Named one of 2022’s Most Memorable Music Books by No Depression: The Journal of Roots Music An illuminating history of the banjo, revealing its origins at the crossroads of slavery, religion, and music.
In an extraordinary story unfolding across two hundred years, Kristina Gaddy uncovers the banjo’s key role in Black spirituality, ritual, and rebellion. Through meticulous research in diaries, letters, archives, and art, she traces the banjo’s beginnings from the seventeenth century, when enslaved people of African descent created it from gourds or calabashes and wood. Gaddy shows how the enslaved carried this unique instrument as they were transported and sold by slaveowners throughout the Americas, to Suriname, the Caribbean, and the colonies that became U.S. states, including Louisiana, South Carolina, Maryland, and New York.
African Americans came together at rituals where the banjo played an essential part. White governments, rightfully afraid that the gatherings could instigate revolt, outlawed them without success. In the mid-nineteenth century, Blackface minstrels appropriated the instrument for their bands, spawning a craze. Eventually the banjo became part of jazz, bluegrass, and country, its deepest history forgotten.
About the Author
Kristina R. Gaddy is the author of Well of Souls: Uncovering the Banjo’s Hidden History and Flowers in the Gutter: The True Story of the Edelweiss Pirates, Teenagers Who Resisted the Nazis. She has received the Parsons Fund Award from the Library of Congress, a Logan Nonfiction Fellowship, and a Robert W. Deutsch Foundation Rubys Artist Grant. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Baltimore Sun, Washington City Paper, Baltimore magazine, Narratively, Proximity, Atlas Obscura, and OZY, among other publications. She lives in Baltimore with her partner Pete Ross and their cat.
In her compelling, thoroughly researched history, Kristina R. Gaddy reveals a different instrument entirely, one intimately rooted in the African diaspora and capable of expressing flights of sorrow and joy…The time is ripe for lovers of the banjo to learn about its hidden past.
— David Yezzi - Wall Street Journal
Beguiling…Ms. Gaddy successfully blends archival skills with imagination.
— The Economist
Tracing the development of the banjo…this meticulous history also illuminates the difficulties of unearthing a story rooted in the experiences of the enslaved.
— New Yorker
So vividly does [Kristina Gaddy] write, and so enthusiastically does she convey her meaning, that many of the songs play unbidden in your mind, through the rhythm of her sentences, the lyric of her vocabulary. As much as Well Of Souls is a gripping, fascinating, story, it is also a beautifully written one…a novel in documentary’s clothing.
— Dave Thompson - Goldmine
A potent combination of research and storytelling…What emerges is an extraordinary narrative of African Americans' resistance to brutalisation and the myriad attempts to destroy, pervert, exoticise or appropriate their cultural practices.
— Steph Power - BBC Music Magazine
Gaddy brings the rich and complicated history of this seemingly humble instrument to light in this well-researched and equally well-written volume…This is a glorious and invaluable chronicle for music lovers and everyone interested in American culture.
— Booklist (starred review)
Superb…Gaddy’s lively storytelling re-creates scenes from 17th-century Jamaica to 19th-century Washington, D.C., and beyond, illustrating not only the birth and development of the banjo but also its co-optation by white people.
— Henry L. Carrigan Jr. - Bookpage
Gaddy weaves an undeniably interesting tale…A deep dive into the social history of the banjo.
— Kirkus Reviews
For many years, the banjo’s early Afro Caribbean history has been shrouded in mystery. Part of this is because the information has been locked away in the deep archives accessible only to the curious specialist interested in the deeper roots of the banjo. I have spent a great portion of my career advocating for much of this history to be placed in the forefront. For the very first time, a reader’s version of a few of the earliest written observations of the instrument are on full display in the thoughtful and masterful writing of this book. This book is not only made for the banjo enthusiast but it opens a new window into 17th, 18th and 19th century world history on the ground level by those who lived it and observed the strange new cultural connections brought by a brutal plantation system. These men and women saw and wrote about the banjo’s great transformation from a homemade tool of survival to its popularization in American culture. Kristina Gaddy’s observations lead the reader back into the 21st century to contend and reanalyze the crooked road of America’s musical past.
— Dom Flemons, the American songster, Grammy Award–winning musician, and cofounder of the Carolina Chocolate Drops
Kristina R. Gaddy has done a great service to lovers of the banjo, with its deep roots in Africa, and these and Caribbean shores, dating back to the 1600s. Her fecundity of research intertwines the story of the bangeau, banger, bangil with the horrors meted out to enslaved peoples. Though rich in detail, with fascinating period quotes, this is not a dry scholarly tome, but a heartfelt, absorbing telling. You see the story unfold through the eyes of contemporaries, thus bringing a welcome human dimension to the tale of an instrument often stereotyped, but as Kristina points out, one with a history that imbues it with ‘sacred’ qualities.
— Tony Trischka
Kristina R. Gaddy recenters the banjo as a Black instrument and as an icon of the African diaspora, before and beyond its perversion in the hands of Blackface Minstrels. Like a skillful archeologist, with empathy and respect, Gaddy excavates the sites, sightings, and citations of Black banjo as a central part of dances and rituals of celebration, remembrance, and resistance throughout the Americas. The erasure of this soulful history is an injustice that Gaddy corrects.
— Marc Fields, director of PBS’s Give Me the Banjo and creator of The Banjo Project Digital Museum
Kristina Gaddy’s deep and rich history of the banjo reveals that the instrument is much more than a means to powerful music-making—it was for centuries the portal to a social and spiritual life through which African Americans tasted freedom, however fleeting. I’ll never hear, see, or enjoy the banjo again without reflecting on how the horrors of Black slavery gave reason and form to ‘America’s Instrument.'
— Dale Cockrell, author of Everybody’s Doin’ It
Profound and invigorating, exhaustively researched and brilliantly conceived, Kristina R. Gaddy’s Well of Souls carries the reader across the globe and through centuries to restore our understanding of the banjo’s central place in the spiritual and ritual life of the African diaspora. The meaning and significance of the insights to be found here, and the worlds summoned, will change you. It is a stunning, and major, achievement.
— Tom Piazza, author of A Free State
Kristina R. Gaddy has crafted a sensitive, insightful narrative of the ‘hidden histories’ of the banjo as an emblem of African endurance in exile. Centering the courage and the human costs of the African diaspora, Well of Souls provides historiographic insight and human connection that, while unblinkingly cataloging the horrors of the slave trade, also celebrates the creativity and cultural resiliency of those who resisted erasure. Through the lens of the banjo’s history and recovered meanings, Gaddy honors the traditions and the humans who carried them.
— Christopher J. Smith, author of The Creolization of American Culture