Time to Rethink the Banjo!
The banjo was, at one time, the most popular instrument in America.

Today’s Activities

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Engage

Believe it or not!  The banjo was, at one time, the most popular instrument in America, with tens of thousands manufactured and sold between 1910 and 1930.  

Listen to the banjo in action from this group of brothers performing on David Letterman.

Here’s another example in this rendition of  “Dueling Banjos.”

How do you think a banjo is different from other similar looking instruments, like a guitar, or ukelele? What things make other instruments similar, like drums and bongos? What do you think of these “families” of related instruments, and how many can you think of? Write down as many as you can think of, and how many of them you’ve seen, or heard, or can play!

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Explore

Watch this video to see the banjo in action and learn more about it’s broad history. 

Continue to the support materials after watching and read the background information.

What do some of the words mean? 

Define the following terms with information from the video and the reading:

  1. Akonting 
  2. Blue bop
  3. Bluegrass
  4. Clawhammer (also called frailing)
  5. Drumhead
  6. Folk Scare
  7. Resonator
  8. Three finger picking
  9. Tone ring
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Explain

Read the questions below and write a short response.  Feel free to use details from the video or go online to search for more information.

1. Have you heard the banjo played? In what style of music?

2. Of the various styles in the video, which do you prefer? How would you describe its timbre?

3. Which instruments do you play, or which instruments would you like to learn to play?

4. Have you ever made an instrument? What was it? Describe the parts, the process, and the results.

5. Why does Steve Huber say that a banjo is basically made from “auto parts?”

6. Would you like to learn to make an instrument? What kind would you like to make?

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Elaborate

Compare and contrast versions of two songs that share the same melody (or tune) but have very different lyrics. Play the following two recordings from the 1930s and 1940s. Take notes on the lyrics as you listen:

The Coon Creek Girls, “Banjo Pickin’ Girl” 

The Coon Creek Girls were one of the first all-female string bands on early country music radio. Lily May Ledford (1917-1985), who played banjo and sang in the group, was born and raised in the Red River Gorge area of Powell County in Eastern Kentucky. Lily May and her sister Rosie grew up on a mountain farm where they learned old-time music from their parents and siblings.. Lily May and Rosie (guitarist and vocalist for the Coon Creek Girls) were accomplished musicians, strong singers, and dynamic performers. 

Sarah Ogan Gunning, “I’m Going to Organize” 

In her song “I’m Going to Organize,” Sarah Ogan Gunning used the melody of the traditional song “Banjo Pickin’ Girl” and wrote new lyrics. Gunning (1910-1983) grew up in the coal-mining region of Eastern Kentucky during a time when coal miners were not treated fairly by coal companies. In protest of poor labor conditions, many coal miners went on strike, and sometimes their families endured long periods without an income to buy food and heat their homes.  

Q’s: What is similar about the two songs? What is different? What do you notice about the lyrics in each song? Are instruments being used? 

Q’s: How would you compare the music to the more recent videos of banjo music?

*Use evidence to support your written response

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Extend

You cannot get enough banjo — listen to an Award-Winning performance:

Steve Martin “The Crow” From Grammy-winning Album | Great Performances | PBS

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