· Bruce Ambacher, Ph.D., College of Information Studies, University of Maryland
· James F. Bollman, Collector, Author, Banjo Historian*
· Rex Ellis, Ph.D., National Museum of African American History and Culture (serving in a personal capacity)
· John Huerta, General Counsel, Smithsonian Institution (retired), Collector
· Kari Kraus, Ph.D., College of Information Studies, University of Maryland
· Darcy Kuronen, Curator of Musical Instruments, Museum of Fine Art, Boston
· Thomas Scheinfeldt, Ph.D., Managing Director, Center for History and New Media, George Mason University
· Peter Szego, Early Banjo Scholar, Collector
· Robert B. Winans, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, Gettysburg College, Banjo Scholar, Collector
*Bollman was the only Advisory Board member unable to attend the actual Two-Day Meeting, but did receive all correspondence regarding the Two-Day Meeting along with other Advisory Board members.
Focus on the banjo (the test case)
The initial exchange between Advisory Board members began with the questions, “Why the banjo?" and "Why the Banjo Sightings Database?” Discussions led to at least two overarching impressions—one on the story of the banjo and, the other, the deeper, untapped value in using the banjo as a test case for the project. First, focus was placed on the story of the banjo, which is unique and largely unknown outside some corners of academia and the traditional music community. Attendees discussed the banjo’s nearly 400-year history and the fact that for the first 220 years of that history, European and European American observers exclusively identified the instrument as an African American instrument. Emphasis was placed on the banjo’s West African heritage and its potential links to a range of distinct plucked lute traditions found throughout West Africa today. The presentation also included a series of maps outlining the geography of West African plucked lute traditions, early banjo references found throughout the Caribbean and parts of South/Central America, and the banjo's transmission and dissemination in North America in the 18th and 19th centuries. The banjo historians in attendance also shared how the banjo ascended into American popular culture in the 1830s and 1840s under the auspices of blackface minstrelsy, America’s first major form of popular music and popular culture export.
Attendees held discussions about banjo-related primary source material including extant musical instruments, images and iconography, and period descriptions of instruments, musicians, and performances. Surviving instruments are generally made with gourd, calabash, or wooden hoop resonators, necks of varying shapes, sizes, and materials, and unique craftsmanship where most surviving instruments are literally one-of-a-kind (since commercial banjo manufacturing was only in its infancy in the 1840s and 1850s). Images of the early banjo begin to appear by the late 17th century and continue to surface in almost every historical medium—hand drawings, etchings, paintings, lithographs, sheet music covers, and photography. Throughout its early history, European and European-American observers were almost exclusively the authors of period descriptions about banjos, banjo players, and musical performances. These descriptions are significant in that they help researchers contextualize the provenance of the banjo as an instrument of the African Diaspora.
Second, the Advisory Board reached a general consensus for the timeliness of focusing on the banjo as a test case for the Digital Humanities Start-Up Grant Program. The Banjo Sightings Database Project offers the chance for researchers to more deeply explore the banjo’s provenance, crossing many geographic, racial, social, commercial, and cultural borders. It provides an excellent model for studying music instrument development, migration, transformation, and dissemination. The banjo strongly reflects many types of culturally encoded content present throughout the history of slavery, emancipation, reconstruction, and has always served a functional social purpose for both vernacular and professional musicians.
The focus of the Banjo Sightings Database Project is not an old story recounting generations of scholarly inquiry. While many scholars, musicians, and listeners have long appreciated and acknowledged the musical offerings provided by banjo players, a deeper interest in the complex multicultural history of the banjo has only taken hold in recent decades (e.g., Dena Epstein's Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War, 1977, 2003). Knowledge bearers of this deeper history include scholars, collectors, historians, musicians, amateur researchers, and enthusiasts. Yet, it has only been in the last twenty years that the material culture of the early banjo has become increasingly available as significant portions of these primary sources are often in the hands of private collectors. For example, if researchers wish to conduct an analysis of extant early banjos, they must receive a personal invitation from one of at least 55 private collectors who maintain 181 of the 207 known earliest surviving instruments. The development of a readily-accessible, comprehensive, web-based database of banjo history, research, artifacts, and interpretation will not only present what is currently known about the early banjo, but also promote the continued investigation of this iconic instrument and its importance to America’s musical, cultural, and historical landscape.
There is much more to share on this topic, but I will save it for another day.
Thank you for reading,
 This information is based on the inventory initially developed by George Wunderlich, but that is now expanded and maintained by Greg C. Adams of all known early banjos and their current locations.