Can members here provide, or direct me to, external source references for the earliest use of the term 'Classic banjo'? I've looked at the Grimshaw, Van Eps, Parker Hunter and Morley et al, publications in the tutor book and song/journal section of the website but these do not appear to include contemporary use of the term. Is it a relatively modern, retrospective descriptive term? If so when does this accepted usage date from? Thank you.

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I think the term may have arisen amongst the members of the ABF, the American Banjo Fraternity in the latter decades of the 20th century. When in the 1950s I first heard about the way the ABF members played banjo it was called "Classical Banjo" by those who described it to me.  Some of the banjoists in the ABF felt, rightly I think, that this was creating the impression that their principal repertoire was composed by Mozart and Vivaldi and Scarlatti and Beethoven etc.  So they opted for "classic".  Whether or not they originated the idea or got it from the BMG perhaps is something I don't know.

The first time I heard the term "classic banjo" was 1990. I had the impression that the term had been in use for a few years but not a very long time. I have anecdotal evidence that the term was also used in preference to the term "parlor banjo" which had a bit of currency amongst those who did not play this style of banjo. The ABF did not think that the location, real or imagined, of the playing of the banjo was of relevance in naming the style.
Mike Bostock said:

That’s interesting Jody. I have multiple documented references to ‘classical’ in relation to banjoists, banjo solos and performances that span a surprisingly wide date range from 1879 to 1944. But these all have supporting evidence to clearly show that this refers to the playing of classical pieces on the banjo - something quite distinct and separate. Though Olly Oakley, among others, was documented as an exponent of arias and symphony pieces on banjo.

Your description does correspond to and explain the fact that I have not found any reference to ‘classic banjo’ in British documentary sources covering the period 1880 - 1940.

There was an extensive discussion on the topic here in 2014. Nothing certain was decided. Evidence was inconclusive.

Since 2014 I've found a better etymology of the term. 

When the founding ABF members were retiring from their professional jobs, they wanted to pick up the hobby of their youth-- banjo playing.  So off they went to the local music store to discover that wire strings were the only thing available and sheet music... "there aint no notes to the banjo (har, har, har,)".

As happens when we get old, the world changed and now "banjo" meant plectrum/tenor or folk.  

Suddenly faced with having to qualify their banjo playing as a style different than the white socks and loafer wearing folkie or the radio barn dance hillbilly meant that they had to connect it to something people knew.

Post WW2 brought one Segovia into the academic world and universities were all adding his version of the Spanish guitar to their programs.  The so called "classical guitar" was becoming universally known by most people.

Segovia's "classical guitar" was played with fingers (and no Hawaiian guitar picks), used nylon strings, and sheet music. 

At one time, "I play banjo" was understood to be what it was, now "I play banjo" needed to be explained.  So add "it is sort of like classical guitar".   In addition, a handful of joining ABF members came from the Segovia school of classical guitar.  I get the impression that they wanted to piggyback onto the classical guitar movement (which was quite popular, or at least some cash was being thrown at it).

So that, as best as I have been able to put together, is where "classical banjo" came from. 

Considering that the music was mostly romantic era or popular dance and not classical era, this was changed to "classic banjo", which does have some historical precedence. 

During the many articles she wrote, Vahdah Olcott-Bickford started promoting the term "classic guitar" to separate it from the newly popular plectrum played guitar. (Are you seeing a pattern here?)

As to the term "classic banjo", since I started playing this stuff I have had a problem with it.  It is confusing.  If any term is used I would argue that the majority of pre ragtime music composed for banjo would be romantic.  And much like the "romantic guitar", "romantic banjo" would likely be a more accurate description (if one was needed). 

As far as "period" use-- did any art movement use a title concurrent with its time?  Did Beethoven call his music "classical?"

As presentist as it is, there are other distinct musical forms that involve the banjo.  So a defining title is needed.  Unfortunately we are currently stuck with "classic banjo".

If you want to speak strictly in "period" terms, the correct is "guitar style banjo" or "fingerstyle banjo".  But, now, "guitar style" does not tell people anything as most people play guitars with a pick.  And "fingerstyle banjo"-- well that is old time or Scruggs. 

I think this may be a case of two nations divided by a common language. Substitute the word "accurate" for "correct" to get closer at what I think I understand Joel to be saying. The word "correct" does not have the same baggage in the states as in the UK.  Accurate words can help us understand the past or anything else we want to understand. "Classic" on this side of the Atlantic may not be the best possible fit for what we are discussing. After all, if we called a banjo a "guitar", it wouldn't be helpful. This is not a fanciful piece of ridiculousness. I have actually met people who think a banjo is a type of guitar. For them it's good enough because to them "guitar" means "it's got strings and makes music".  But we have the word "banjo" and it works better for the instrument we call by that name.
Mike Bostock said:

I'm not sure there is a 'correct' label Joel. 'Correct' is itself a very loaded concept relying as it does on criteria and contexts that in many historical instances we cannot be certain of at all. 'Correct' is also prescriptive and implies conformity within a relationship of power. It is highly questionable whether (or how) the mid 19th century English banjo context was subject to a relationship of power. The evidence inclines toward a notable degree of autonomy.

We can discuss the appropriateness (or not) of a term like finger style in the here and now. There is of course a technical 'logic' to such a label. However, it is a very much more fragile argument to apply that 'logic' to contexts we as yet barely understand and to people many of whom were likely illiterate or semi-literate. 

It is often more helpful to put our need to label to one side when considering how different and diverse people behaved.

Not exactly the same but W.E. Ballantine was referred to on his Banjo Gems as "England's Premier Classical Banjoist".

RE "Classic", My best guess is early 1970s.

Now, I could try and claim that there is something in these examples:

look under his image


But with the HUGE volume of publications that were put out (both by publishers as well as self published) one is certain to be able to find any reference they need that will support their agenda. 

Nah, the above examples are not proof of common usage, just promotion copy. 

Yeah, just kidding around, not targeted at anyone in particular but sort of a shot at American academia and their version of banjo history which ignores huge swaths of stuff. 

Not many people in the UK know what a banjo actually is.  They usually do a George Formby impression if I say I play the banjo.  I don't mind.  If I was to attempt to explain different banjos and playing approaches, I will see eyes glaze over!  

Mike Bostock said:

I can humorously add that the likelihood of the word 'banjo' on it's own being a topic of general conversation here is also pretty much zero to surreal.

Most English people don't give the banjo a thought. But many English people are typically interested in evidence that reveals a relationship to their heritage.

"It's turned out nice again"

Yes they probably will be impersonating him. 

He lived not far from where I was born and played many times in Blackpool. My mother always told the tale that she was walking around Blackpool looking in shops and people were pointing and laughing... she turned round and George Formby had been walking in her footsteps for ages waving to the other shoppers! He was a gentleman and it was all good fun at the time but I guess he would be locked up today ;-)

Ian, ex-member of the George Formby Society.

I think George Formby must be deeply imbedded within the national psyche.  If the word 'banjo' is mentioned (a rare occurrence in conversation, admittedly) then it produces immediate miming of playing the banjolele and a rendition of 'When I'm Cleaning Windows'.  It will probably fade-out eventually but it is a phenomenon I have witnessed on numerous occasions!  So really we are starting from a low-base of banjo knowledge here in the UK :)

Is that worse than the crossing of eyes, miming of buck teeth, and the most nasal “dinging” of Dueling Banjos that one can muster, followed by “squeal like a pig”?  Because that is what I get.

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