Essential Question

What is the relationship between the banjo and slavery, and how did music making by enslaved people influence the abolition debate during the 18th and early 19th century?


In this lesson, created in partnership with the Association for Cultural Equity, students discover how the banjo and music making more generally among enslaved people contributed to debates on the ethics of slavery. They listen to slave narratives, examine statistics, and read primary sources to better understand how slavery was conceptualized and lived through in the 18th and 19th centuries. Throughout the lesson, students return to videos created by Alan Lomax of pre-blues banjo player Dink Roberts as a way to imagine what music among enslaved people in the United States may have sounded like.   

The story of the banjo is in many ways the story of America. For two centuries, the plucking of banjo strings accompanied the evolution of American popular music, from Minstrelsy to Blues to Dixieland Jazz. Then, just as the banjo’s popularity waned before the electrified sounds of Rhythm and Blues and Rock and Roll, there was a revival. In the hands of Bluegrass virtuoso Earl Scruggs and Folk songster Pete Seeger, the banjo was reasserted as the instrument of the common man. Today, the banjo remains essential to the sound of groups from Mumford and Sons to the Band Perry, who, like musicians of the past, pay homage to the banjo’s history while also making the instrument their own.

The significance of the banjo to American culture, however, goes far deeper than its presence in popular music styles: it can be traced to the tragic foundations of the New World. For the banjo was not invented in America, nor did it come in the hands of colonists and settlers. The banjo arrived upon America’s eastern shores through enslaved Africans.

Between 1500 and 1900, an estimated 10.7 million enslaved people arrived to North America, South America, and the Caribbean. Taken from West Africa, the enslaved were delivered like livestock to the Americas. Packed into hulls of ships built to transport goods rather than people, many Africans reached the shores of America still shackled to the bodies of people who had succumbed to disease or starvation. Those that managed to escape from their bonds often jumped into the sea, preferring a watery grave over a life in servitude.

Upon reaching the shores, the enslaved Africans were sent to an auction block where, in the words of ex slave Fountain Hughs, “they would bid on you just the same as you bid on cattle.” Their lives were thereafter determined completely by the temperament of the slave master. But all lacked the rights engraved into the Declaration of Independence: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Among the only comforts available to the enslaved people was memories of their homelands, embodied through song and dance. Many of the enslaved rebuilt the instruments of Africa using the materials available to them in the New World. Thus, the banjo was reborn in the Caribbean, likely from a similar Ghanaian instrument called the akonting. In addition to playing the banjo and other instruments, enslaved people also continued dancing traditional dances, and sung work songs and spirituals intimately connected with their physical bondage and spiritual endurance.

This music making led to considerable consternation among colonists and settlers. The justification for slavery was often predicated on the idea that Africans were subhuman, and therefore not entitled to the same rights of freedom endowed to Europeans. But how could such a claim be made in the face of evidence of so much ingenuity, creativity, and humanity in slave’s music making?

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Upon completion of this lesson, students will:

  1. Know (knowledge):
    • The African origins of the banjo
    • The numbers of enslaved people sent to North America by region
    • First-hand accounts of slavery by former enslaved people
    • The functions music played for enslaved people according to the accounts of former enslaved people
    • How the banjo and slave music making informed debates over the morality of slavery in the 18th and 19th century
    • Banjo player Dink Roberts
  2. Mastery Objective:
    • Students will be able to make connections between music, slavery, and the abolition debate by hearing slave narratives, analyzing statistical data, and discussing historical documents.


Motivational Activity:

