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Nov 14, 2017 - 10:45:23 AM
6 posts
Joined Oct 1, 2017

There seem to be very few 5 string banjos after the first few years of the 20th Century. Even fewer of those are openback banjos. And if there are any they seem to have been converted from 4 string banjos by adding new necks.

What is the history behind the 5 string's disappearance?

Any recommended readings on banjo history?

Thanks.

Nov 14, 2017 - 11:03:32 AM

trapdoor2 Players Union Member

USA

10532 posts
Joined Apr 23, 2004

quote:
Originally posted by 2hennepin6

There seem to be very few 5 string banjos after the first few years of the 20th Century. Even fewer of those are openback banjos. And if there are any they seem to have been converted from 4 string banjos by adding new necks.

What is the history behind the 5 string's disappearance?

Any recommended readings on banjo history?

Thanks.


Popular music changed. The Castle's (Vernon and Irene) dance revolution changed the way bands were structured. Jazz happened. The banjo became a rhythm instrument, needed volume to compete in the dance bands and grew a resonator...and lost its 5th string to boot. The recording process changed from acoustic to electric and the modern guitar started its ascendency.

It didn't really disappear, only went underground...to resurface in the 40's, 50's and 60's.

Edited by - trapdoor2 on 11/14/2017 11:05:29

Nov 14, 2017 - 12:01:11 PM
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3577 posts
Joined Sep 21, 2007

A factor (I feel was a large contributor) that was part of the decline in popularity was the two "systems" of published music.

I understand that this is going to be a difficult concept to understand in the age of "ear playing" and "tab," but it became a big problem in the early 20th century. Many teachers refused to change to C notation and some offered to teach both. How would a student know what to choose? It was confusing. But what was not confusing was that the Plectrum and Tenor banjos were taught in notation to pitch.

I figure most prospective students just said "eff it! I'll learn Tenor banjo instead of deciding if I should read in A or C."

Heck, the A or C notation is still confusing today!

Primary documentation is always fun. Recently the Eastman School of Music posted scans of the Crescendo-- the magazine of the Guild of Banjoist Mandolinists and Guitarists, a trade group of pros and companies that banded together around 1901.

If you look back on just about all "fad" industries that have a large surge in popularity that drops off pretty fast you will find that most of them do this-- form groups to try and perpetuate their industry.

Read these if you really want to know. It is a trade magazine of the industry that was trying to stay in business. They had plenty of articles about this very subject (it was all instruments, not just the banjo, that were in trouble).

As far as I can tell it is near complete. It is missing one Volume and goes up until it combines with Frets Magazine. I am not sure if it continued with the same name or changed to "Frets" at that time.

urresearch.rochester.edu/insti...mId=32598

It starts with 1909 and runs to 1927.

In the last issue of 1927 you will notice that they are still including a 5 String banjo solo with the music supplements. The piece was published in a earlier issue. I don't remember from when I was going through them but I think the first version they published was in A notation. "Kraney Krow Kamp" from 1915 is a fun little Foxtrot by George Lansing. BTW, Lansing's name had been in the banjo world from the mid 1880s and can claim composing one of the best selling titles of the "classic era," "The Darkies Dream." It is rare that I find a pile of music that this one is not in.

It is usually not a good sign when you still see the same names at the head of an industry 40 years later.

Yet they are still including 5 string banjo music in almost every issue through 1927. That is a lot of space to devote to a instrument that "disappeared."

As Marc posted, musical tastes changed. But that really does not explain it. Music has changed a lot since the 1950s but the electric guitar still dominates popular music.

I am sure musical tastes were not the only factor. There was lots of competition. Record players, automobiles, radio, etc., that would take up time and money.

The switch from A to C certainly came at a bad time and sealed the tomb.

Try to avoid reading any material published later than the 1960s from the "folk" or bluegrass point of view. A lot of the "disappearance" nonsense was self serving... "the banjo was nothing until Scruggs rescued it from obscurity" or "this is the real old time banjo that they played back in the mountains." It was all for self promotion or to paint a picture of an imaginary time and place.

