The Genesis Instrument Of American Music

The banjo’s history is a musical road map followed by American culture for over three centuries. It was born in the hands of African American slaves and later transformed by European Americans. It has played a significant, if not central role, in several forms of American popular music such as ragtime, jazz, country, bluegrass and blues. Also, banjo playing formed the core of the music played in minstrel shows, America’s first indigenous popular theater. Even though this instrument, which is so clearly a major part of our popular culture, was at one time considered ubiquitous in the hands of African American slaves, no instrument from this earliest part of its history survives today.

4-String Banjo patterned after detail from
"Liberty Displaying the Arts and Sciences" (1792)

Until now, we’ve had no idea how this genesis instrument of American music sounded. The goal of Jubilee Gourd Banjos is to again hear these lost sounds. Every effort is taken to recreate the gourd bodied, African American banjo as it was known before the various European American “improvements” on it were made.

Written descriptions and illustrations of the banjo from the Eighteenth and early Nineteenth centuries have been thoroughly studied. Contemporary African instruments similar to the banjo have been examined. Nineteenth century gourd fiddles, some of which have survived, have been carefully measured and photographed.

To achieve greater authenticity in look, feel, and sound, Jubilee’s materials are pine and cypress (specifically named in period sources) salvaged from 150 to 200 year old buildings. This old growth wood is far more dense and stable than the wood found in modern lumber yards Whenever possible, the tools used to build a Jubilee Gourd banjo are limited to those available to a turn of the eighteenth century craftsman. Once planed and carved into their final form, the banjo necks are scraped smooth and finished with an 18th century style beeswax and linseed oil finish. Though this may sound primitive, the final necks are smooth to the touch and very playable. Each piece glows in a way that is unattainable with modern finishes.

4-String banjo patterned after detail
from “The Old Plantation” (Ca. 1800)

All of this research and work done at a painstaking, 18th century pace has, in the end, paid off. Pete Ross’ efforts and those of his instructor Scott Didlake equal more than 20 combined years of study and labor. Their work has resulted in the most faithful recreation of the banjo as it was known in the 18th century. Not only do the instruments match period illustrations, they are also highly playable, and produce the beautiful, once lost sound of America’s instrument in its original form.