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Well of Souls: Uncovering the Banjo’s Hidden History

Appearance Date: 10/29/2022

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.

Meet the Author

Kristina Gaddy
Kristina Gaddy

Kristina R. Gaddy is an award-winning writer who believes in the power of narrative nonfiction to bring stories from the past to life in order to inform the world we live in today. Her debut nonfiction book Flowers in the Gutter (Dutton 2020), tells the true story of the teenage Edelweiss Pirates who fought the Nazis. Through narratives based on memoirs, oral history interviews, and Nazi documents, she immerses the reader in the world of these teenagers as they resist the Third Reich.
Her next book Well of Souls: Uncovering the Banjo’s Hidden History will be published by W.W. Norton on October 4, 2022. More than a history of the banjo’s early origins, Well of Souls reveals a landscape of largely unknown African American cultural practices and spiritual beliefs stretching from South America to New England, of which the banjo was born as a spiritual device.

She holds an MFA in Nonfiction Writing from Goucher College and her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Baltimore magazine, Washington City Paper, Baltimore Sun, Bitch Magazine, Narratively, Proximity, Atlas Obscura, OZY, Shore Monthly and other smaller history and music publications.