The banjo has touched the music and lives of all kinds of Virginians. 

Banjo Breakdown

Captured in a century-old photograph, a Virginia farm woman stands rough and determined by a shack. The banjo in her hands represents a rare respite from life's woes. Given her lot, it's unlikely she thought much about her instrument or how it evolved.

But, as the Virginia Historical Society's current exhibit "The Banjo in Virginia" reveals, the five-string instrument's modern popularity owes much to Old Dominion roots.

Produced by the Blue Ridge Institute and Museum of Ferrum College, the exhibition of photographs, handmade 19th-century banjos and minstrel playbills traces the role Virginians played in the banjo's evolution. From its African origins through 300 years of slavery, war and modern prosperity, Virginia musicians famous and forgotten nurtured a rich heritage. The exhibit offers a history not widely considered but one that nonetheless deserves notice. Compact but complex, the one-gallery show will surprise those who think the banjo has little history to note.

Exhibition curator Roddy Moore of the Institute points out why Virginia and the banjo have a unique and important relationship. "Of all instruments in Virginia," Moore says, "the banjo has been the one to cross more class and cultural boundaries."

"The Banjo in Virginia" chronicles these unlikely cultural crossings as it follows the banjo in picture and story, telling the tale of the instrument's changing role. Brought to Virginia by African slaves, early stringed-gourd banjos were popular on farms in the 1700s. The banjo and its sound developed and stayed in the slave culture for decades until white Virginians saw commercial potential in the instrument during the 1830s and the minstrel tradition emerged. Mimicking slave life with blackface makeup and racist humor, minstrel troupes used banjo styles learned from slaves to gain wealth and widespread popularity through the 1800s and well into the 20th century.

Virginian Joel Sweeney became the first banjo "star" in the 1850s when his minstrel show and its "Ethiopian characters" toured Northern cities and the British Isles. Minstrel shows also entertained the Southern troops of J.E.B. Stuart, Robert E. Lee and George Pickett during the Civil War. Ironically, the racist shuck-and-jive jigs of this minstrel tradition eventually embedded the African instrument firmly in the soul of Virginia and a nation.

As war turned to uneasy peace and hard economic times, mountain folk of Southwest Virginia sought refuge in the banjo. Stark period pictures tell this aspect of the banjo's tale. A drawing of the Joe Hoy Serenade playing for a Campbell County front-porch dance in 1878 catches the eye. Gaunt and grim, the banjo-led Sam Russell Band of Smyth County performs for an unseen Depression-era house audience. Walter Edwards proudly stands with his five-string, his hat cocked and worn suit buttoned, taking a break from a hard life in 1912 Franklin County.

Not all who played banjo were mountain folk. The banjo found its way to college campuses at the turn of the century. Well-dressed young men at the University of Virginia and Randolph-Macon College women became infatuated with the banjo and formed clubs to pursue their interest. Pictures of the era capture them, their faces serious, banjos cradled on laps.

Banjo clubs faded in popularity in the '20s but the new recording industry welcomed emerging "hillbilly" bands. Virginian Dock Boggs was at the forefront. A photo portrays a wide-eyed Boggs; his 1928 Gibson banjo hangs on a gallery wall nearby. Other banjos — from the no-frills crude "tack-head" style to modern instruments, artful in design and shining with inlay — hang throughout the show to accompany other photos and stories, and to help bring past lives and times into the present.

Near the end of the exhibit, the displays move to an era where mass communication developed further, bringing broader popular recognition to the banjo and the Virginians that played it. The Stanley Brothers burst onto the scene with their bluegrass sound in the '40s. Another photo features doleful Ernest Stoneman and His Dixie Mountaineers sitting solemnly before radio microphones in 1926. Others document WRVA broadcasts of the Old Virginia Barn Dance from its Richmond studios to growing audiences. By the 1970s, instrument builders such as Carroll County's Kyle Creed begin to think of their creations as works of art.

Whether you are a fan of the instrument or not, a visit to "The Banjo in Virginia" is time well-spent. It offers viewers plenty of eye-opening information and a chance to learn much about a piece of homegrown heritage too often ignored.

"The Banjo in Virginia" is open to the public at the Virginia Historical Society, 428 N. Boulevard, Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Members are admitted free. Entry for nonmember adults is $4, students and children $2 and seniors $3. On Tuesday seniors pay $1, and entry is free to all on Mondays. There will be a lecture at noon, Jan. 24. The exhibition runs through Mar. 3.


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