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Welcome to my website, intended as a repository of articles (and, gradually, other materials
) I have written about the history of the banjo and about topics in which the banjo has figured prominently, such as blackface minstrelsy and African American musical traditionsThese articles are based on scholarly research done over the years, starting in the early 1970s.  Much new research on the banjo and its roots, by a variety of other scholars as well as myself, has been done in the recent past and is currently being done. I am editing a book of essays, containing much of this newer research, to be published by the University of Illinois Press, hopefully sometime this year.

Robert B. Winans
Professor Emeritus of American Literature and Folklore
Gettysburg College (retired)

Museum Banjo Exhibit
(now long since ended, but we are hoping in the near future to create an online version of the exhibit)
Curated by Greg Adams, Pete Ross, and myself, the exhibit, entitled "Making Music: The Banjo, Baltimore and Beyond," opened at the Baltimore Museum of Industry on April 1, 2014 and ran until the end of October. The main purpose of this exhibit was to highlight the role of William Boucher Jr, the earliest known commercial maker of banjos, and the city of Baltimore in the history of the banjo. It presented historical context up to Boucher's arrival in Baltimore (from Germany) in the early 1840s: the banjo's antecedents in West Africa, its early development in the Caribbean, and references to its playing by enslaved African Americans in the 18th and early 19th centuries, which cluster in the Chesapeake Bay area. The popularity of blackface minstrelsy, especially in Baltimore, is introduced as background for Boucher's decision to make banjos. The exhibit then focuses on Boucher's career, with detailed information on over a dozen of his banjos on display. A number of workshops, a concert, and other public programming were associated with the exhibit, including a family reunion of Boucher descendants.

Published Articles/Essays  (For other materials, see Navigation sidebar at left)

"The Folk, the Stage, and the Five-String Banjo in the Nineteenth Century," The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 89, No. 354 (Oct. - Dec., 1976), pp. 407-437.
This article presented the first modern, scholarly description of the minstrel banjo style, and then related it to traditional banjo playing.  It has been criticized at times for not taking into account African American banjo traditions, but at the time it was written, very little was known or had been published about those traditions.  Subsequent research and publications of mine, included on this site, were my effort to correct this omission.

Used with permission of
The American Folklore Society, Timothy Lloyd, Executive Director (2009).

"Black Banjo Tradition in Virginia and West Virginia,"  Folklore and Folklife in Virginia:  Journal of the Virginia Folklore Society, Vol. 1 (1979), pp. 7-30.
Based on field work with a dozen African American banjo players, supplemented with historical data on African American banjoists from Dena Epstein's pioneering article, "The Folk Banjo: A Documentary History," Ethnomusicology, 19 (1975).

"Black Instrumental Music Traditions in the Ex‑Slave Narratives," Black Music Research Newsletter, 5, No. 2 (Spring 1982), pp. 2-5. 

This brief article, also reprinted in 1990 in the Black Music Research Journal (Vol. 10, No. 1 (Spring, 1990), pp. 43-53), is a summary of research based on interviews collected by the WPA in the 1930s (and published in the 1970s).  BMRJ has a policy of not granting permission to post articles from the journal on a website such as this. The article (in its 1990 reprint form) is available on JSTOR, a database of articles in scholarly journals.  Clicking on the linked title will take you to the article on JSTOR, but you will be able to see the full article only if you have access to an institution that subscribes to JSTOR.  Nearly all college and university libraries subscribe to this service; it is unfortunately rare to find a public library that subscribes.  If you do not have access to such a library and you really want to read the article, send me an email at rwinans@wildblue.net and I will email you a copy.  On the other hand, I have discovered that someone else has posted this article online here.

"Early Minstrel Show Music, 1843-1852," in Musical Theater in America:  Papers and Proceedings of the Conference on Musical Theater in America, Glenn Loney (ed.), (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1984), pp. 71-97. Copyright © 1984 by the American Society for Theatre Research, The Sonneck Society, and the Theatre Library Association.   Reproduced with permission of Greenwood Publishing Group, Inc., Westport, CT. This article was also reprinted in Inside the Minstrel Mask: Readings in Nineteenth-Century Blackface Minstrelsy, ed. Annemarie Bean, James V. Hatch, and Brooks McNamara  (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1996).

This essay, based on research in minstrel show playbills and sheet music, constitutes the complete album liner notes that should have been published with the LP record album, The Early Minstrel Show, New World Records (NW 338), 1985 (reissued in 1998 as a CD), if they had not run out of money to publish extensive liner notes.  It is an anaysis of the instrumentation of the early minstrel troupes and the nature of the most popular music they performed Ideally, the New World Records CD should be listened to while reading this essay, since nearly all of the music discussed in the essay is performed on the CD.

"The Banjo: From Africa to Virginia and Beyond," in Instruments of the Blue Ridge and Their Makers: An Exhibit of the Blue Ridge Institute Museum (Exhibition Catalog).  Ferrum, VA: Blue Ridge Institute, 1993.

A kind of thumbnail history of the banjo, with emphasis on Virginia.  Some of the discussion of African roots has been superceded by more recent research, which is also uncovering more about early Caribbean development toward the modern banjo.

Used with permission of J. Roderick Moore, Director, Blue Ridge Institute.

"Minstrel and Classic Banjo: American and English Connections," co-authored with Elias J. Kaufman, American Music, Vol. 12, No. 1 (Spring, 1994), pp. 1-30.

Primarily about the American banjoists who visited (or moved to) England from 1842 to the early 20th century, from Joel Sweeney to Alfred Farland, and the influence they had on the development of banjo playing in England.  Inevitably, it also chronicles banjo developments in the USA in this period.  It also briefly notes a reverse influence by the mid to late 20th century: American banjoists playing English banjo compositions, and English banjoists coming to America.

From American Music. Copyright 1994 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Used with permission of the University of Illinois Press. You may not reproduce, distribute, transmit, modify, create derivative works from, display or in any way exploit this material in whole or in part without the written permission of the copyright holder.  For more information about journals published by UIP, go to http://www.press.uillinois.edu/journals/index.html