'Picturing The Banjo' Through American History

The Banjo Player, a painting by William Sydney Mount. i i

The Banjo Player, an 1856 painting by William Sydney Mount. Long Island Museum of American Art, History & Carriages hide caption

itoggle caption Long Island Museum of American Art, History & Carriages
The Banjo Player, a painting by William Sydney Mount.

The Banjo Player, an 1856 painting by William Sydney Mount.

Long Island Museum of American Art, History & Carriages

An exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., focuses on the imagery of a central player in America's deeply conflicted racial history: the banjo.

"Picturing the Banjo" features paintings, lithographs and other visual media representations of the banjo from the era of slavery through contemporary times. The images track the arrival of an instrument that came from Africa with the slaves. As it was adopted by whites, the instrument fell out of favor with blacks, and became a staple of demeaning minstrel shows.

NPR newsman Paul Brown is also a banjo player.

"By the time I heard a banjo I was 5," Brown recalls "I ordered it through Sears Roebuck. Once I figured out how to tune it I was off and running."

Beyond simply playing banjo, Brown has studied its history since his teen years. As he takes Debbie Elliott on a musical tour of the exhibit, he reflects on what it's like to play an instrument with "a troubled past."

'Miss Apperson' playing banjo beside statue of Flora in niche of Sen. George Hearst's residence.

'Miss Apperson' playing banjo beside statue of Flora in niche of Sen. George Hearst's residence, Washington, D.C. The photograph was taken in 1895 by Frances Benjamin Johnston. Library of Congress hide caption

itoggle caption Library of Congress
Painting shows blacks at a dining table with a banjo on one of the chairs.

A Pastoral Visit, 1881 painting by Richard Norris Brooke. Corcoran Museum hide caption

itoggle caption Corcoran Museum
Photo of Theresa Vaughan playing a Fairbanks Electric No. 2 banjo, circa 1895.

Photo of Theresa Vaughan playing a Fairbanks Electric No. 2 banjo, circa 1895. Collection of James F. Bollman hide caption

itoggle caption Collection of James F. Bollman
Photographer William Wegman with his distinctive take on the banjo.

Photographer William Wegman offers his distinctive take on the subject matter in 'Blue Period with Banjo,' a 1980 Polaroid ER print photographed again by Rick Gardener. Contemporary Art Museum, Houston hide caption

itoggle caption Contemporary Art Museum, Houston

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