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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Actually there is some evidence of significant minstrel banjo activity in Great Britain before the 1880s, at least among entertainers, if not yet in every parlor.  BTW, HRH’s influence is testified to by the English banjoists who, at the end of the century, published claims to have performed for her!  The Winans and Kaufman article mentioned earlier documents in detail the many American minstrel troupes that toured England.  Joel Walker Sweeney himself may have been the first American banjoist of note to tour England for a couple years beginning in January of 1843.  Of course, the Virginia Minstrels began touring in May of 1843.  So far it seems that Christy’s Minstrels may have had a more lasting impact.  Or actually, an offshoot of Christy’s Minstrels who began performing in London in 1857.  They apparently broke up and split into 4 groups all claiming to be the original.  One of those groups became successful enough that they got a regular gig in London.  They changed their name to Moore & Burgess’ Minstrels and performed continuously for the next 30 years in Picadilly.  Another popular group was the Mohawk Minstrels founded in 1867, and which remained active until the early 1900s.  W. Tremlett filed for a patent on a closed back banjo in 1869.  Some people think that was the beginning of zither banjos.

Curiously, one of the early banjomakers in England was John Edward Brewster, who was actually Canadian, but had moved to England sometime before 1871.  He apparently performed on “fretted instruments” before setting up a shop that made banjos with John Dallas in London in 1873.  It would be interesting to know more about Brewster’s early musical experience and what kind of banjo he brought with him from Canada, presuming he did.  Also, it appears that Dallas may have had more influence on the banjos themselves since he later set up a separate shop and built banjos sold by Brewster and others.


Joel Hooks said:

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.

Cammeyer invented/designed the Zither Banjo.  I've been seeing this claim lately about "people" thinking Temlett's knockoff patent of the Henry Dobson closed back banjo had something to do with the zither banjo.  Who are those people who think that?  Are they supporting it with something other than what is clearly just a duplication of the Henry Dobson closed back banjo patent?

Why is it that the people alive and involved at the time all seemed to think that Cammeyer invented it?

The British knocked off (and often claimed as their own) nearly everything that the US did regarding the banjo.  There is no doubt about this (also no doubt that they often did it better)

RE: J. E. Brewster, again, I'll save you some trouble.

Read this and you will find where I cover what Brewster did, complete with the articles.  It is long and you have to get through a lot before I tell the story of Brewster and Stewart.

https://www.banjohangout.org/archive/319924

I am skeptical of the Brewster/Dallas timeline being so early.  Brewster was importing a number of Stewart banjos in the early 1880s sold through his American Banjo School.  Brewster then traveled to the US and stayed with Stewart.  Brewster eventually took a load of banjos, entered them into a trade show stamped as his own and claimed to be built by Dallas. He evidently did not pay Stewart for those banjos he over stamped.

I believe that the Brewster-Dallas connection happened in 1883 or later, not 1873.  10 years is a lot when talking about banjo history.

There are some unique aspects to British banjo history such as the popularity of Pierrot banjo troupes/entertainers (often performing at seaside resorts) and the popularity of the Zither banjo.  These links might be of interest: 

https://jeffreygreen.co.uk/137-minstrel-shows-in-britain/

https://www.hastingspierarchive.org.uk/content/catalogue_item/minst...

https://seasidefollies.co.uk/archives/the-history-of-pierrots/pierr...

www.zither-banjo.org.uk/pages/Oakleybiog.pdf

Numerous reliable sources give the date of 1873 for the Brewster-Dallas shop and this comports with the popularity of the minstrel show and banjos in the 1860s and 1870s, which was greater than I previously supposed.  At least one American troupe performed for Queen Victoria and the Prince of Wales studied banjo with one of the Bohee brothers from Canada.  There's an excellent introduction to British minstrelsy by a musicology professor at Leeds to be found here:

https://victorianweb.org/mt/dbscott/4.html

Thanks for the tip and links to the Pierrot connection!  I had just stumbled onto that.  There was a Pierrot with banjo image on eBay that I almost bought but didn't to my chagrin.  It turns out that that was Clifford Essex in a Pierrot costume!  The Pierrot connection is interesting.  Pierrot, I believe, comes from the Commedia del Arte tradition originating, at least, in 16th C. Italy.  Commedia included actors in masks, including black masks.  These are at least conceptually related to the blackface of minstrelsy.  I wrote about this at length some years back.  So that we find both blackface minstrels and Pierrot with banjos at roughly the same time is pretty intriguing!

Dallas was 17 in 1873, Brewster was 20.

If you don't mind sharing your reliable resources on the 1873 claim, that would be great.  Are any of them by chance from 1873?

Here is a clipping from the SSS Journal April 1884.  This puts Brewster opening his studio in 1878.  No mention of him working with Dallas.  We know from the double cross that he did start working with Dallas to make banjos after the tradeshow double cross.  What does not stand logic is that why would Brewster and Dallas need to overstamp Stewart banjos and call them their own if Dallas had been building banjos since 1873?  Why not just enter his own make?

Since one of these overstamped SSS banjos exists (see the link I posted) we know for a fact that this event happened.

Most of what I have found on Brewster seems to be everyone echoing one source that is never given but I suspect that it comes from A. P Sharp's article on banjo builders.

Yep, it was published in A. P. Sharpe's articles on banjo makers September 1971 for Brewster and October 1971 for Dallas.

While good for the time, Sharpe's articles are filled with problems and are not reliable alone. 

I also found this in my internet favourites: http://grimshaworigin.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/WinansAndKau...

It wouldn't surprise me if the popularity of the Pierrot performers had something to do with it being seeing as a bit more 'refined'  than 'blackface' entertainment (the old British obsession with class).  The banjo was popular with genteel ladies as you can see from this sheet music dedication - Scraptof hall is a rather posh Georgian country house in Leicestershire: 

This last link is the Winans/Kaufman article mentioned earlier.  It's 1994 but well documented and both authors are well respected.

Joel Hooks said:

Yep, it was published in A. P. Sharpe's articles on banjo makers September 1971 for Brewster and October 1971 for Dallas.

While good for the time, Sharpe's articles are filled with problems and are not reliable alone. 

But nothing mentioned about Brewster or Dallas that I could find.  If you could be so kind as to tell me what page they write about Brewster then I can check their footnotes and references.

A lot has changed since 1994, mainly people like Ian and myself donating countless hours to scan documents and make them available on the internet. We have access at the push of a button to so much more than Bob and Eli did in the 1990s.

That is why I always look for the footnote and then go to the source.  I have found many times where the source was misquoted or taken out of context. 



Michael Wright said:

This last link is the Winans/Kaufman article mentioned earlier.  It's 1994 but well documented and both authors are well respected.

Joel Hooks said:

Yep, it was published in A. P. Sharpe's articles on banjo makers September 1971 for Brewster and October 1971 for Dallas.

While good for the time, Sharpe's articles are filled with problems and are not reliable alone. 

Hi Carrie, is Polka Erratica as exciting as the title sounds?

carrie horgan said:

I also found this in my internet favourites: http://grimshaworigin.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/WinansAndKau...

It wouldn't surprise me if the popularity of the Pierrot performers had something to do with it being seeing as a bit more 'refined'  than 'blackface' entertainment (the old British obsession with class).  The banjo was popular with genteel ladies as you can see from this sheet music dedication - Scraptof hall is a rather posh Georgian country house in Leicestershire: 

As much as I hate Wikipedia, check this out re. Pierrots:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Concert_party_(entertainment)

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