cover of book

That Half-Barbaric Twang: The Banjo in American Popular Culture
by Karen Linn
University of Illinois Press, 1991
Paper: 978-0-252-06433-3 | Cloth: 978-0-252-01780-3
Library of Congress Classification ML1015.B3L5 1994
Dewey Decimal Classification 787.880973


Long a symbol of American culture, the banjo actually originated in Africa before European-Americans adopted it. Karen Linn shows how the banjo--despite design innovations and several modernizing agendas--has failed to escape its image as a "half-barbaric" instrument symbolic of antimodernism and sentimentalism. 

Caught in the morass of American racial attitudes and often used to express ambivalence toward modern industrial society, the banjo stood in opposition to the "official" values of rationalism, modernism, and belief in the beneficence of material progress. Linn uses popular literature, visual arts, advertisements, film, performance practices, instrument construction and decoration, and song lyrics to illustrate how notions about the banjo have changed. 

Linn also traces the instrument from its African origins through the 1980s, alternating between themes of urban modernization and rural nostalgia. She examines the banjo fad of bourgeois Northerners during the late nineteenth century; the African-American banjo tradition and the commercially popular cultural image of the southern black banjo player; the banjo's use in ragtime and early jazz; and the image of the white Southerner and mountaineer as banjo player.

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