A Salute to Banjos!

Jun 19, 2014

Maybe you think of the banjo as primarily a bluegrass instrument, but try not to forget that prior to about 1830, it was played pretty much exclusively by African-Americans, and it seems to have as ancestors several African instruments. 

It's not hard to find people with a visceral dislike of the banjo, on to which they have projected a corniness and a kind of assaultive good cheer. That's not fair. The banjo is a more expressive and versatile instrument than it gets credit for, and, if anything, it's being used in a very hip way these days by artists like Sufjan Stevens, Modest Mouse and Beck. 

Earlier this summer, I saw my friend Jim Mercik playing banjo with a jazz group in a graveyard in Hartford and I was again reminded that my own mental associations with the instrument are pretty limited. I mean, a talented banjo player can do a heckuva a lot more than just play the theme from the Beverly Hillbillies. Not that that's easy.

Leave your comments below, e-mail colin@wnpr.org or Tweet us @wnprcolin. 

This episode originally aired August 30, 2011.


  • Noam Pikelny is a Grammy-nominated banjo player with the band Punch Brothers.
  • Béla Fleck is widely acknowledged as one of the world's most innovative and technically proficient banjo players
  • Jim Mercik is a banjo and guitar player in Connecticut
  • Dick Bowden is a traditional bluegrass banjo player