Nov 14, 2017 - 12:26:02 PM

6 posts
Joined Oct 1, 2017

Thanks for the great info. I was noticing this "disappearance" in my search for a banjo upgrade.  Seems there is a gap from early 1900s to late 1950s or even 1960s- at least judging from what is for sale. Admittedly an incomplete overview.

Edited by - 2hennepin6 on 11/14/2017 12:30:11

Nov 14, 2017 - 12:47:47 PM

beezaboy Players Union Member

USA

4153 posts
Joined Mar 22, 2008

I don't think anyone has written an article identifying the many reasons the 5-string banjo fell from favor beginning in the early 20th century say 1905-1910 and proceeding up to its corpse about 1917.

I height of the 5-string classic style was in the 1890's I think.

I think declining interest in the 5-string occurred because people got tired of it by the 20th century.

I've read that 5-string banjos were passť in vaudeville by the aughts.

I've read that tuning for the 5-string was not compatible with the dance band music and the bands that were proliferating by 1910 with burgeoning interest in social dancing. A 5-string player, I've read, had to skate all over the fretboard to play the piano arrangements that had to be transposed as well. Many people thought that a banjo tuned in 5ths would work better in the dance bands.

I've read that the banjo fingerstyle was difficult to learn and execute and was not attractive to the casual hobbiest as the 20th century progressed. I've read that executing the tremolo fingerstyle was very challenging but was required for playing slow numbers in the dance band.

According to an interview with David Day he thought the tenor banjo came into its own by 1914. I think it was 1915 or so when Myron Bickford said that most of the dance bands in New York used the tenor banjo. The entrenched 5-string old guard cried out against the use of a flat pick with the 5-string from as early as the late 1890's which I think inhibited the progress of the plectrum banjo. So, when someone heard the banjo played live in a band by the end of the teens it would have most likely been a tenor banjo. Thus inspired the listener and prospective player would choose the tenor over the 5-string.

Nov 14, 2017 - 1:03:45 PM

Fathand

Canada

10451 posts
Joined Feb 7, 2008

5 String Banjos were largely used in Minstrel Shows from about 1835 to early 1900s. Minstrel Shows started to become politically incorrect around the start of the 20th century especially among women who were more "sensitive" and blacks who felt maligned. Guitars started to become more readily available and were suitable to parlor music, blues and other popular music. 5 string banjos lost their 5th string as they became used for rhythm in unamplified jazz and dance bands.

5 string banjos continued to be played in economically downtrodden Appalachia and poor regions as they were available cheap, discarded from other genres and demographic areas.

With the advent of amplified music, the banjo was no longer required as a loud rhythm instrument and fell into further decline. The 5 string made it's come back largely due to Earl Scruggs and those that emulated him.

Nov 14, 2017 - 2:15:49 PM
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7178 posts
Joined Feb 22, 2007

If the five string open back banjo had been invented twenty years ago and all of my "Old Time" music had been composed---in NYC!--- at the same time, I do believe that I would be just as much of a fan. I'm into the music as music and don't care one bit about the cultural history. I'm not saying that I don't find it interesting, just that it has nothing at all to do with why I like the music. I was burned out on rock and what passes for Country and found something new-to-me, and it was vital and exciting. The music stands alone without needing any history to prop it up.

Nov 14, 2017 - 2:35:06 PM

10233 posts
Joined Oct 30, 2008

Consider the "fad" rise of mandolin orchestras and the "fad" of ukuleles as part of the competitive world that a young person might consider if they wanted to take up a stringed instrument. Then of course louder/larger guitars and electric guitars! Even Hawaiian music was a 20th century "fad" that gave aspiring string players something else to consider. The 5 string banjo in its day probably had a run as long as electric guitars have been enjoying since WWII.

The minstrel show found that it could survive without the 5 string banjo too.

Nov 14, 2017 - 3:24:45 PM
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Chadbanjo

Canada

1270 posts
Joined Mar 27, 2010

" Music has changed a lot since the 1950s but the electric guitar still dominates popular music."

when listening to the radio, todays newest pop music...i rarely hear a guitar any more...just electronic beats and sounds along with vocals. Terrible, the radio doesn't stay on to long.

Nov 14, 2017 - 3:27:15 PM
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Emiel

Austria

8619 posts
Joined Jan 22, 2003

quote:
Originally posted by Fathand

The 5 string made it's come back largely due to Earl Scruggs and those that emulated him.


i would also mention Pete Seeger here.

