Hello everybody,

While searching for banjo records on a french radio website I stumbled upon this emission broadcasted in 2013, in which you can listen to two banjo records (which I find really enjoyable), played by Vance Lowry around 1926 : http://www.francemusique.fr/emission/le-fabuleux-monde-des-archives...

While listening to the first one (it starts at 11'53, following a few explanations by the person who curated the program) I thought he was playing a 4-string banjo (wether plectrum or tenor I'm not sure - there are some moments where it also sounds a bit like a 5-string, but I don't know the subject well enough to be sure), but the second (which starts around 12'30) seems to be a 5 string banjo played in the classic way (which would maybe explain that title, "l'harpo-banjo", which can be translated as "the harp-banjo" I think).

I'm quite curious about this player; does anybody knows exactly what kind of banjo he's playing in each of these records? Were his arrangements ever published? Do you have more informations about his life and other pieces or records? There are some informations on his life in France in the programme (where he apparently knew the poet Jean Cocteau), and somebody called Tony Thomas posted some interesting informations on this youtube video in which Lowry's playing can also be heard : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WKXzR8a-_DE

Just in case he wouldn't be playing classic banjo and that discussion would be irrelevant to the present website, here is an other broadcast from the same website which features several classic banjo records (and this time I'm sure of it :) ) : http://www.francemusique.fr/emission/le-fabuleux-monde-des-archives...

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Yes.  I know of many, many players of the guitar banjo style who took up the tenor and the plectrum banjo, both well known players and people I know of personally.  I think it is almost assumed among classic players of a certain generation.

However, this seems rare among African American players who became known as Jazz banjoists that I have investigated.  This may be because  a large portion of well known Black jazz banjoists, particularly from New Orleans and Chicago where the New Orleans banjoists migrated and set the tone early played  six-string guitar banjos and had a major influence.

The interesting thing about my second go at Lowry is to find the names of how many who I know of as 1920s and 1930s jazz banjoists who came out of the Clef and Tempo Club milieus (around 1914 there was a split and Europe set up a separate organization called the Tempo club) which seems to have been a major encourager of mandolin descended banjo playing who came from other instruments to the tenor banjo.  I read an interesting column by Noble Sissle, one of the leaders of the Clef Club and the drum major in Europe's military band, which pointed out that especially in the 1900s and 1910s,  Black musicians to play "Society" which was the main market Clef Clubbers oriented at were not expected to play certain instruments, particularly in private gigs in the homes of  NYC's top 400.  The violin--which Europe himself received training in from childhood-- and the piano was thought of as instruments Blacks were not supposed to play and horns.  To work these gigs, Sissle says musicians took up the mandolin and mandolin descended banjos.  Reese Europe himself took up the mandolin when he made his entrance in NYC professional entertainment around 1900 with "the Memphis Students" and not the violin or the piano which he had also mastered.  There is a big contrast between NYC Black musicians who were early representatives of the tenor banjo and other now extinct instruments like the banjolin and the melody banjo while New Orleans musicians were largely guitarists. 
 
Joel Hooks said:

Many American banjoists took up the tenor and plectrum.  Even die-hard 5 string devotes like George Lansing would play and teach tenor when that is what it took to pay the bills.

Yes that peghead style shows up on banjolins from both sides of the pond.

I would agree with Joel (and Ian)...although I cannot hear a second banjo.

In the photograph of Lowry, compare his right hand with that of the banjolin player. The banjolin player is obviously holding a plectrum between his thumb and forefinger, his index and middle fingers are split exactly as expected since he's anchored to the head with his remaining fingers. Lowery's thumb is advanced further out, in textbook classic fingerstyle position. Awkward to hold a plectrum this way (although I've seen it done).

In looking closely a the banjo (Weaver or Essex, I dunno), The tension hoop where the strings pass over is reflective and appears to have 5 lines (reflections of strings). I don't know if this model has a relief cut out for the strings at the heel of the neck...if it does, that top string reflection might be the top of the cut-out.

