George Stimpson

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How did banjo originate?

Banjo, the name of the small stringed musical instrument with a body like a tambourine and a neck like a guitar, has given etymologists much trouble. The banjo was probably patterned after a crude native [page 56] African instrument. A primitive type of banjo, made with gourds and grass strings, is still used by the natives on the Guinea coast. It Senegambian name is bania. In his Notes on Virginia, written in 1787, Thomas Jefferson referred to it as an instrument "proper to the Blacks, which they brought hither from Africa." The spelling banjo is not recorded earlier than about 1800. Before that the instrument was called variously banjore, banjer and banshaw. These terms are believed to be Negro corruptions of bandore, which is the name of a guitar-lutelike instrument and which is indirectly derived from Greek pandoura and Latin pandura, the names of ancient stringed instru­ments fabled to have been invented by Pan. Banjore and banjer were probably softened by the Negroes into banjo. The term, however, may have been influenced by the native African name. It may be the result of a fusion of banjore and bania. Words often undergo queer transformations in spelling, pronunciation and meaning when they pass from one language to another. The story that the banjo was invented by and named after a versatile Irish-American, Joseph Sweeney, who played so many different instruments that he was called Band Joe or Bandjo, is facetious and not to be taken seriously. Whether of African or American origin, the banjo became a favorite instrument for plantation melodies and as we know it today it was evolved and developed among the Negroes of the South.