'Banjo' Refrain a Joyless Pick; Preachy Texts Detract from Works

Article excerpt


What do black slaves from West Africa, white socialites from the Gilded Age and the stars of the TV show "Hee Haw" have in common? The banjo, arguably the most American of all musical instruments.

This mainstay of bluegrass music turns out to have a long history mired in social turmoil, or so the curators of a new exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery of Art repeatedly insist in this display of artworks, books, furniture and a few old banjos.

"Picturing the Banjo," organized by Penn State's Palmer Museum of Art, is a preachy, academic show. Dancing minstrels and strumming maidens, the exhibit instructs us, aren't just joyful music makers. They are symbols of racism and sexism.

It's tempting to lay such a heavy trip on the banjo because it came to be played by just about everyone. This cousin of the guitar originated as an African instrument brought by slaves to this country. It was first called a banza, banja or bandore. Black performers and black-faced white ones in traveling minstrel shows introduced the rustic instrument to urban audiences.

Mass production of the banjo in the late 1800s boosted its popularity. A large cross section of Americans, including cowboys, suffragettes, Southerners and Harlem jazz musicians, learned how to pick and strum.

A wide range of artists were equally fascinated with the banjo and its players. As the exhibit reveals, folk artists, illustrators and early photographers depicted the instrument, as did famous painters such as Winslow Homer, Mary Cassatt and Norman Rockwell.

The earliest known painting of the banjo is "The Old Plantation," a wedding scene from the 1700s that shows a black slave playing an instrument made from a gourd. By the early 1800s, homemade banjos had morphed into the familiar long-necked instruments.

That an African instrument developed by slaves became an American icon is reason enough to celebrate. Rather than appreciate the musical invention and skill of these banjo-playing pioneers, however, the curators harp about injustice - as if it weren't obvious - in pictures of black slaves serenading white audiences.

Banjo players in such artworks, we are told, are "racially stereotyped emblems facilitating the entertainment of a master class."

Images of female banjo players in the late 19th century are similarly scrutinized with an emphasis on gender. These smiling young women aren't labeled as contented or exceptional musicians, as evident in the paintings and photographs, but as early feminists representing "evolving conceptions of sexuality, autonomy and selfhood." Apparently, girls don't just want to have fun.

The exhibit text goes on to explain that banjos were deemed more appropriate for women than guitars, which required them to sit in an "unfeminine" position. …