What on Earth possessed me to study the banjo?!
I’ve heard that question many times over the years from friends and acquaintances, but never felt the need to give an answer. You either get it or you don’t.
Before I discovered the banjo I was playing Scottish lute music, and 19th-century guitar music. I enjoyed the research involved, and playing music few had heard in decades or even hundreds of years. The instruments were fascinating, both in construction and social setting. It’s a cliche, but I did feel history coming alive through music.
Then one day I head someone on YouTube playing a fretless minstrel banjo. A seed was planted. It led to my personal discovery of the great 19th-century banjoist, Frank Converse, who did more than most to – as they would say – “elevate” the banjo to the concert hall. He was a complex character with close ties to Native American Indians, poor blacks, and wealthy whites. His books explored folk idioms with the downward striking index finger, “banjo style”, and the more sophisticated finger or “guitar style”.
So, I spent a good deal of time finding a banjo or two from the period, either original or reproduction, and furnished it with gut strings when possible. The fingerstyle technique outlined by Converse was very similar to that I’d been using for 19th-century guitar.
In some respect, I started my banjo exploration from its first publications in the 1850s. Here’s one of my earlier videos, with Frank Converse’s “The Dream”, which I think gives a good impression of the composers vision of what the banjo could do:
Later I ordered a fretless minstrel banjo, a Bouchet, from James Hartel. The low pitch and fretless sound were ideal for music from the first great banjo book, by Thom Briggs. However, I preferred the music from the next generation, such as Dobson, Buckley and Baur. Here is a mini recital of pieces by James and G. Swain Buckley‘s publications of 1868 and 1877. I hadn’t quite perfected the intonation of intervals when I made this video, but it still gives a good idea of the music of the period, and how it might sound on a fretless banjo with gut strings:
Although the American banjo scene was alien to me, being a Scot, the banjo scene in England was even further removed! Who knew that there was a strong, uninterrupted tradition of banjo playing in England, dating back as far as the American roots? Not me, for sure.
I discovered what many already knew – there were two great names in English banjo music: Emile Grimshaw and Joe Morley. I studied Grimshaw’s tutor books, which gave me a technique for Morley’s compositions. I say “a” technique, as many English players were quick to point out that I did not make the “correct’, that is, traditional sound.
But the great banjo maker and player, Eric Stefanelli, made me a first-rate banjo, and with it I got a little closer to the expected sound, though never quite “right”:
To be honest, I never really connected with the hard-edged sound, with little to no sustain. It seemed unnecessarily aggressive to my ears. I still don’t really like it. By contrast, the music often seemed wistful, subtle and was capable of quite poetic moments. I soon abandoned that style of playing, but not before persuading some of my ukulele and classical guitar students to give the banjo a try. We formed the Scottish Early Ragtime Orchestra, and after nearly two years of tuition, rehearsals and planning, we played our one and only concert to a standing-room-only crowd at the Edinburgh Festivals in 2012. Here is the last few items and encore, but first let me introduce the band:
The 4-string Era
The next stop on my tour of the banjo world was the four-string Plectrum banjo. During the 1910s and early 20s, banjoists began ignoring the 5th string drone, as they started playing with a pick or plectrum – the 5th string just got in the way. The plectrum proved to be a mini amplifier, allowing banjoists to compete with wind instruments in popular and early jazz bands.
The new instrument attracted many of the composers of five-string banjo music, such as Emile Grimshaw, who turned increasingly towards the Plectrum and Tenor banjos. But Grimshaw was not a jazz musician, and much of his music only hints at what is to come. His arrangement of Chopin’s Nocturne in Eb showed one possible future…
…while these three exercises from his Plectrum tutor show another more contemporary style (for some reason I am here playing a tenor banjo with plectrum banjo strings)
A popular piece in my repertoire at the time was by a compatriot of Grimshaw, the wonderfully named, Bertie Bassett – his Lazy Rhythm:
The tenor also came into my orbit, again through studying the works of Emile Grimshaw, but the richest pickings turned out to be found in the publications of the American, A. J. Weidt.
Weidt first published compositions for the 5-string banjo, but when the tenor banjo appeared, he really took to it, writing some of the catchiest music of the 1915-25 era, such as his Blue Stocking, here played on a grumbly cello banjo:
About this time I had calls from appreciative listeners (I more than hesitate to use the word “fans”!) to record an album of my repertoire. So I did. It is called. “The Art Of The Banjo, 1920 – 1930” and contains music for Plectrum, Tenor and 5-string banjos. The 5-string is steel-strung, and served for my Plectrum playing at that time. Both banjos were part-gifted by the Deering Banjo Company, and many thanks are due to them. Some time later they made me a real Plectrum banjo.
