Hello.  New member from Philadelphia in the US.  I've written numerous books of guitar history, am a columnist for Vintage Guitar Magazine, and am a presenter at the annual Banjo Gathering.  If you don't know of the latter, it is a 25-year-old meeting of banjo enthusiasts that moves mostly up and down the East Coast of the US.  There is always a display room for dealers and collectors, but the main activities are historical presentations, a field trip (this year we met in Williamsburg, VA, and were given an up close and personal viewing of The Old Plantation, which is not on display otherwise), and lots of good fellowship and conversation among good people.  Virtually all of the recent books on banjo history have been written by Banjo Gathering members.  My presentation this year was on how banjos (and guitars) got wire strings.

For next year I will be speaking on the 1890s running argument between American banjoists and English banjoists over notation.  Banjos evolved from being tuned in F around 1850 to being tuned in C by around 1885.  When banjos hit A tuning around 1865 they had become enormously popular and music publishers began publishing tutors and sheet music written in the key of A.  Out of stubbornness (and built up inventory), when banjos rose further to the key of C, the music continued to be notated in A, continuing up until the 1920s.  When C banjos came to England, English musicians said, "What the heck is this?  The banjo's tuned in C, but the music is in A.  No way, Jose."  And music became C Notation in England.  Hence the ongoing skirmishes seen in the banjo press of the time.

So, what I'm interested to learn is if you can steer me to any good sources on the history of banjo in the UK.  I know the Virginia Minstrels came over in 1843 and that blackface minstrelsy became popular, but beyond that I know very little.  The subject is rarely much addressed in American books on the banjo.   I don't intend to focus on that story, but I have to paint some background of how there came to be any English banjoists at all, much less how the C Notation controversy came about on that end.

Thanks in advance if you can be of help!

Michael

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I suspect you'll hear from Joel very soon. 10-9-8-7-6...

Several of us attend the Banjo Gathering each year. I've done it via Zoom the last couple of times...and I enjoyed your presentation!

Thank you!  As you know, it was cancelled last year due to the pandemic.  When I walked into the hall last month, this peaceful feeling washed over me and it felt so good to be back.

There are substantial  bits and pieces of British banjo history on this website. Have a look around. There is a Lot right here. The banjo by the way has a North Atlantic history apart from England. There have been banjos and banjo players in Scotland and England and probably Wales. Part of the history is entwined with the visits of American players in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Of particular interest (to me anyway) is the presence of the Bohee Brothers, who remained in England. They were African-Canadians. Reading and hearing about how and what they played is fascinating to me because so much is the opposite of what is supposed these days to be normal. For them finger style was done with bare fingers on soft strings. Downpicking (by any name, be it stroke or clawhammer or rapping or whatever) was done with metal picks on a banjo with a metal-clad hoop. Then there are the prolific and highly musical British composers for the banjo such as Joe Morley and Emil Grimshaw whose repertoire and style had a big effect on banjo culture. And then there are the many builders of banjos in the UK. The characteristics of these banjos both reflected and influenced what was played on them.

And no history of British banjo playing is complete without a discussion of the BMG and its role.

Please see attached for my article on the subject of notation, thoroughly flogged.

I am skeptical that the banjo was ever formalized in F and I am 100% confident that the books published before Frank B. Converse put together the "Briggs' Banjo Instructor" were not actual banjo books written by banjoists but rather a rebranding of generic stock pieces which had nothing to to with the banjo before being packed with in a new book with "banjo" on the cover.

By "formalized", I mean the "White version" of the banjo as we know it and popularized (not invented) by Joe Sweeney (for lack of a better person to blame).  I admit total ignorance about pitch, intervals and repertoire of African-American slave or free designed and used banjos.

There is a work written by Bob Winans and Eli Kaufman that does a good job on English and American banjo connections that is worth digging up.

Sorry, I guess my file is too big.  Anyone who wants it, drop me a message.

Thanks.  I have actually partially answered my own question this afternoon.  There is a well-documented paper published by the University of Illinois in 1994 by Bob Winans and Eli Kaufman titled: "Minstrel and Classic Banjo: American and English Connections" that chronicles in detail the influences of American banjoists on the UK and vice versa.  This can be purchased for $14 US from JSTOR.org or obtained for free if your library has a subscription.  JSTOR makes digitized academic journal articles available.  Even though this is 30 years old, I believe it's still substantially accurate, even if more information is now known.  So far nothing has contradicted my hypotheses, although some interesting ideas have been posited.  E.g., that the C tuning that became standard in the U.S. in the early 1880s may have had origins in the UK.  All very interesting!

