BANJOS, HARMONICAS AND GUITARS
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BANJOS, HARMONICAS AND GUITARS



Every country has its native instruments which capture the mood and spirit
of its culture. For the Japanese it may be the koto and shamisen, for Indians it may be the sitar and vina. For Americans there are three instruments which reflect the mood of the country and can be called typically American ones although their origins, like most things American, may be elsewhere.

The first of these instruments is the banjo a simple four stringed instrument. This stringed musical instrument originally came from Africa and was most probably brought over by the black slaves in the early nineteenth century. After working all day in the cotton fields the black slaves would relax in the evening under the shade of plantation trees and sing simple songs of their native lands. They would accompany themselves on simple banjos evocative of the spirit of their homelands.

Later after the Civil War banjos were widely played in minstrel shows throughout the South featuring folk music and jazz ensembles. It has a crude sound when plucked and, although it resembles the guitar, its sound was not as mellow and its range was not as wide. Yet, when played well, it creates a distinct atmosphere which evokes the feeling of life on the early American plantation.

A second instrument associated with America is the harmonica. Sometimes called a mouth organ it is a simple reed instrument which can easily be held in one hand. Originally the first harmonicas were made in Germany, but the early pioneers brought this instrument with them from their homeland when they came to America. They would play in the evenings while passing the night under the stars. On the lonely prairie after a long day's work the sound of the harmonica is especially melancholic.
If the banjo has a jittery sound, then the harmonica has a distinctly melancholic one. It is the sound of a sad, nostalgic lament. It is the sound of someone yearning for his home or wanting to return to the lost experiences of happier days. When properly played it captures the mood of the vast frontier especially in the west where the cult of the cowboy dominated the wilderness.

The third instrument associated with America is the guitar. Originally it is an instrument of European origin, most likely from Spain. Yet, the guitar also played an important part in the American frontier.
After a hard day's work rounding up and branding cattle, cowboys would sit around an open campfire and sing songs of love and nature while strumming on the guitar. Today the banjo and harmonica may not be as popular as they once were but the guitar is still very much alive.
The revival of folk music back in the 1960s brought guitars to college campuses and there is hardly a rock band today which does not feature an electrical guitarist as part of the ensemble.

 
 
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