of slavery. For the first 200 of those years, the Western Hemisphere banjo is an African-American instrument based on the African model: gourd bodies, animal hides, and stick necks. But the commercial demand created by minstrelsy led to a radical redesign within a few decades."

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When 20th-century musicologists traveled to Africa to search for the banjo's ancestor there, the quest was complicated not by a lack of worthy candidates but by an excess. Dozens and dozens of instruments featuring skin-covered gourd bodies and string-supporting stick necks have been found, all of which bear a clear resemblance to the American banjo but none of which are an exact match.

When these instruments arrived in the Caribbean, the gourd bodies were preserved, but the necks were flattened and carved to imitate European guitars and violins. A handsome example from Haiti, collected in 1841, begins the exhibit at the BMI. Most banjos in the United States at the time were probably quite similar. So how did the dramatic change take place?

As so often happens, white Americans found themselves attracted to black American music and uncomfortable about the attraction.

How could this music made by former slaves and their children be so compelling

, the prejudiced listeners wondered,

if the musicians weren't fully human?

Some white entertainers began blackening their faces with burnt cork and playing African-American songs with African-American instruments, including the banjo. By turning it into a joke, these entertainers allowed bigoted audiences to enjoy a music that they otherwise might not have admitted that they liked.

This was the minstrel show, a fad that became so popular that it was a staple of American vaudeville houses from the 1840s through the 1920s. The banjo played a central role in these productions, and soon professional and amateur musicians alike were clamoring for sturdy, reliable instruments. Banjo makers popped up all over the U.S., but the most successful ones were strung out along Baltimore Street, intermingled with the vaudeville houses, according to Ross' revealing map for the exhibit. Boucher may or may not have been the first mass manufacturer, but he was certainly the most successful, for more of his advertisements survived, as have more of his banjos.

"If you're a slave or a sharecropper playing a dance in a cabin," Adams points out, "you don't have to be that loud. But if you're a minstrel in a big Baltimore theater, you have to make a much louder sound. You want an instrument that's easy to maintain, one that can be adjusted if the humidity slackens the skin."

"From a manufacturing perspective," adds the third curator, Hampstead folklorist Bob Winans, "the challenge in building banjos is fitting the neck to the body. If you're using a gourd for the body, each neck has to be custom-made to fit. But if you have a standardized frame for the banjo body, that simplifies the process. If each body has the same radius, you can build the necks and bodies separately. And a round wooden rim is something they're used to making for drums, grain shifters, and cheese molds."

The main room in the new exhibit has nearly a dozen 19th-century banjos built by Boucher and another Baltimore manufacturer, Levi Brown. More than 160 years later, these instruments are still handsome artifacts, with geometric designs, violin-like swirls, stencil images of hoop-skirt women, and even the name of a Confederate soldier worked into the instruments.

Few Marylanders have been aware that their state played such a major role in the history of the banjo. Not even Boucher's great-granddaughter Winifred Jackson, who was on hand for the opening. "I didn't know any of this till my cousin researched our genealogy recently," she confessed. "I don't think our family was proud to be associated with an instrument maker. But I think it's phenomenal. I wish my father had talked about it more."

Making Music: The Banjo in Baltimore & Beyond

is on exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Industry through Oct. 18.

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