Most scholars of popular music use songs, artists, and clubs as the key texts and sites in their exploration of the social, cultural, political, and economic effects of music. Laurent Dubois
' new book looks at the history of an instrument, the banjo, to help us better understand American history and culture. Dubois also helps readers understand the banjo as part of an Afro-Atlantic musical heritage.
In The Banjo: Americas African Instrument
(Harvard University Press, 2015), Dubois examines how the banjo came into existence in the Americas and what it reveals about debates about American culture. Dubois book starts in Africa with a wide range of instruments that shaped the banjo. He then follows these instruments as they cross the Atlantic in the Middle Passage, winding up in the Caribbean and in North America. Sifting through travelers accounts and documents in archives, Dubois shows how the banjo brought together African peoples in the Americas, creating a familiar but new instrument and sound. He describes the banjo as the product of parallel development in which many enslaved musicians deployed similar instrument-making strategies to create what we now know as the banjo.
The story, however, does not stop there. The banjo came to represent authentic Africa American and American culture and became a key symbol in abolitionist rhetoric and minstrelsy. As a result, the banjo was not simply an instrument but a powerful marker of identity within American culture. Dubois traces how the banjo played a significant role in jazz, country, bluegrass, and folk music, symbolizing a diverse set of values and politics. From the minstrel Joel Walker Sweeney to the political activist Pete Seeger, the history of the banjo is the history of American popular culture.
Laurent Dubois is Marcello Lotti Professor of Romance Studies and History at Duke University. He is also the author of Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution
and Haiti: The Aftershocks of History
. More information about his work on the banjo can be found at Banjology
and Musical Passage
Richard Schur, Professor of English at Drury University, is the host for this podcast.