This guide provides information on discovering materials at the Library of Congress--primarily in the American Folklife Center--about African Americans who play the banjo. Recordings made in Appalachia, the Deep South, Mississippi Delta, and other regions provide documentation of this uniquely African-American instrument. Though enslaved people could not bring physical instruments like the akonting to the United States, they were able to reimagine their indigenous instruments using materials found in the new world. These ancestral instruments are the basis for the modern banjo and its musical descendants: the blues, gospel, old-time, bluegrass, and country music. In the United States, banjo players often share musical space with fiddle players. Therefore, references to fiddle players frequently appear in this topical guide. The Library of Congress (LOC) is home to a range of resources related to the history of this important lineage of African-American music, and this guide provides links to selected materials from the online catalog, digital collections, public programs, and external resources related to African-American banjo (and fiddle) music.
Many American Folklife Center (AFC) collections include documentation of oral histories and personal recollections. Examples include the Cecelia Conway and Tommy Thompson Recording Project, through which the duo collected field recordings of African-American musicians, especially banjo players, in North Carolina from January to March 1974. In this guide, researchers will find resources on digital collections that reference African-American banjo players, selected books and journal articles that outline the history and culture of African-American banjo players, and links to related field recordings, commercial recordings, and public programs held at the Library of Congress. Though not the focus of this guide, many of these resources also include examples African-American fiddle players.
This resource guide is centered on collections in the American Folklife Center but also includes resources from the Moving Image Research Center, Recorded Sound Research Center, Prints and Photographs Division, and other locations at the Library of Congress. However, it is not a comprehensive guide to all African-American banjo players or folk musicians. For greater context on African-American music at large, it is highly recommended that researchers explore research guides on Music in the United States, Early African-American Music, Early African-American Sacred Music, and Jazz Research at the Library of Congress. Researchers interested in banjo recordings more broadly can consult A List of Banjo Recordings collected by the AFC before 1978 (NOTE: this list is an archived web resource that is no longer updated).
This guide highlights aspects of Black life and examples of African-American banjo players within the collection materials at the LOC. The author has excluded or obscured recordings, texts, and manuscripts from the Library’s collections when they depict African-American bodies as objects with no regard for their inner lives. Moreover, each item in this guide is accompanied by a description focused on its most pertinent aspects to the study of African-American banjo players.
The LOC holds many resources related to the practice of blackface minstrelsy in which imitations of African-American banjo players were a key component. However, such materials are beyond the scope of this guide, which privileges the experiences and images of Black people who once lived or are currently living. In the case of commercial recordings, efforts were made to exclude certain materials on the basis of duplication and/or relevance to this guide. In these cases, materials that appear multiple times in the collections were chosen in the following order of preference: materials that center Black lives and then the items’ earliest date of creation/ publication as they appear in the Library’s collections. Excluded resources may be found in the pre-determined searches that are situated throughout this guide.
The following guide offers general research strategies for use of the American Folklife Center collections.