Tony, I'm looking forward to hearing your presentation in November. I'll be there!

great.   as normal  the amount of information I am gathering is more like the beginning of what one would use for a book about these guys rather than a presentation of 30 minute.  What interests me is that our view of the banjo world and its history as a whole tends to be distorted because most people doing work abot the larger history of the banjo are people like mnyself,  As a banjoist I am interested in old time banjo both African American and  European American.  That is why I have 6 or 7 banjos to play.  This is what I listen to.  However, the real world of the banjo's history is not defined by those banjo style that do NOT have any direct route to authenticity over other wings of the banjo;s life.

Anyway,  I haven't actually gotten to these particular recordings,  bludgeoning my way forward.  I am at the point where the Ciro Club has closed,  Lowry and his band mates are going on their tour of France and for a while they end up in a band led by drummer Louis Mitchell.  I must say the amount of information one can obtain now with the various newspaper databases is amazing

Well this is all that  is available on the web but it is quite inaccurate, of course we banjo nerds plunge into all the unncessary details necessary. I am in the midst of trying to figure out what he did before the Southern Symphony quarter which he joined some time between 1912 and 1914.  He was in England the first time in 1914 from June 8  and returned to NYC  on Sept 21.  Thereafter he played in the band for Joan Sawyer.  The 7 spades were formed when Ciro's club shut down in  march 1917.  The 7 spades were not run by Louis Mitchell although he hooked up with them.  The 7 Spades were formed by everyone in the Ciros band but Dan Kildare,.  Louis Mitchell who had been in the band at the Hippodrome and various other gigs, another old Clef Clubber joined the Spades.  They formed to tour the UK which they did from April  1917 until October 1917 when they began a set of engagements in Paris.  They were booked to go on to engagements in Russia but the Soviet had different priorities for the country, LOL,  the Alhambra engagement had nothing to do with what is on his passport just engagements in France and Russia, and it was secured AFTER all the engagements planned in Paris had been exhausted, and was probably t a substitute for whatever they had been bocked into in Russia,    In France the band started to be known as Louis Mitchells' band, but then Lowry left it some time in 1918 or 1919.  The association with Wiener was an associated that put Lowry in the center of the Parisian Avante Guarde especially with Jean Cocteau when Jazz was in vogue among them i the mid 1920s

Tony, you and Joel each seem relentlessly (in the best way) interested in discovering How It Really Was and then letting the rest of us know.   This is a welcome development and such a change from the other sort of banjo "scholarship" which is based on notions, ideology, and communal partisanship rather than on empirical evidence.  I say this as someone who has loved and played American Old time music and bluegrass my entire life.  The real story of the banjo and the music it has played is so rich and varied. I hope someone researches and illuminates the story of the banjo  in the Caribbean. Just the other day I was listening to Roaring Lion's 1940s kaiso/calypso recording of Mary Ann whose chorus goes 

All Day All Night Miss Mary Ann

Down by the seaside she sifting sand 

Strings on a banjo can tie a goat

Water from the ocean can sail a boat.

How's that again?  Tying a goat with banjo strings?  What were the strings made of? Not metal surely.  I'm thinking of the rhythmic chordal accompaniment that Lord Invader played on the cuatro  (the soft-strung kind from Trinidad and Venezuela ).  Was Caribbean banjo playing something like this? I have no idea!

I am also contemplating a number of possible explanations for an anomaly. 

120 and maybe even 100 years before the time a black musician in white America  is expected to not be a violinist, the ability to ably play violin was a major selling point for a house slave.  I have seen facsimiles of the adverts.  What an odd change.  People sure get peculiar ideas.

By the way over the years  I have played about half a dozen single course short-necked banjos tuned as a mandolin and built before the time of the tenor banjo. Each sounded really good.

Hi All,

As one who also tries to pledge fealty to How It Really Was, I’m attaching here a photo which perhaps you can make use of in your talk, Tony, of (I think) Louis Mitchell’s Jazz Kings with perhaps Vance Lowry seated holding a banjolin and Dan Kildare at the piano, c. 1915 or so. This was fished from a Manhattan trash can by my friend John Keen a few years ago and sent to me for inclusion in the final volume of my, ahem, still-to-be-completed fourth “Ragtime Ephemeralist,” but you’re welcome to present it with your talk if you don’t already have a copy. I wish I could be there; it sounds like it’s going to be fascinating. I always greatly enjoy your postings and your enthusiastic, engaging and ever-more precise research.

