The Minstrel Show & the Banjo

This morning, I watched a segment called “Blackface” on the Sunday CBS Morning Show.  The show accurately portrayed this time in history as “Unmasking the racist history of blackface”.  It reveals the sad and disturbing portrayal of racist stereotype in arts and music in the early 1900s.

Minstrel Show Program from the Early 1900s

I was inspired to write something further here, since I have spent many hours studying the history of music and the origins of music.  With the permission of selected public libraries, I was able to utilize a digital collection of historical sheet music  Those galleries can be viewed on my website’s classroom at  In addition, you can take a history tour of the origin of the banjo and guitar and some of the artists who have played these instruments.  Of course, this vast subject matter is a work in progress.

Old-Time 4 String Banjo

The history of “blackface” and the minstrel show was a disturbing and unacceptable portrayal of how blacks were perceived to live in America.  The minstrel show “blackface” actors were both white and black. The CBS program reveals that black minstrel performers dressed in “blackface” masks were given a platform to perform that was acceptable to the white audience.  Acceptable today?  absolutely not.  Yet, it was a part of our history and something that we all should learn from and maintain an open dialog about.

As a banjo player, I find it ironic that many of today’s great banjo players are white Americans and many people incorrectly believe the banjo to be a traditional American instrument .  The banjo originated in northwest Africa and through the slave trade was brought to the United States via the Caribbean trade route via the West Indies.  It transformed from a frailing or old-time style playing style to the three-finger style that Earl Scruggs and others have made popular today.  However, the banjo is a black ancestral instrument.

Old Novelty Banjo

Rhiannon Giddens, a founding member or the Carolina Chocolate Drops, provides a succinct explanation of the history of this wonderful instrument and it’s origin in a clip entitiled “On the Lost History of the Black Banjo“.

You can also learn more by watching David Holt’s interview with Ms. Giddens.

The Minstrel show era ended long ago in the 1920s and the banjo was one of those instruments used in those productions.   Today, thankfully the banjo lives on.


About fretmentor

Born in Detroit, Michigan, David F. Jakubiak has been involved in music since the age of 7, beginning as a clarinet player and then at 9 turning his attention to stringed instruments. He earned trophies in group talent competitions while a student at the University of Michigan. The instructor earned a BA degree in Organizational Psychology from the University of Michigan and a Masters in Public Administration at the University of Kansas. At college, he also studied classical music and music history. His passion is teaching music and in performing as a musician. In addition to on-stage performances, David has played in various venues from outdoor festivals to small nightclubs. He plays, performs and teaches various styles of music, including rock, pop, blues, jazz, classical, country and bluegrass styles. He performs and teaches acoustic and electric guitar, five-string banjo, and mandolin. His styles range from Scruggs, melodic, Reno and old-time style on banjo, to finger-style and flat-picking technique on guitar, to various styles of mandolin. For over 45 years, Mr. Jakubiak has taught all age groups, taking a personal interest in each student to ensure that they receive the attention and lesson plans that meet their needs and interests. His lessons and instructional materials place a strong emphasis on the practical use or music theory to ensure that the student understands the instrument and learns how to improvise to develop their own style. Mr Jakubiak teaches group and studio classes, webcam lessons over the internet, and individual private lessons to students of various ages. He has compiled and produced eight instructional books on CD as well as numerous instrumental arrangements. David has written for Banjo Newsletter, a monthly publication for the banjo enthusiast and has published an article in Issue #37 of the Fretboard Journal. He is the founder of To contact David Jakubiak, please feel free to e-mail him at david AT (substitute the @ sign for the word AT)
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