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…as I was saying…

For some years, my dad made some extra scratch as an after-dinner speaker on the topic the History of the Banjo.

The way I remember it, he took banjo from Joel Sweeney — the first white man known to play banjo on-stage, circa 1830 — through the army camps of the Civil War and then right into the 20th Century and bluegrass.

I didn’t know until years later what a gigantic chunk of banjo history got left out (and I didn’t know until this month it extended to Britain). For almost a hundred years, banjos of various kinds were THE parlor instrument, a staple of vaudeville and the centerpiece of many bands, amateur and professional. Minstrel style, finger style, classical and tenor, four string, five string, six string, eight string. The banjo was HUGE.

Funny we don’t remember that today. Maybe because nearly all the styles of music played on the banjo fell out of favor, with the exception of bluegrass. Maybe because the banjo era ended just as recording was coming on the scene, so little of it is preserved. Maybe because banjo sounded crap in early recordings.

I’m guessing, though, it’s because the banjo is so tightly bound up with minstrelsy. Spend five minutes poking around Google for early banjo and you’ll be up to your knees in burnt cork and n-bombs. No, of course you can’t impose a 21st Century racial attitude on the 19th Century, but it’s awfully hard to look back at blackface performance without thinking, “sweet Jesus — WTF?”

New Dead Pool tomorrow, 6pm WBT. Be there, or be somewhere else!


Comment from Mitchell
Time: June 23, 2011, 10:39 pm

And then Steve Martin came along and played a banjo with an arrow through his head.

Comment from S. Weasel
Time: June 23, 2011, 10:46 pm

He’s good, actually. Also, he’s got a brand new gig teaching at the Bluegrass Academy.

Thirty bucks a month including individualized instruction — not a bad bargain.

Comment from S. Weasel
Time: June 23, 2011, 10:48 pm

1909. Olly Oakley (Brit). Zither banjo. Stars and Stripes Forever.

Comment from S. Weasel
Time: June 23, 2011, 10:49 pm

1970-something. Chet Atkins. Classical guitar. Same.

Comment from Mark Matis
Time: June 23, 2011, 10:51 pm

Methinks it might have had something to do with “Deliverance” instead…

Comment from S. Weasel
Time: June 23, 2011, 11:12 pm

Dude. Duuuuuuuude. Deliverance was 1972.

I got socks older’n that.

Comment from S. Weasel
Time: June 23, 2011, 11:16 pm

The great Eddie Peabody.

Comment from Uncle Badger
Time: June 23, 2011, 11:22 pm

Eat your heart out Jeff Beck.


Comment from Ric Locke
Time: June 24, 2011, 1:40 am

Only Chet Atkins would even try to pick the piccolo counterpoint along with the main line. According to Sue Pruett, who played it well half a century ago, the piccolo part isn’t particularly difficult as piccolo parts go, but merging it had to be difficult.


Comment from Can’t hark my cry
Time: June 24, 2011, 2:19 am

I’ll think of y’all this weekend, which I will be spending at a festival of folk music and dance. . .where I expect banjos aplenty. Also, actually, ukuleles (the instrument portrayed on this year’s crew t-shirts, although one has to pay attention to realize it’s not a guitar. . .too few pegs) And, well, the various hybrids? Anyone’s guess, but it could happen!

Comment from Sancho Villa Fernandez-Hernandez
Time: June 24, 2011, 3:23 am

Me no gusto Gringo Mariachi.

Comment from Oh Hell
Time: June 24, 2011, 3:23 am

Who died?

Comment from The War Planner
Time: June 24, 2011, 3:52 am


Wonderful dissertation on the banjar here and a couple of posts below..

..maybe I missed it, but be sure to inform your faithful readers that the 5-string comes in two flavors (probably more): short neck with three frets from the drone peg to the nut and the long neck with five frets between the drone peg and the nut.


A former proud owner (and player) of a short-neck peg-tuned Vega Fairbanks.

(Always lusted after a long neck because, well, that’s what Dave Guard played.)

Comment from The War Planner
Time: June 24, 2011, 3:56 am

..oh, and six-string and minstrel style playing sucks to us old folk/bluegrass types. One either plucks, frails, or claw-hammers a banjo. One never incessantly strums a banjo. It’s kind of like playing Lady of Spain on an accordion; it’s just not done in polite society.


The Annoying One.

Comment from Allen
Time: June 24, 2011, 4:00 am

Musicians, oh dear me. A few weeks ago the circus was in town, my wife’s family. There are so many musicians in it, aye yi yi. Some semi-famous session types, some trying to get out on their own. They congregated, they jammed, they might have had some illicit substances outside, oh my.

I can only say I’m glad I have no musical talent. Those people are driven, and it looks like a demon.

Comment from JC
Time: June 24, 2011, 4:38 am

There was also a mandolin craze at about the same time

They would form parlor orchestras with instruments ranging in size from the piccolo size to bass.

Similarly, in Eastern Europe, the balaliake/domra thing.

Heh, stoopid old folks before the intertubewebz. Thy soe silly.

Comment from S. Weasel
Time: June 24, 2011, 10:08 am

Over here they call it a BMG orchestra (banjo mandolin guitar) and they’re still going strong.

My dad used to play Lady of Spain on the banjo. My mother gave up trying to explain to infant me why that was funny.

Comment from Mr. Dave
Time: June 24, 2011, 11:30 am

My friend Henry used to play Freight Train one fret off. Caca-phoney.

Comment from steve
Time: June 24, 2011, 2:45 pm

Someone’s in the kitchen with Dinah!


Comment from Paul in BarneyFrankistan
Time: June 25, 2011, 1:16 am

@Can’t Hark – would that be Old Songs, by any chance? Enjoy the mud!

I was somewhat surprised to find that one of my dance buddies, Jim-Bob Bollman, is somewhat of a banjo expert. Wrote a book, curated a museum exhibit – the whole nine yards.

Knows lots of banjo jokes too.

Q: What’s the difference between a banjo and a trampoline?
A: You don’t take your shoes and socks off before jumping up and down on a banjo.

Comment from Can’t hark my cry
Time: June 25, 2011, 5:45 am


Ayup. But I don’t camp. And. . .so far, it has been pretty cool (although it did rain during the Friday concert. . .) Mud reported from the camping grounds, but so far it seems folk are coping. Helps that the Fairgrounds have done some upgrading over recent years. . .

I take it you aren’t attending this year? But if you are–or attend in future years. . .stop by Gate Three and say “Howdy!”

Um. You do, of course, know the joke about the octopus and the bagpipes?

Comment from MIke C.
Time: June 25, 2011, 4:13 pm

Must be time for bodhrain jokes…

Paddy was halfway from the car park to the pub when he realised he’d left his bodhrain on the back seat of his unlocked car. He ran back to his car only to find his worst fears come true. There were two more bodhrains on the back seat next to his.

And yes, I have one of those as well. Can’t play it worth a crap, either.

Comment from Oceania
Time: June 25, 2011, 11:44 pm

Oh look – a survey of American Coke Cans


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