Not that it matters, but I believe the bandolins pictured here (not the Ecuadorian or Trinidadian instruments) are perhaps ones of American make, which I’ve read were by McGinnis and Shaw and stamped “Clef Club” to capitalize on the popularity, one imagines, of the name. After looking for years I finally found one last year and fixed it up (pictured, post-fixing up; dowel pre-fixing up) and it’s sort of fun to (try to) play, tuned of course like a violin/mandolin with a slightly radiused fingerboard. John Avery Turner has had an Essex version for sale on their site under "mandolins" for quite a while now.

Just to confuse things, I think they were also sometimes called “banjolins” or a “tango banjo” or “melody banjo” and the slightly later (?) banjo-mandolins were offered in both four- and eight-stringed versions. It’s seemed to me that the tenor banjo perhaps evolved out of all of this, tuned, as it is, in fifths like a violin or a mandolin (or really, a viola/mandola) but I dunno. Maybe the scroll-topped version was considered a sort of banjo-violin and the “paddle headed” version was a banjo-mandolin, even though each had four strings.

Also (not from my collection) a photo of “Europe’s String Octett” with, second from right, Noble Sissle (!) also holding a four-string banjo-mandolin-type thing.

A lot of these Kildare/Ciro’s Club recordings are available on YouTube, too:

St. Louis Blues — Dan Kildare Groups

All warmest of wishes, as always,

C.

P.S. Jody, as for strings, who knows, but if one believes the violin/mandolin principle, it might follow they were gut/metal, but life is complex and rule-less so the reality was probably much more interesting.

You should read and look at some of the work that Laurant Dubois has done about the banjo in the Caribbean.  Much of it appears in Laurants great book on the banjo.  Laurant is one of the world's great scholars of the Caribbean and has written magnificent books about Haiti and Guadaloupe and other things, we are quite lucky he is a banjo head


 
Jody Stecher said:

Tony, you and Joel each seem relentlessly (in the best way) interested in discovering How It Really Was and then letting the rest of us know.   This is a welcome development and such a change from the other sort of banjo "scholarship" which is based on notions, ideology, and communal partisanship rather than on empirical evidence.  I say this as someone who has loved and played American Old time music and bluegrass my entire life.  The real story of the banjo and the music it has played is so rich and varied. I hope someone researches and illuminates the story of the banjo  in the Caribbean. Just the other day I was listening to Roaring Lion's 1940s kaiso/calypso recording of Mary Ann whose chorus goes 

All Day All Night Miss Mary Ann

Down by the seaside she sifting sand 

Strings on a banjo can tie a goat

Water from the ocean can sail a boat.

How's that again?  Tying a goat with banjo strings?  What were the strings made of? Not metal surely.  I'm thinking of the rhythmic chordal accompaniment that Lord Invader played on the cuatro  (the soft-strung kind from Trinidad and Venezuela ).  Was Caribbean banjo playing something like this? I have no idea!

I am also contemplating a number of possible explanations for an anomaly. 

120 and maybe even 100 years before the time a black musician in white America  is expected to not be a violinist, the ability to ably play violin was a major selling point for a house slave.  I have seen facsimiles of the adverts.  What an odd change.  People sure get peculiar ideas.

By the way over the years  I have played about half a dozen single course short-necked banjos tuned as a mandolin and built before the time of the tenor banjo. Each sounded really good.