  1. Tell students that they will be assuming the role of ethnographers–social scientists who study people in their own environments. They will be watching a video of a musical performance, and as ethnographers, should practice a type of detailed description that anthropologist Clifford Geertz called “thick description.” They should observe the subject’s behavior, but also the context behind that behavior (the surrounding environment, the subject’s personal background, etc.). They will be watching a video of a musical performance, and as ethnographers they should take notes that describe the setting of the performance, as well as the performers’ age, attire, body language, and anything else they notice.
  2. Play Clip 1, “Dink Roberts: Fox Chase/Old Rattler,” and ask students:
    • What general observations did you have while watching the video?
    • Where does it seem like the video was shot?
    • How would you describe the singing? Does it seem planned, or spontaneous?
    • What kind of audience might Dink Roberts play for?
    • Based on what you saw in the video, what generalization might you make about Dink Roberts’ life? Why?
  3. After discussing the video in general, focus on the instrument Roberts is playing. Ask students:
    • Does anyone know the name of the instrument Roberts is playing?
    • Do any of you have any preconceptions of the banjo? What do you think of when you think of the banjo?
    • Where do you think the banjo might have come from? What instrument does it look similar to?
  4. Show Image 1, “Stringed Instruments in America.” Tell students that one of the four lutes on the right hand side of the image is the ancestor to the banjo. Ask students to examine each instrument and write on a scratch piece of paper which instrument they think the banjo evolved from. Guide students to observe the shape of each instrument in the image, the materials used, the number of strings, etc.
  5. By a show of hands, ask students which instrument they wrote down. Have students volunteer to explain their reasoning: what similarities did you see between the banjo and the instrument you wrote down?
  6. Tell students the answer: the banjo is the direct descendent of West African lutes, such as the akonting from Ghana. Point out that both instruments have a circular body covered with a skin-like membrane, and on the membrane is a piece of wood called a bridge that holds up strings.
  7. Ask students:
    • How might have an African instrument like the akonting come to North America?
    • Who might have been the first types of people to play the akonting in the Americas?


  1. Tell students that in this lesson they will be looking at the origins of the banjo, and the ways the banjo and slave music making in general informed debates on the morality of slavery. Pass out Handout 1 – First Accounts of the Banjo in North America. Ask students to only read the headings (in italics) of each of the three pages, then ask:
    • According to the historic evidence presented in the handout, when might have the banjo first appeared in North America?
    • Based on the titles alone, what might these historic documents be about?
    • Based on the titles alone, what part of the world do these documents discuss?
    • Why might have the earliest accounts of the banjo occurred in the Caribbean, rather than the United States?
  2. Show Image 2, “Slave Disembarkment Statistics.” Ask students:
    • What does this chart show?
    • In the time period during which the accounts in the handout were written (approx. 1650-1750), about how many enslaved people arrived in Mainland North America? How many in the British and French Caribbean?
    • In total, what three regions did enslaved people arrive to at the highest numbers? How does Mainland North America compare?
    • What does this chart reveal about the Slave Trade, especially as it concerns the United States specifically?
  3.  Have students return to Handout 1, and ask them to read each account. Warn them that they are looking at primary sources from hundreds of years ago, so some of the grammar and spelling may seem off. Then ask students:
    • According to the documents, when did enslaved people during this time play and dance to music? For what purpose?
    • From what you can tell, what were the author’s opinions of this music? Did they appreciate it or were they dismissive of it?
    • According to the third document, how did the slave masters and overseers respond to this music making? Do you think approaches to slave music making differed among different plantations?
    • How is the life of a slave described in these accounts? Do you think life as a slave was different for those in the United States versus those in the Caribbean?
  4. Tell students they will now be moving from the Caribbean to the United States. Explain that in the 1930s, the U.S. Government created the Federal Writers Project, which began collecting narratives from Americans who experienced slavery. Tell students they will be watching videos that feature audio recordings of people recalling what slavery was like for them.
  5. Play Clip 2, “Voices Remembering Slavery: The Workday.” Ask students:
    • What kind of work are the people in this video describing?
    • What kind of work was done by enslaved people working outside in the fields?
    • What kind of work was done by enslaved people working domestically, in the house?
    • Was there a gender labor divide? According to these interviews, did enslaved women and enslaved men do different kinds of work?  
  6. OPTIONAL: Play Clip 3, “Voices Remembering Slavery: Treatment” (Warning: the video contains accounts of violence and racist language. Teacher discretion is advised). Ask students:
    • According to these various accounts, how did slave masters treat enslaved people? Is it possible to generalize on how enslaved people were treated at this time?
    • How were enslaved people educated, or learn to read and write?
    • What were some ways enslaved people were punished?    
    • How did the people being interviewed conceptualize their slavery? (If necessary, remind students of Fountain Hugh’s comparison of enslaved people to cows and dogs.)  
  7. Play Clip 4, “Voices Remembering Slavery: Music.” Ask students:
    • According to these interviews, when did enslaved people perform music?
    • What were some of the functions music might have served for enslaved people?
    • How did some of the lyrics of the songs sung by enslaved people reflect their environment or position? 
  8. Tell students that next they will be looking at how music making by enslaved people entered into larger political discussions at the time, especially involving the question of abolition, or the ending of slavery. Play once again. Tell students that the musician in the video, Dink Roberts, plays a very old style of music, one that might be in some ways similar to the music enslaved people performed. Ask students to keep this music in mind as they pursue the next activity.  
  9. Split the students into 4 groups and pass out Handout 2 – The HIPPO Technique for Analyzing Documents and Handout 3 – Historical Accounts of Slavery and Slave Music to each group. Assign each group one of the four documents in Handout 3, and ask students in the group to analyze their document using the HIPPO technique outlined in Handout 2. (Note: teachers might want to warn students that these documents were written centuries ago, and have some anomalies – for instance, letter “s” in some documents looks more like an “f”).
  10. Have student groups share their analysis with the rest of the class. Then ask the class:
    • Which documents seem to be degrading to enslaved people? (Documents 1 and 3). What arguments do these authors make about slave music making that supports their conclusions?
    •  Which documents seem more sympathetic to the enslaved people?  (Documents 2 and 4). What arguments do these authors make about slave music making that supports their conclusions?
    •  How might an author’s own presumptions about music in general influence their opinion on slave music making? (Encourage students to consider whether the authors are judging the slave’s African music with their own European bias).

