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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Thacker's Overland News reported publication of Christy's Minstrels Banjo Tutor in August 1861.

Fantastic!  I'll note this with my copy.

nick langton said:

Thacker's Overland News reported publication of Christy's Minstrels Banjo Tutor in August 1861.

Mike, this sounds like a good project to pursue.  Perhaps it would offer an explanation for all those Tunbridge Ware type banjos that are extant.

There is no question in my mind that British banjo makers and players and composers made original and significant contributions to the World Of Banjo nor any doubt that there was a distinct British banjo culture with its own identity and characteristics.

But.....

I have never read or heard the argument that British banjos are knockoffs because the banjo is of African-American origin. That makes no sense.  The violin is of Italian origin. Are English (or French or German etc)  violins knockoffs?  No, they are violins. Well, ok, the ones with false Strad or Amati labels are. 

All the references I have seen to "knockoffs" are obvious and easily verified and are specific to the 20th century.  Particular brands and models of American banjos were copied or modified and in some cases some aspects of these American banjo models were improved. Sometimes the names that were given signaled to the banjo-buying public exactly what banjo was being copied or referenced.  For instance nobody who had seen an American Paramount banjo would be in doubt that this name was being referenced in the Clifford Essex "Paragon" model. And the "Paravox" model referenced the Vega-Vox.   Also  I have heard it said that in  the earlier years of British banjo manufacture certain American models were copied and sold either with a new name or even the American name.  But no sane person could examine an English Weaver banjo and claim it was a knockoff of any American banjo model. 

In the 19th century it does not seem to me that finger-style/ guitar style was of British origin. Have I misread? Is that being suggested? Don't forget that  in the UK in the late 19th century the Bohee brothers taught finger style as well as stoke style. They were Black, born in Canada and played and learned a lot in the USA when they were young.  Is there a printed tutor from the UK that teaches finger-style banjo that pre-dates any of the American ones?   By the way I have no  nationalistic stake in proving that finger-style is of American origin. Faced with evidence I'd be happy to accept that it first happened in the UK. But where is the evidence?

Also I am dubious about the tuning : gCDGB. Is that real or a typo?  Standard C tuning is gCGBD.  A tuning of of gCDGB would be one of the six-string tunings with the highest long string removed.  (gCDGBD minus the final D). That leaves a large cap between the highest long string and the short 5th string.  Did anyone really use this tuning?

About 6 and 7 string banjos: I have seen more English specimens than American ones but I've seen enough American ones that do not have English design features to suggest to me that these were built without British influence or awareness of oversees specimens of this kind of banjo.

Typo alert, possibly due to an over-eager computer spelling "corrector":  in the penultimate paragraph the word I meant to type as "gap" appears as "cap".  There's a a large gap, a large distance between b natural and the g of the fifth string. A gap of a major sixth.  That is not a typical feature of string instrument tunings.

Jody Stecher said:

There is no question in my mind that British banjo makers and players and composers made original and significant contributions to the World Of Banjo nor any doubt that there was a distinct British banjo culture with its own identity and characteristics.

But.....

I have never read or heard the argument that British banjos are knockoffs because the banjo is of African-American origin. That makes no sense.  The violin is of Italian origin. Are English (or French or German etc)  violins knockoffs?  No, they are violins. Well, ok, the ones with false Strad or Amati labels are. 

All the references I have seen to "knockoffs" are obvious and easily verified and are specific to the 20th century.  Particular brands and models of American banjos were copied or modified and in some cases some aspects of these American banjo models were improved. Sometimes the names that were given signaled to the banjo-buying public exactly what banjo was being copied or referenced.  For instance nobody who had seen an American Paramount banjo would be in doubt that this name was being referenced in the Clifford Essex "Paragon" model. And the "Paravox" model referenced the Vega-Vox.   Also  I have heard it said that in  the earlier years of British banjo manufacture certain American models were copied and sold either with a new name or even the American name.  But no sane person could examine an English Weaver banjo and claim it was a knockoff of any American banjo model. 

In the 19th century it does not seem to me that finger-style/ guitar style was of British origin. Have I misread? Is that being suggested? Don't forget that  in the UK in the late 19th century the Bohee brothers taught finger style as well as stoke style. They were Black, born in Canada and played and learned a lot in the USA when they were young.  Is there a printed tutor from the UK that teaches finger-style banjo that pre-dates any of the American ones?   By the way I have no  nationalistic stake in proving that finger-style is of American origin. Faced with evidence I'd be happy to accept that it first happened in the UK. But where is the evidence?

Also I am dubious about the tuning : gCDGB. Is that real or a typo?  Standard C tuning is gCGBD.  A tuning of of gCDGB would be one of the six-string tunings with the highest long string removed.  (gCDGBD minus the final D). That leaves a large cap between the highest long string and the short 5th string.  Did anyone really use this tuning?

About 6 and 7 string banjos: I have seen more English specimens than American ones but I've seen enough American ones that do not have English design features to suggest to me that these were built without British influence or awareness of oversees specimens of this kind of banjo.

Thanks for clearing all that up. Mike. And now we're all on "the same page" about which C tuning was referenced so early. 

Thanks for including the page from the tutor. I was thinking "three fingers and thumb" might be another typo, but no, it really is thumb, index, middle and ring finger. Which makes it truly "guitar style".

I'm glad to see this lively discussion here on this website and also glad that no is getting upset. We're all motivated by the same thing I think. We want to know what really happened back in the early banjo days. 

Well said!  

