Scholars have suggested that West Virginia’s banjo tradition arrived with black railroad workers, who left their mark in legend and in songs such as John Henry, John Hardy, and Sandy Boys. Even earlier, in the 1840s, white minstrel performers began to tour river communities, performing a parody of black life and playing banjo music learned from black musicians on instruments not unlike ones found in Africa. These performers helped to spark a national fad for the banjo. This brought a revolution in banjo manufacture. Mountain musicians first played homemade instruments, but by the late 19th century mail-order banjos were common.
Minstrel musicians played in the clawhammer or stroke style, learned from slaves. A clawhammer player plays notes with his left hand, while the right hand is held in claw fashion. The index or middle finger strikes down on the strings and the thumb pulls on the fifth (or drone) string. The thumb may also drop down and catch notes on the second string. This is called ‘‘drop thumb’’ or ‘‘double noting.’’ The banjo was also finger-picked in a variety of ways. These styles descend from late 19th-century parlor and classical music written for the banjo.
Today the dominant banjo sounds in West Virginia are clawhammer and the modern three-finger Scruggs-style bluegrass picking, popularized by Earl Scruggs while playing in the 1940s with Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys band. Louder banjos with resonator shells on the back were developed for bluegrass picking. The bluegrass banjo player takes solo breaks and plays highly developed back-up patterns or ‘‘licks’’ behind the fiddle, mandolin, and guitar, as musicians trade the lead. In old-time music, the fiddle and banjo usually attempt to blend for one sound, with the clawhammer banjo providing a syncopation to the fiddle lead.
West Virginia banjo playing came to new attention in the folk revival of the late 1960s and ’70s. Banjo players Frank George and the late Oscar Wright and Elmer Bird were known for their clawhammer playing, and commercial recordings of their music were produced. The late Don Stover from Raleigh County came to national attention in the 1960s for his innovative finger-picking style while playing with the Lilly Brothers and his own bluegrass bands. A black clawhammer banjo style has also been identified, best represented by the late John Homer ‘‘Uncle Homer’’ Walker of Summers County and the late Clarence Tross of Hardy County.
The state also produced noted banjo makers, including the late Jenes Cottrell of Clay County, who fashioned banjos from parts of 1956 Buick automobile transmissions, and the late Andy Boarman of Berkeley County, who built ‘‘Dixie Grand’’ resonator banjos. Boarman was also well known for his classical style of banjo picking.
This Article was written by Paul Gartner
Last Revised on December 17, 2010
Conway, Cecelia. African Banjo Echoes in Appalachia: A Study of Folk Traditions. Knoxville: University of Tennessee, 1995.