WASHINGTON - Consider the evolution of the humble banjo.
It morphed from a hollow gourd, strummed by African slaves, into an elegant toy for Victorian society ladies. Later, it grew into one of the mainstays of bluegrass music.
This story is told in a new exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. "Picturing the Banjo" brings together 72 works of art with a sampling of actual instruments.
Among the artists are Mary Cassatt, Thomas Eakins, Thomas Hart Benton and William Wegman. Some of the instruments are themselves elaborate works of art, adorned with inlaid designs and carvings of gargoyles, Masonic emblems and discreet nudes.
Richard Norris Brooke's 1881 "A Pastoral Visit" shows a black family serving a meal to a dignified visiting minister. A banjo is prominent in the foreground.
Norman Rockwell's 1926 "The Banjo Player" depicts an old black man playing the banjo while a white boy, rapt, sits on the floor facing him and keeping time with a couple of sticks.
Curator Leo G. Mazow said the calabash, the gourd from which the original instruments were made, was central to west African life. It could serve as a dipper, a bottle, a pipe or even an oar. The hollow gourd was made into a musical instrument by stretching an animal skin tightly over its opening and adding catgut strings.
Thomas Jefferson, in "Notes on Virginia," wrote of slaves, "The instrument proper to them is the Banjar, which they brought hither from Africa."
A poet of Jefferson's time urged slave owners, "Permit the slaves to lead the choral dance, to the wild banshaw's melancholy sound."
"Some people spoke of the horrific noise," Mazow said, "but people hear what they want to hear."
Women of the "gilded age" in the late 1800s used elegant versions of the banjo to show off their musical skills. Society women plucked banjos with more enthusiasm than their granddaughters could summon to strum guitars.
In the 1890s, one company came out with what it called an "electric" banjo. There was nothing electrical about it at all, said Mazow.
"It was just a fancy word," he said, "the same way later ordinary products were described as 'jet' or 'atomic' because it sounded up to date."
Earl Scruggs brought the five-string banjo alive on stage of the Grand Ole Opry. Current banjo masters include Emily Robison of the Dixie Chicks and jazz-bluegrass instrumentalist Bela Fleck.
The exhibit can be seen in Washington through March 5. Admission is $8 for adults, $5 for seniors and U.S. military and $4 for students. It will travel to the Palmer Museum in Philadelphia March 30-June 25, and to the Boston Athenaeum July 26-Oct. 21.
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Corcoran Gallery of Art: http://www.corcoran.org
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