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America's Instrument: The Banjo in the Nineteenth Century.

America's Instrument: The Banjo in the Nineteenth Century. By Philip F. Gura and James F. Bollman. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999. [xvi, 303 p. ISBN 0-8078-24844. $45.]

This is and will remain the definitive history of the production, advertisement, and distribution of the banjo in nineteenth-century America, of its "transformation from African folk origins into a sophisticated parlor and orchestra instrument" (p. 3). The authors address the intersection of organology, technology, and the music business, with less but significant attention paid to sociology, and with music often mentioned but little discussed. Philip Gura, a cultural historian and Americanist, wrote the text, while avid banjo collector James Bollman allowed the use of his magnificent array of instruments, photographs, and other documents, and also read the text for errors of fact. Gura's writing combines comprehensiveness with ingratiating informality and many graceful turns of phrase. The book is so dense in its documentation and technological detail that few apart from banjo lovers will read it from cover to cover. Yet nearly one hundred lush color plates and half again as many black-and-white photos and l ine drawings offer their own narrative, one as informative as sensual; few hooks featuring such meticulous scholarship will repose as easily on a coffee table.

The opening chapter, a review of previous scholarship on the origins of the banjo (and thus the only section that is not an original contribution) contains the book's only questionable interpretations. Was the banjo a straightforward transferral or conflation of African instruments (p. 2), or was it somewhat less directly linked, merely "derive[d] from African ancestors" (p. 1)? The received belief that "Africans and African-Americans had been making music with similar longnecked stringed instruments" (p. 11) is true, but oversimplified. West African string instruments had been (and still are) quite varied, falling into two main groups: lutes (see Eric Charry, "Plucked Lutes in West Africa: An Historical Overview," Galpin Society Journal 49 [1996]:3-37) and rather more common harps, on which a neck, likely curved, offers an anchor for the strings, but each string produces a single pitch. The banjo is a lute type, with the strings routinely pressed against the nearby neck to allow the production of many more p itches than are available on African harps. These harps are suited to performing one or several lines in a matrix of ostinatos, while the minstrel banjo, like its direct modern issue, the five-string banjo of twentieth-century southeastern string bands, is designed for a very different texture, the combination of a melody (itself performed in heterophony with a fiddle and perhaps a voice) with a drone. The selection process that started with such organological variety, eventually yielding the five-string banjo, must have been complex indeed. What was needed was an instrument looking African and with an African timbre, but allowing the performance of European-style melodies.

The drone on the banjo's fifth string, though having African precedents, echoed the sound of Scottish folk music. Slave fiddlers performed a British repertory featuring Scottish tunes, which were echoed as well in many minstrel songs. For instance, "Old Zip Coon," today's "Turkey in the Straw," follows the contour of the eighteenth-century Scottish fiddle tune and ballad-opera melody "Rose Tree." We know that minstrel melodies are not particularly African and that playing them with a superimposed vague imitation of African rhythms and timbres helped create music that was not African but, rather, about the feelings of white Americans toward blacks. Why not understand the early minstrel banjo similarly, as partly a logical continuation of African instrument making, but equally as a superficial--albeit fascinating--organological caricature?

The second chapter is entitled "An Expanding Market: The Dobson Brothers and the Rise of Banjo Culture." As the ethos of the banjo diversified, its repertory and technique became more like that of the genteel guitar and related (and hybrid) instruments. In this chapter, the reader follows the transition from careful and constantly innovative individual craftsmanship toward mass production and consequent broadened access. There is much detail here on, for instance, open- and closed-back banjos and refinements of each. Gura discusses the growing variety and reach of banjo tutors. He mentions music often here, but chooses not to provide any examples.

The third chapter, "Selling the Banjo to All America: Philadelphia's S. S. Stewart," centers on Stewart's remarkable mercantile empire. Late in the nineteenth century, he sold great quantities of banjos, instrument parts, strings, instruction books, sheet music, and advertising "centered on what in a mere twenty years he had enshrined as America's instrument" (p. 138). He was more a salesman well attuned to middle-class needs to feel genteel than a technological innovator, though he continued to insist that his instruments were made by skilled craftsmen. During this period, progress in manufacturing focused on an enormous proliferation of types of banjos for use in banjo orchestras. The most interesting part of this chapter concerns Stewart's symbiotic relationship with Horace Weston, a famous black banjoist.

The fourth chapter is "Manufacturing the Real Thing: Fairbanks, Cole, and the Golden Age of Boston Banjo Making." At the end of the nineteenth century, with "Stewart essentially having won the battle for the instrument's elevation, Boston's banjo makers were free to concentrate on its design" (p. 192). A new type of rim allowed perceptibly better tone. This and other improvements are explored in remarkable detail. The conclusion of the book describes how banjo makers continued to follow national musical taste as well as they could. The five-string instrument nevertheless was largely supplanted in most circles by the tenor banjo (the banjo of ragtime and jazz), but it did survive in regular use played in clawhammer style (the continuation of minstrel-style performance) in rural areas, where it would be available for revival later in the twentieth century--but that is beyond the purview of this volume. Gura plays clawhammer-style banjo at modern southeastern fiddle contests; I hope he eventually complements th is book with one on the modern uses of the five-string banjo.

This study, while groundbreaking in its coverage of manufacturing, decoration, and advertising, is also so thorough that I cannot imagine it ever making sense to redo it. Readers who own nineteenth-century banjos will join me in the pleasure of learning intimate details of their own instruments' histories. Gura notes that "while we recently have learned in what ways the idea of the banjo impinged on American self-consciousness over two centuries, no one [previously had] essayed a history of how changes in musical taste affected the technology and business of banjo making" (p. 3). Indeed, his thoroughness outstrips that found in any of the surrounding scholarship to which he refers; work in those areas may now lean on his. All friends of the banjo will want to own copies of this book, as will anyone interested in the history of the music business in the United States, organologists, and many historians of American culture.
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Title Annotation:Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 2001
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