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An anonymous Watauga County banjer: its two lives

Posted by cbcarlisle on Thursday, September 22, 2011

  This is an examination of an anonymous Watauga County, North Carolina-style fretless banjo I purchased on eBay in 2011. The seller, a woodworker and cabinet maker of Early American furniture, had purchased it from an antique store in Winston-Salem around 1988. It had several unusual characteristics which interested me and provided the impetus for my determined acquisition. The most obvious distinction is the elaborate peghead design which is idiosyncratic but reminiscent of some early factory patterns. However, the realization of the design, particularly the extreme angles of the planes of the sides, contrasted with the right-angled placement of the pegs, betrays a certain naive approach. The contrast between the rough and ready, traditional body and the more sophisticated neck design was apparent even at first glance. The differences became more obvious with closer scrutiny.
  Upon disassembly there were clearly different hands at work on the neck and on the body. The body was made of a close -grained, but rather porous wood, probably maple, which seemed to have been wiped with a slight stain on the exterior. In the traditional three stacked ring construction, there were indications that it originally had tabs on the upper and lower rings facing the neck. The top tab was completely removed, its existence only betrayed by the sharper edges at the top and bottom of the ring and the slightly fresher wood between. The lower tab had been recut into the unusual diamond-shaped appendage which was inset into the heel of the neck. Its previous extent could also be seen by the sharper edges and the lack of oxidation. Excepting the recut tab, all the tool marks on the body showed the use of hand tools, mostly rasps, files, and chisels. None of the surfaces was completely flat or rounded. The interior surfaces showed no attempt at superfluous smoothing.
  The heart of the instrument, the metal cylinder which stretched the head, is a likely hand-forged piece of iron with handmade copper rivets pinning it together. The technology still exists, and it could have been made up to 1988, or 100 years or more before. The use of modern stove pipe material in the Glenn-Proffitt banjos from the 1960s, suggest this one is either earlier or from a separate branch of the tradition. The existing, broken, skin head was attached to the upper surface of the center ring by 22 small metal brads. That it was not the original head is shown by the remnants of 65 tiny wooden pegs on the under side of the top ring. Thus the earlier head(s) was fastened to a different surface, probably at least twice. (20 or 30 pegs each seem more likely than all 65 to secure a single head.)
  The overall appearance of the body is pleasantly distinctive. The center ring is recessed approximately 3/8" all around and the top and bottom ring surfaces have a series of decorative scribed concentric circles. The top is fastened with 12 countersunk brass flathead screws centered on the second of the four scribed circles. The back, by way of contrast, has 12 round-headed brass screws, also centered on a scribed circle, the second of five.
  The concentric circles, clearly made with the aid of a compass, also give data points to ascertain the amount of shrinkage in the wood. A given circle is as much as 1/4" out of round, thus explaining the 1/8" crack which has opened up in the top ring. Unable to prevail against the immovable iron ring, the top split. [This also provides me with a simple means of restoring the banjo to playing condition; I shall re-join the crack and simply enlarge the center hole to fit the iron ring.]
  Thus, the original instrument was probably a typical example of the Watauga County style with a simple neck fitted between tabs on the top and bottom of the body. For whatever reason the original neck was replaced at a later date by a very different, more urban style neck, made in one piece. This neck, with its imitation of a fancy, factory made peghead, is also much shorter in relation to the body, giving the banjo a somewhat stumpy look. The heel and the neck profile is a rounded vee shape, likewise reflecting a more urban sensibility. Not wanting to cut into the top surface of the already-existing neck, the worker removed the top tab and modified the lower tab to fit into the heel. The heel portion of the neck was originally much longer (and perhaps would have retained the proportions of the original neck) but was cut to fit into the old body, including a thin tenon which extended into the Middle of the center ring. It was then pegged through the center ring and, combined with the short section of the neck clamped between the top and bottom, as well as the inlaid tab at the base of the heel, provided an ad hoc security to the neck joint to take the place of the much more logical, traditional approach. Judging by the traces of the tabs the original neck was approximately 2 1/4" at the top and at least 1 1/2" on the bottom.
 
 



1 comment on “An anonymous Watauga County banjer: its two lives”

cbcarlisle Says:
Tuesday, September 27, 2011 @1:15:07 PM

Don't forget to see the pictures in my Photos folder.

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