A Site Dedicated to all enthusiasts of Classic Style Banjo
Ian makes a very good point in the What Is Classic Banjo section, a point which is said over and over in different ways. And that is that the banjo as a cultural artifact is less significant than the banjo as a musical instrument. The banjo is as viable *now* as it was *then*. No one ever asks why we should eat "outdated" food such fruit, vegetables, or meat.
Sorry to get involved (as I really try not to lately).
On the subject of SSS. Yes, reading a random issue might give one that impression. But the fact is that most of it was strongly tongue in cheek. Swaim has long been the whipping boy, and wrongly so.
He was young and overworked. With that he still managed to put good banjos in peoples hands at a reasonable price.
More than that, he put affordable sheet music for banjo on peoples stands. He was the first to publish sheets and sell them at a reasonable price.
He was a good business man, but he also had a lot of fun. Bolsover Gibbs-- yeah that was a character invented as a gag. Funny (and pretty decent) music was published using that name (an example is "Liquid Inspiration Schottische," it has hiccups written in as grace notes). These guys were having fun.
He also recorded on paper many of Horace Weston's compositions. That is a important part of American history that would have been lost forever. But it aint because of Stewart.
It is difficult to look at the starched linen collars and tailored suits and still think of these guys as hip, fun loving musicians enjoying the ride of a successful business. But SSS as well as his friends were doing just that.
Sickly and stressed out as he was, he managed a big business, wrote/arranged/edited a crap load of music, published a magazine (thus scribing a bi-monthly slice of banjo popular culture for us), oversaw the construction of a pile of good banjos (many of them are still bringing the joy of music to people, three in my house). Not to mention raising two sons and enjoying equestrianism. Folks who knew him thought he was an all around nice guy (that is reflected in letters that he wrote).
If that was not enough, he still found time to produce concerts and play on stage.
So what if he made fun in his magazine. His readers were in on it-- they got the joke.
So what if he was good at writing marketing copy-- he was running a business and employing people. He was not greedy, he was making a living for himself, his family, his employees, and all the banjoists he published music for.
The exaggerated "elevation" was all part of the gag to a certain extent.
To draw a parallel line, think of this next time you see an ignorant hillbilly with a banjo on TV. I just watched an Episode of Dexter where a quote was "it is like Michelangelo playing the banjo." It makes my skin crawl-- I wish we could get past the ignorant southern hick banjo thing… I wish we could elevate past that image! See what I mean?
As to banjo history, most skip the "classic" era altogether. They make a leap from minstrelsy to four string jazz then to the Scruggs' rescue of the banjo. End of banjo history.
The "classic era" remains a strange nonentity. The banjo was in limbo until a young man named Earl Scruggs applied his three finger style to the banjo thus completing it.
What seems to be consistent is blaming SSS for "spreading the story that Sweeney added the fifth sting"-- and that is false. But alas! SSS takes the it on the chin.
Things are getting better. The fact that before we had to read books about banjo history (complete with misquotes). Now we can read books from banjo history, and all without leaving the house.
Fascinating, Joel. Great stuff. Now if you can just get beyond representing hillbillies as "ignorant" you'll be in a position to actually convince people about what really happened in history. I have met a lot of hillbillies in my time. Some were ignorant. Some were ignorant and stupid too. Many were knowledgeable and highly skilled and articulate too. And they were articulate about music and deeply insightful. But maybe I misunderstand you. I did misread your last paragraph. The first time I thought I read "complete with mosquitoes"!!
Please everyone, remember that this is meant to be a friendly discussion forum.
Let's try to keep it that way.
In my country there is a said "ni tanto que queme al santo ni poco que no lo alumbre" (sorry because the spanish). As an owner of a SSS Stewart and reading some of the monthly publications of SSS I can only agree with Joel that Stewart was making his live as many people of that time (making many things on the same time). Classic banjo style is only a part of the history of this amazing instrument. Ok, maybe we might not have a lot of publicity (I said in a nice way, I love the sound of banjo no matter the style) as a bluegrass and other musicians, but I do not consider it as a huge problem...I consider it as an opportunity to walk using a different path. Therefore, lets have fun playing...this is the best way to illustratate to people that the banjo as any musical instrument has a lot of possibilities to make our lives exciting and touching!
The history of the banjo, although of academic interest, is of less importance than the place that classic banjo has today. The steady trickle of members to our site, many from people who until now have played other genres of banjo, and the active participation of our members is what really matters. Whether or not it once again enters the mainstream of popular entertainment depends on us all, and we mustn't forget the sterling work that Ian has done in promoting and supporting our web site.
I can't see any problem with the 'elevation' theory, Clifford Essex certainly set out to elevate the banjo in the U.K. and it seems to me that SSS did the same in the U.S.A. Essex took his Pierrot Banjo Team to Henley Regatta in 1891 where the 'knobs' hung out, he and Cammeyer had their studio on fashionable Piccadilly, Essex later, moved to Grafton Street, near New Bond Street, Cammeyer had his studio on Jermyn Street (entrance in York Street) their banjos were expensive and not within reach of the ordinary man/woman. It all makes sense to me, they were aiming at the people who had money. Essex got the Royal family to put their stamp of approval on the banjo, after blagging his way aboard the Royal Yacht at Cowes, in 1891 - Queen Victoria's offspring, notably the Duke of Clarence, and the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward V11 both played the banjo, and whatever the Royal family did was taken up by 'society'. It wasn't necessary to play classical/highbrow music on the banjo; from what I can see, the landed/titled/nobility were quite happy to play the simple 'characteristic' banjo tunes and sing the songs made popular by the Moore and Burgess/Mohawk Minstrels., Very few of them, notably the Hon. Arthur Strutt in particular, took their banjo playing to any level beyond the elementary, they bought the top model banjos because they had the best of everything in every aspect of their lives, Essex himself said 'Price with our clientele, wasn't a problem, the difficulty was in getting hold of sufficient banjos to satisfy the demand'.