Well of Souls: Uncovering the Banjo's Hidden History (Paperback)

Well of Souls: Uncovering the Banjo's Hidden History By Kristina R. Gaddy, Rhiannon Giddens (Foreword by) Cover Image

Well of Souls: Uncovering the Banjo's Hidden History (Paperback)


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One of The New Yorker’s Best Books of the Year

Named one of the Most Memorable Music Books of the Year by No Depression: The Journal of Roots Music

“Compelling.… [R]eveals [an instrument] intimately rooted in the African diaspora and capable of expressing flights of sorrow and joy.” —David Yezzi, Wall Street Journal

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.

Kristina R. Gaddy is the author of Flowers in the Gutter: The True Story of the Edelweiss Pirates, Teenagers Who Resisted the Nazis. She has received the Parsons Fund Award, a Logan Nonfiction Program fellowship, and a Robert W. Deutsch Foundation Rubys Artist Grant. Her writing has appeared in the Washington Post, Baltimore Sun, and Atlas Obscura, among other publications. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland.

Product Details ISBN: 9781324074489
ISBN-10: 1324074485
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
Publication Date: April 9th, 2024
Pages: 304
Language: English
Tracing the development of the banjo…this meticulous history also illuminates the difficulties of unearthing a story rooted in the experiences of the enslaved.
— The New Yorker

Beguiling.… Ms. Gaddy successfully blends archival skills with imagination.
— Economist

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

So vividly does [Kristina R. 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

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 deep archives accessible only to curious specialists 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. With thoughtful and masterful writing [Gaddy] opens a new window into seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century world history by those who lived it and saw the strange new cultural connections brought by a brutal plantation system. Her observations lead the reader back into the twenty-first century to contend with 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 written exactly the book the banjo world needs right now.… [C]onnect[s] today’s musical strains to their deep roots that are just beginning to be rediscovered and acknowledged.
— Chris Wathen - Bluegrass Unlimited

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.
— BookPage

Kristina R. Gaddy has provided a great service to lovers of the banjo. In this heartfelt, absorbing telling, you see the story unfold through the eyes of the historical contemporaries, thus bringing a welcome human dimension to the tale of an instrument often stereotyped, but as Gaddy points out, one with a history that imbues it with ‘sacred’ qualities.
— Tony Trischka

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)

Kristina R. 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 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 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

Gaddy weaves an undeniably interesting tale…A deep dive into the social history of the banjo.
— Kirkus Reviews