The track list is as follows:
Alfred Cammeyer – Ballad No.1; Albumblatt; Blue Eyes [all Plectrum]
Bert Bassett – Lazy Rhythm [Plectrum]
Walter E. Miles – Sparklets [Plectrum]
Budd L. Cross – Flirtation [Plectrum]
Emile Grimshaw – Banjo Blues [Fingerstyle]
Alfred Cammeyer – A Fireside Idyll; An April Blossom [both plectrum]; Cantabile and Valse; The Banjo Polka [both Fingerstyle]
Edmund Caselli – Languid Blues [Fingerstyle]
Joe Morley – Rose Leaves Gavotte [Fingerstyle]
Frédéric Chopin – Nocturne in Eb, arranged by Emile Grimshaw [Plectrum]
Arthur J. Weidt – El Dorado – Tango Fox Trot; Blue Stocking Caprice; Monday Morning Blues; Sparkling Crystals Novelette; Tangled – A Syncopated Mixup; My Lady Jazz; The Dixie Rube [All Tenor with plectrum]
I was delighted to feature the music of the American born, yet England domiciled, Alfred Cammeyer, on seven tracks. He is without question my favourite composer of the era, and although he wrote for an instrument he had some input into inventing, the zither banjo, I prefer his music on the plectrum banjo with steel strings.
You can hear excerpts from the album HERE, where you can also purchase it, as well as on iTunes and Amazon MP3.
I received wonderful and flattering praise from quite a few big-name professionals for the recording, but sales have been low. But I expected nothing more. This is obscure music, and even though there are quite a few plectrum and tenor players in the world, it is not their usual repertoire. Plus it is download-only. The cost of producing CDs, then traversing the globe trying to sell them, was more than I was able to commit to. But it’s still there for the curious 🙂
I had written a few guitar and also ukulele books for the publisher, Mel Bay. I offered them three banjo books:
Early American Classics For Banjo
This book/CD contains music from 19th-century America for the 5-string banjo. It could be played on any modern 5-string banjo, although I recorded the CD on an American gut-strung banjo, at the old American tuning of eAEG#B. All the pieces can be played on a banjo tuned gCGBD and gDGBD. More info on the BOOKS page.
Early Irish-American Banjo
Jigs, reels, etc, from 19th-Century America by Irish-American banjoists. The above video includes a tune which does not appear in the book, Marc Smith’s Day, which is sandwiched in-between two plays of St Patrick’s Day, played on a beautiful Cole banjorine, which I wish I still had! More info on the BOOKS page.
Bach’s Cello Suites for the Tenor Banjo
I’ve been a fan of Bach’s cello suites since the first time I heard them on the cello many years ago. Subsequently I played them on a guitar, and then on a baroque lute. But it was’t until I played them on a tenor banjo – which is tuned the same as a cello, only an octave higher – did I feel I was getting close to Bach. The music is embedded in the 5ths tuning. Playing them on a cello banjo was an obvious next step, as can be heard in the video. More info on the BOOKS page.
After all the above intense activity, I took a rest from banjo playing, and went on to classical guitar and jazz archtop playing. But as I write (January, 2016) I feel the banjo tugging at me once again. I had sold many of the instruments, but still have the Deering Eagle II Plectrum. I have ordered a Deering Eagle II Tenor again, but this time as an open-back. I don’t need a resonator, and the drop in weight will also be welcome.
Looking back on this work – and I have only mentioned a small percentage of it – I feel pleased I documented my journey through videos and editions. Already there are some pieces I can’t recall playing, but the proof is there.
Despite all the above, I still feel a gatecrasher into the banjo party. I’m not a “real” tenor player. I’m not a “real” classic-banjo player. Etc. I’ll never be an American Civil Ware re-enactor, singing songs in period costume with a fretless Boucher. But I have loved the journey, the instruments and the music. And, of course, I’ve met some good cyber friends along the way, and, yes, some I’d be happy never to encounter again. But that’s life, and music plays a big part in our lives.
I’ll keep playing and digging.
Now, what’s out there?…
9th January, 2016