The Banjo’s Beauty, And Its Cultural Baggage, Is On Display In A New Digital Museum

(April 17, 2019)

Marc Fields and his production team are inside historian and collector Jim Bollman's storied Arlington home. They know the drill by now. This time, Bollman sits patiently on a stool with his rare, pre-Civil War banjo balanced on his knee as they set up their shot.

“This room has more banjo history packed per square inch than any place on earth,” Fields said. “It’s a place I came to when I first started this project and realized how much there is about the banjo which people don’t know about and which people should know about.”

Fields said Bollman's trove of 200-plus instruments, banjo-related artifacts and cabinets of research provide a unique portal into America’s past.

The Banjo Project prototype is online now. Back in his office at Emerson College, Fields clicks through the website on his computer. In one section, there's a deftly-produced HD video that dives into how white minstrel entertainers co-opted the banjo from slaves from the 1800s into the early 1900s. They donned blackface and created parodies that would endure in popular culture for decades.

Fields interviewed ethnomusicologist Greg Adams for context. “You can’t talk about the history of the banjo, if you can’t talk about racism, slavery, misogyny, appropriation, exploitation — all of the things that run counter to what we love about the banjo,” Adams said.

The banjo’s story is still evolving, and Fields will continue to track it. He says a new generation of musicians is reclaiming the instrument’s power with full awareness of its pained past.

Even with years of research under his belt, Fields feels like he’s barely scratched the surface. He'll be able to dig deeper now with a $100,000 grant he and Emerson College received last year from the National Endowment for the Humanities.