There are several portable acoustic musical instruments that many people associate with the sound of old-time music, and that they suppose should be included in an instrumental ensemble that purports to evoke the sound of the music the men of the Corps of Discovery enjoyed on the trail. In the interest of factual relevance, while knowing we can never perfectly recapture either the sound or the spirit of their music-making, here are some answers to some obvious questions.
. . . a banjo?
Because the banjo did not belong to American popular culture during the era of Lewis and Clark. Writing of slave culture in his book, Notes on Virginia, Thomas Jefferson stated, "The instrument proper to them is the Banjar, which they brought hither from Africa."1
The banjo evolved out of a West African long-necked string instrument, its body made of half a hollow gourd covered with animal hide. The banjo as we know it today became part of American popular culture about 1830, with the emergence of the minstrel show, a popular entertainment form consisting of parodies of Black culture, manners and music.
There is no evidence in the journals or elsewhere that York, Captain Clark's personal slave, could play the "banjar."
. . . a guitar?
The guitar did not hold the same position in 18th-century American popular culture as it came to occupy after 1850. One reason was that the violin ruled in both the vernacular and cultivated musical traditions, and guilds ("unions").
The guitar originated in Spain during the early 16th century.2 Around 1750 the five-course (five-string) form underwent a number of structural changes, including an increase to six courses. The first famous player of the new six-string guitar was the Spanish composer, Fernando Sor (1778-1839).3
In early eighteenth-century France, the guitar was mainly popular among the nobility, and is frequently seen in that context in the paintings of Antoine Watteau (1684-1721). In America, the guitar was the woman's instrument of choice, primarily in the cultivated tradition. There were several guitars In Thomas Jefferson's household at Monticello, belonging to his wife, daughter Polly, and granddaughters.4
Eighteenth-century guitars were considerably smaller than modern guitars – sometimes but one-fourth as large – and used strings made of gut. Their sound was consequently much softer, sweeter, and less resonant than nineteenth and twentieth century instruments.
. . . a harmonica?
Because the harmonica was not invented until the mid-1820s, in Vienna, Austria. It was modeled after a Chinese wind instrument made of wood, with vibrating reeds, called a sheng, which was imported to Europe in 1777.
At first a novelty, and a children's toy, the harmonica's appeal spread slowly until it reached a peak of popularity in the mid-20th century, especially in blues and pop music. From the 1960s on, despite the musicians' union's refusal to acknowledge it as a musical instrument, it gained a permanent place in late 20th century American popular culture through the performances of Bob Dylan.
Folk and blues musicians and fans often speak of a harmonica as a "harp," thus confusing it, in the minds of nearly everyone else, with a jews harp.
. . . a bass viol?
Although string bass instruments were less standardized then than now, and most types were smaller than today's bass viol, any one of them still would have been too large to be conveniently carried on the expedition.
In the cultivated ("classical") tradition during the 17th and 18th centuries, a bass instrument playing the bass notes, and a keyboard instrument to play the harmonies, were obligatory for most instrumental ensembles. The two together were called the basso continuo, or "continuous bass." The bass instrument was normally bowed, not plucked or "slapped" as in today's popular styles.
In the vernacular ("popular") tradition, such as dance music, pictorial evidence suggests that the basso continuo was seldom present. In Protestant church music, however, a prominent, heavily-manned bass line was considered highly desirable. The American composer William Billings (1746-1800), whose hymns, anthems and psalms some of the men of the Corps might have known, preferred that half the singers in a choir be basses.
The bass viol, known also today as a bass fiddle, bull fiddle, string bass, double bass, or just bass,5 is nominally a member of the violin family, but in shape it retains some of the features of the pre-Renaissance viol family, such as the sloping upper body.
1. Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, ed. William Peden (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1954), 288n. Jefferson also averred that the banjar was the antecedent of the guitar, but that is false; they originated in two different, apparently isolated cultures.
2. The word guitar is the Spanish cognate for the name of the ancient Greek plucked or strummed string instrument, the lyre-shaped cithara (pronounced either SITH-a-ra or KITH-a-ra).
3. Sor, Lewis, and Clark were contemporaries, though it seems unlikely that they ever heard of one another.
4. Helen Cripe, Thomas Jefferson and Music (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1974), 47-48.
5. Rhymes with base. The name is derived from the Italian word basso (pronounced BAH-so), meaning bottom.