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'Picturing The Banjo' Through American History

An exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., focuses on the imagery of a central player in America's deeply conflicted racial history: the banjo.

"Picturing the Banjo" features paintings, lithographs and other visual media representations of the banjo from the era of slavery through contemporary times. The images track the arrival of an instrument that came from Africa with the slaves. As it was adopted by whites, the instrument fell out of favor with blacks, and became a staple of demeaning minstrel shows.

NPR newsman Paul Brown is also a banjo player.

"By the time I heard a banjo I was 5," Brown recalls "I ordered it through Sears Roebuck. Once I figured out how to tune it I was off and running."

Beyond simply playing banjo, Brown has studied its history since his teen years. As he takes Debbie Elliott on a musical tour of the exhibit, he reflects on what it's like to play an instrument with "a troubled past."

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