I have nothing against politics and concerns, the best years of my life were spent as a full time leader of the SWP, an organization I still sup[port, but banjo history is a concrete history of what people actually did, the actual problems they faced making music, making instruments.  My constant concern is that we imagine other times with lenses shaped by our own desires and ideas about them and not what they really were and that we have to dive into the past and see what people really did.  Taking this approach, the great group of us doing this stuff have found life more complex and richer and more interesting than we thought.  Hope some day that this former employee of CIL and of UC gets back out to see and hear you Jody on something other than Youtube

These are not melody banjos.  The Melody banjo was a 4 string version of the mandolin banjo.  Michael Holmes once told me many of them were later marketed as Uke banjos as the Hawaiian music craze came on/  Both Vega and Gibson produced resonator versions if you can believe it.  It is late and night and I woozy with trying to follow Lowry and the bands and the organizations he belonged to around the US and across England and France. So I would like to take a look at the pictures and figure them out.  

I am still trying to move backward from a known point with Lowry of 1914.  Mitchell did not have his Jazz kings or any such band until Paris in 1918 or 19.  He did set up the Southern Symphony Quartet around 1912 or 13 whch Lowry was part of that played in very posh "cafe's" in Manhattan.   In 1914 or so when Joan Sawer, a dancers who tried to model herself after the Castles set up the Persian room, she hired the Quintets to become her Persian Room Orchestra in imitation of the Castles who had danced to Europe's "Society Orchesra."  When the Persian room club crashed,  Sawyer took the band on the road as part of her touring vaudeville Act until the fall of 1916 when Sawyer became consumed in a trial in Chicago.  At this point Lowry and a few others went to England.  I do believe that Mitchell was already in England.  Mitchell never was part of the the Ciro's club band at the club.  He went over on his own and worked a variety of venues as a drummer.  He joined the 7 spades which everyone in the Ciros band but Kildare and a few others joined after Ciros was closed down.  But he didn't proclaim himself as a leader until Paris in Late 1917 or 18.    This is all precise little steps

Sissle was pretty clear that he was a "mandolin" or "banjo holder" more than a musician.  He was basically a very good looking you man in good shape who could sing and had a charming personality.  I think he had been a singing waiter, when someone said you can be in the band if you hold a banjo and act like you are playing it!!!!    

All of the Cro Club recordings were issued by Document records years ago on disk and are on CD and can now be downloaded from Documents site.  They appear in other collections as well.  This includes recording that some of these musicians including Lowry made in the USA with Joan Sawyer.  There are many other recordings Lowry made in France in the 20s including recordings he made in a band directed by Surrealist Artist and visionary Jean Cocteauw  who beame a collaborator.

I am tempted to call my presentation from Converse to Jean Cocteau as My start is that Stinson and Lowry were putting together a joint act and Stinson is written about by Converse though unfairly.

I have seen those Clef Club instruments.  Dom Flemmons instrument of choice is a Clef Club Guitar banjo.

thanks.  I would love to hear from you separately  F Chris,

After consulting with someone who I would call an "expert" on Weaver banjos, both banjos in this photo are confirmed as being his make.  So, both banjos are English.

Thanks  Joel. 

This is another sub point I want to make in my presentation.  That is that the Banjo is NOT "American,"  It did not start in the USA, and once it got out to the World in the 1840s through banjo entertainers it quickly became an international instrument.  By the 1840s banjos are in England and Ireland, and shortly afterwards banjo entertainers are in Australia and New Zealand and Admiral Perry is taking an amateur of his sailors minstrel troupe with him to Japan.  By the 40s or early 50s  banjo entertainers based in the US are bringing banjo performances to the West Indies and Latin America. At least by the  1870s and 80s, banjo entertainers are taking banjo music to Africa.  In _The Clipper_ in the 1850s the Dobson brothers are claiming they will ship a banjo to any ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD for a set fee!

Hosea Easton the African American banjoist who brought the guitar banjo style and much else to Australia from 1877 until his death in 1899 sends a puffing letter to SS Stewart for the Journal some time in the 80's I think.  He talks about his order of Stewart banjos to sell to his students, but he makes the puffing point that they are superior to the banjos being made in Australia at the time.  This means Australians are making banjos that are competitive.

BTW here is a picture believed to be Easton in New Zealand in the 70s or 80s (He went back and forth and seemed to go to NZ to evade marital and financial problems at times)   Can anyone tell me what kind of banjo this is

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