Mike Bostock said:

Here's where we land bang on the crux issue in regard to what is history. As a banjo player I had exactly that personal 'hunch' when I first set eyes on Tunbridge decorated banjos. The care that has gone into their build, their numbers and the deviation from other examples seemed to me suggestive of something 'other' than blackface and fixed adherence to a new Americanism. They appeared assimilative in some characteristic way. But that is mere 'hunch'. No reliable research should be based on seeking to prove a hypothesis or a pre-existing agenda. We have to look with a clear and open view and assess the facts presented by the evidence.

When engaged in research we have to be ready for what is; that may be uncomfortable and disappointing. But in regard to early English banjo playing the evidence appear far from disappointing. What even basic banjo fabrication research does is reveal that the Tunbridge banjos were relatively consistent in appearance and form and were sold at dealers well away from their place of manufacture. But we also find evidence for a wide range of non-Tunbridge banjos (some home-made or one-off) at that time. Social research into the culture and use of the banjo in this early period in England increasingly supports that these banjos had a function other than just blackface minstrelsy and an American repertoire.

Yet unfortunately still we have to field occasional dismissive comments that these were 'toys' and not to be taken seriously. I can speak from personal experience as a long-time banjo player and early English 7-string banjo player (including a Tunbridge model) that these banjos are definitely not toys. To the extent that I have a passion for playing those that I'm fortunate to own. They have a sound and feel that is unique and, we are learning, a repertoire and technique that is characteristically their own too. As I do that I have an innate sense of playing in a strange void between what we are currently led to believe was the 19th century narrative; neither minstrelsy nor the gentility, sophistication and virtuosity of the 1880's and onward.

That is incomplete. To research this period of English banjo playing is not to rewrite banjo history, it is simply to provide evidence an aspect that has been overlooked and is missing and give it the light it deserves.



Joel Hooks said:

Mike, this sounds like a good project to pursue.  Perhaps it would offer an explanation for all those Tunbridge Ware type banjos that are extant.

Here at the Ning classic banjo site there has been the occasional kerfuffle but not too often.

There are people in the USA who can't stand the idea that the world is not as they imagine it to be.  The reality of the African origin of the banjo makes them feel weak and insignificant. The reality of the transAtlantic origins of some of the old-time and bluegrass repertoire is intolerable to them. Tell them that The Dream of The Miner's Child started out not in West Virginia or East Kentucky but in the London Music Hall and they simply will not accept it.  Some will accept so-called "Celtic" origins but not the obvious Germanic influence. Some will go in the opposite direction and claim Irish (for instance) origin for 100% of the repertoire.  Evidence? What's that?  Sweet Georgia Brown? Irish!  Under the Double Eagle? Irish, Malagueña? Irish. See See Rider?  Irish!It gets equally crazy in the UK. I know one feller who insisted that Bluegrass Music originated and was developed entirely in England.  Not a distant root. The thing itself. 

Mike Bostock said:

I think most genuinely interested banjo folks are on the same page and as you say, want to know more about what happened back in the early banjo days. An effort to research and hopefully more fully understand shouldn't be a reason for anyone to get upset (although unfortunately I'm aware that sometimes happens). For my part I'm just passionate about banjo and curious as heck.

Jody Stecher said:

Thanks for clearing all that up. Mike. And now we're all on "the same page" about which C tuning was referenced so early. 

Thanks for including the page from the tutor. I was thinking "three fingers and thumb" might be another typo, but no, it really is thumb, index, middle and ring finger. Which makes it truly "guitar style".

I'm glad to see this lively discussion here on this website and also glad that no is getting upset. We're all motivated by the same thing I think. We want to know what really happened back in the early banjo days. 

Dobigny's method, page 6, "roll indicates that the thimble be passed across the strings from 4th to last."  That said, I did not find another reference to stroke style or even the use of "roll" in the rest of the book.

Because there was a specific reference to using a thimble for a roll in a book being claimed that it is exclusively finger style.

That was one of two books that were photocopies sent to me for scanning, the other was the Morley Tutor (but not Joe). Before that I had not seen or heard of it.  I don’t know how common it is or how wide of a circulation it had.  I’ve also not heard before getting this or the author or seen any sheet music with their name as composer or arranger.

In J.E. Brewster's "Banjoist", 1885, Brewster advertises his "American Banjo Studio" along side of the medals he won for over-stamping Stewart banjos that he claimed were built by J. E. Dallas (and which Brewster did not pay Stewart for).

That book is mostly fingerstyle pieces, but 4 pieces are marked "play with a thimble."  While he does not use "American Style" he does operate the "American Banjo Studio".

This Mackney?



Mike Bostock said:

There are numerous examples of combinations of method within some English banjo texts: stroke style and finger style instruction; A and E tunings recommended for fingerstyle playing; 5, 6, and 7-string technique together.

An individual such as Mackney who was well-known to the mid-Victorian English public for his stage performances made definitive pronouncement to English students of the banjo in his 1863 tutor book on what constituted proper 'banjo style" i.e. stroke style with no mention at all of finger style instruction. And yet the colloquial evidence outside of book publication still coalesced around the association, and endured, that finger style (or guitar style) equated to "English style" or "Method". I draw no conclusion at that, but evidence supports that there was more diverse early banjo activity than a simplistic minstrelsy-to-classic era narrative allows for. 

Joel Hooks said:

In J.E. Brewster's "Banjoist", 1885, Brewster advertises his "American Banjo Studio" along side of the medals he won for over-stamping Stewart banjos that he claimed were built by J. E. Dallas (and which Brewster did not pay Stewart for).

That book is mostly fingerstyle pieces, but 4 pieces are marked "play with a thimble."  While he does not use "American Style" he does operate the "American Banjo Studio".

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