The Extinction of the Black Banjo in the United States -- 1900 - 1930

Appalachian Music Fellowship 

Final Activity Report 

Jim Carrier 

My Appalachian Music Fellowship study in June 2009 was in furtherance of developing a film documentary dealing with the extinction of the Black Banjo that occurred in the United States during the period 1900-1930. 


For three hundred years -- from the arrival of African slaves in Virginia to the dawn of the 20th Century – the banjo was universally thought of as an African American instrument. It was common and accepted knowledge, for three centuries, that the banjo was invented by, played by, and associated with blacks, either directly or through blackfaced minstrelsy. But over the course of the next half century, the black banjo tradition virtually disappeared in the U.S. My Music Fellowship supported research was directed at investigating why this happened. 

Work in the Berea Archives 

My findings, after a month in the archives, were informed as much by what I didn’t find as what I did. For reasons that I will explain shortly, the record is largely mute; there is no smoking gun. But, as in all good archives, clues were found in anecdotes, footnotes and glimpses of the wider historical tableau on which this story played. By casting a wider net through Berea College’s library, faculty, various online resources, and sources and interviews suggested by the archive staff, I was able to sketch a conclusion. It is this: Black banjo playing, and our knowledge of black banjo history, all but disappeared because of a sequence of cultural and racial “filters.” Beginning with the arrival of slaves on American shores and accelerating with the rise of mass media, these filters gradually silenced the sound and memory of the black banjo. The final extinction, I discovered at Berea, occurred in just 30 years, from 1900 to 1930. By the 1940s, Americans assumed that the banjo originated with white Appalachians.

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