Summary Activity:

  1. Show Image 3, “Writing Prompt,” and have students follow the prompt given. Collect responses, or have students present their responses to the class.

Extension Activity:

  1. Read Extension Activity – How the Banjo Became White, and answer the provided questions.

Explore Further:

  1. Books:
    • Laurent Dubois, The Banjo: America’s African Instrument (Belknap Press)
    • W.E.B. Dubois “The Sorrow Songs” in The Souls of Black Folk (Library of America)
    • Solomon Northup, Twelve Years a Slave (W. W. Norton & Company)
  2. Films:
    • Sascha Paladino, Throw Down Your Heart (Docurama)
    • Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave (20th Century Fox)
    • Tommy Thompson, Dink: Pre-Blues Musician 
  3. Records:
    • Various Artists, Black Banjo Songsters of North Carolina and Virginia (Smithsonian Folkways)
    • Alex Foster and Michel Larue, American Negro Slave Songs (Smithsonian Folkways)


Common Core State Standards

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading (K-12)

Reading 1: Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.

Reading 6: Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.

Reading 8: Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, including the validity of the reasoning as well as the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence.

Reading 9: Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Writing (K-12)

Writing 1: Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.

Writing 7: Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects based on focused questions, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.

Writing 9: Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening (K-12)

Speaking and Listening 1: Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.

Speaking and Listening 2: Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.

Speaking and Listening 3: Evaluate a speaker’s point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric.

National Core Arts Standards


  • Anchor Standard #7-Perceive and analyze artistic work.
  • Anchor Standard #8-Interpret intent and meaning in artistic work.
  • Anchor Standard #9– Apply criteria to evaluate artistic work.


  • Anchor Standard #10-Synthesize and relate knowledge and personal experiences to make art.
  • Anchor Standards#11-Relate artistic ideas and work with societal, cultural and historical context to deepen understanding.

National Curriculum Standards for Social Studies – National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS)

  • Theme 1: Culture
  • Theme 2: Time, Continuity, and Change
  • Theme 4: Individual Development and Identity
  • Theme 5: Individuals, Groups, and Institutions

National Standards for Music Education – National Association for Music Education (NAfME)

Core Music Standard: Responding

  • Analyze: Analyze how the structure and context of varied musical works inform the response.
  • Interpret: Support interpretations of musical works that reflect creators’ and/or performers’ expressive intent.
  • Evaluate: Support evaluations of musical works and performances based on analysis, interpretation, and established criteria.

Core Music Standard: Connecting

  • Connecting 11: Relate musical ideas and works to varied contexts and daily life to deepen understanding.