With a Banjo on Her Knee: Gender, Race, Class, and the American Classical Banjo Tradition, 1880-1915
Prior to the Civil War the banjo was an instrument associated exclusively with black slaves or blackface minstrel troupes. During the second half of the nineteenth century enthusiasts in major Northeastern cities sought to elevate the banjo, creating an instrument appropriate for more genteel performances in the parlors of the white leisured classes. For many members of nineteenth-century American middle-class society making the banjo a parlor instrument was synonymous with making it a woman’s instrument. Enthusiasts recognized that acceptance by women was crucial to the banjo’s success as a legitimate concert instrument. Women, considered more civilized in nineteenth-century gender ideology, could elevate the banjo through their performance, and more players – specifically those in higher, more prestigious social classes – would then be attracted to the refined instrument.
The study of women and the classical banjo tradition touches upon three of the most troublesome issues of the nineteenth century: gender, race, and class. An inability to categorize the banjo definitively according to preconceived notions of gender, racial, and cultural identity resulted in its relegation to the margins of an increasingly classified and stratified music arena. The classical banjo tradition reveals a large, active musical culture existing in musicological “gray space” between the boundaries of what has traditionally been considered classical and popular. Such activity challenges us to reconsider the conventional binary model of music. The professional banjoistes, who created successful careers by combining personal and professional spaces, and the female amateurs, who played the banjo as a flirtation with an “exotic” instrument, provide additional insight into ways nineteenth-century Americans perceived gender, race, and class, and expand our understanding of the variety of music heard in the parlors of white middle- and upper-class Americans.