Jody Stecher said:

There are substantial  bits and pieces of British banjo history on this website. Have a look around. There is a Lot right here. The banjo by the way has a North Atlantic history apart from England. There have been banjos and banjo players in Scotland and England and probably Wales. Part of the history is entwined with the visits of American players in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Of particular interest (to me anyway) is the presence of the Bohee Brothers, who remained in England. They were African-Canadians. Reading and hearing about how and what they played is fascinating to me because so much is the opposite of what is supposed these days to be normal. For them finger style was done with bare fingers on soft strings. Downpicking (by any name, be it stroke or clawhammer or rapping or whatever) was done with metal picks on a banjo with a metal-clad hoop. Then there are the prolific and highly musical British composers for the banjo such as Joe Morley and Emil Grimshaw whose repertoire and style had a big effect on banjo culture. And then there are the many builders of banjos in the UK. The characteristics of these banjos both reflected and influenced what was played on them.

And no history of British banjo playing is complete without a discussion of the BMG and its role.

You're talking about Howe's Preceptor (aka Gumbo Chaff) of course (1848? 1851?). Howe put the banjo at cFCEG (a full step below Briggs' dGDF#A). I have never actually attempted anything out of Howe's, mostly because others have told me they were arranged for the gamut of the banjo without consideration for fingering, play, etc., and that they just don't play well note-for-note. Maybe I should give it a try!

I have tuned my Ashborn to cFCEG but it would really need a different set of strings than what I have on it to make it work properly.

It is worthy to note that our earliest tuning reference is from Thomas Jefferson's diaries. Howe's tuning is in the same ballpark as Jefferson's notes. (same as the 4 lower strings of the English Guitar). Still, Howe gives us the earliest documented "scheme" for tuning a 5-string banjo.

Joel Hooks said:

Please see attached for my article on the subject of notation, thoroughly flogged.

I am skeptical that the banjo was ever formalized in F and I am 100% confident that the books published before Frank B. Converse put together the "Briggs' Banjo Instructor" were not actual banjo books written by banjoists but rather a rebranding of generic stock pieces which had nothing to to with the banjo before being packed with in a new book with "banjo" on the cover.

By "formalized", I mean the "White version" of the banjo as we know it and popularized (not invented) by Joe Sweeney (for lack of a better person to blame).  I admit total ignorance about pitch, intervals and repertoire of African-American slave or free designed and used banjos.

There is a work written by Bob Winans and Eli Kaufman that does a good job on English and American banjo connections that is worth digging up.

Sorry, the British were a "me too" situation with the banjo.  C pitch started in the US as did everything with the modern banjo as we know it.  

Since the "banjo fad" did not really hit England until the mid 1880s (with J. E. Brewster as a big part of it) the banjo in the US had already been pitched to C.  So the British just started publishing music in C.  The advantage to this was that it gave the English an opportunity to plagiarize American music (which they did extensively). 

A simple transposition of an American piece to C was claimed to be an "arrangement".  Herbert Ellis was the master of publishing American music in C (often uncredited, sometimes by a different title).

We are lucky that the English came into their own and gave us the great composers that we have.  Their knockoffs of American banjo designs were often done better with higher quality metal work.  In fact If I am not playing a Van Eps (or Gariepy Van Eps) I am usually playing a Clifford Essex.  And their plagiarized editions of American works are often better edited and clearer to read.

LOL. I have wondered (from time to time) why the American publishing companies didn't do the same, tit for tat. There were no international copyright agreements at the time...nobody really cared, did they? One would think that Feist or Jacobs or Ditson would jump on that boat and 'arrange' free meat for the American banjo public.

Perhaps the Brit publications were too readily available here. I know that Ellis, Grimshaw and Morley were available in Boston area shops back in the day. BMG was widely read.

I don't think I've ever encountered one...but maybe I have and didn't know it?

Yah, things changed pretty rapidly and by 1910 it was fairly easy to get British publications in the US.  The industry in the US really tried to push a give and take agreement which was a part of the official change over of the Guild to C.

I think they were hoping to be able to export as much as they were importing. It was also clear that while the regular banjo was dying a slow death in the US, in England things were picking up.  Pretty much all of the great composition we think of today were published in the teens to the 1930s

Michael, most of your work has been done in the article I sent you... just read that to the collector's gathering.  It would not be the first time someone has used my work. 

Ons aspect of the popularisation of the banjo in the UK (or Great Britain as it was known at the time) which could not have occurred in the USA, was the influence of Queen Victoria on making the instrument 'respectable'. Queen Victoria was a fan of the Ethiopian Serenaders and she encouraged her children to to take up the  instrument. This seal of approval made the banjo a 'society' craze and is the reason why Essex and Cammeyer established their banjo studios in Piccadilly, Jermyn Street, and Grafton Street (New Bond Street). Once the toffs took up the instrument, the banjo craze made its way down the the social scale until everyone felt the need to be part of it. This Royal 'banjo feel good factor' lasted a  long time and even manifested itself in the 1930s when playboy king, Edward V111 (of Mrs. Simpson fame)  was reported to have ordered two banjo ukuleles from Abbott.

Richard is correct.

But it seems to have taken a while to catch on.  Frank Converse and Horace Weston (among others) played for her but the craze did not really hit until the 1880s.

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