Nov 14, 2017 - 4:01:10 PM
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140 posts
Joined Feb 27, 2009

Yes, Pete was an inspiration to many people. I guess that many of us over 60 would credit him as our primary banjo influence.

Nov 14, 2017 - 6:30:03 PM
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2889 posts
Joined Mar 28, 2008

quote:
Originally posted by Fathand

 Minstrel Shows started to become politically incorrect around the start of the 20th century especially among women who were more "sensitive" and blacks who felt maligned.


For a different view, see That Half-Barbaric Twang: The Banjo in American Popular Culture (1991), where Karen Linn argues (convincingly, IMHO) that the minstrel show "did not lose its dominance in American theater because of its embarrassing racism. The show just became old-fashioned and vaudeville and the moving picture shows pushed it aside."

Nov 14, 2017 - 6:41:42 PM

csacwp

USA

1311 posts
Joined Jan 15, 2014

5-string banjo (classic banjo) remained popular through the ‘20s, though the golden era came to an end during WWI. Period documentation is clear about this, whereas the stuff published by folkies like Linn apparently missed it entirely.

Edited by - csacwp on 11/14/2017 18:42:00

Nov 14, 2017 - 7:08:25 PM

2889 posts
Joined Mar 28, 2008

The quotation from Linn's book was not about the decline of interest in the 5-string per se, but rather about the decline of the full-blown minstrel show as a dominant presence on the popular scene. My point (and hers) was that it did not decline because of enlightened racial attitudes. Indeed, the racial stereotypes and tropes of the minstrel show persisted for decades--but in other types of entertainment.

How popular was classic banjo in the 1920s, and what was the average age of its devotees, compared with 20 or 30 years earlier? 

Nov 14, 2017 - 7:49:18 PM
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csacwp

USA

1311 posts
Joined Jan 15, 2014

Ira, sorry if I am being confusing... I wasnít responding directly to your post or your Linn quote, but to Linnís book as a whole. The average age of classic banjoists in the Ď20s was likely somewhat older in the USA, though there were some young players picking it up. Many of the BMG clubs werw still around and kicking. In England, the 5-string was still going strong with tons of young players.

Nov 15, 2017 - 6:20:32 AM
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3577 posts
Joined Sep 21, 2007

beezaboy you make some good points. As big of a promoter of "classic banjo" as I am, I do understand that the vast majority of music is written in three keys. Music composed for other instruments like piano is rarely arranged in the same key for banjo, instead it is transposed into one of those three "natural" keys.

That is not to say that one cannot play in any key using the "classic banjo" skills, nor that music was only composed in those three keys, but for every piece that was not in C, G, F, or their relative minors there are hundreds that were.

During the banjo fad, (1880s to late 1890s) the banjo was cool enough to carry a concert (well, with the addition of other acts like "glee clubs" etc.). It is clear that starting post 1900 popular music shifted to ensembles of various instrumentation. This is reflected in catalogs of music published by companies like Walter Jacobs and Witmark & Sons that would have the same piece arranged for scads of instruments (including banjo) that could be played together.

Your point about pros dropping it in favor of more compatible instruments is also interesting. The paying public really dictates what is played by pros (hard to make a living playing music people don't want to hear) while the pro's promotion and endorsement drives the paying public. Popular culture is a strange circle.

The 5 string of the "classic era" was mostly amateur funded (local "clubs"-- sometimes called "orchestras"), those same amateurs buying music and instruments in imitation of the pros they would go see in concert. Many of the people who wrote in to periodicals during that time had other professions and played banjos as a hobby never expecting to do anything more than perhaps a local recital.

The dance music of post 1900 seems to have been driven by pros with amateurs perhaps hoping to reach the pro status to make a living-- that is my take of it.

As far as how difficult "classic banjo" was or is, it did become that way. After several generations skills get very good. Look at Evel Knievel jumps compared to a stunt show of today. His jumps were exciting for the time-- now they are normal.

Banjoists got so good that a new player just coming in was so far behind so it took a lot of effort to even get near average. Compare that to the music published in the early and mid 1880s-- that stuff was much easier to play. I can sight read most of it so it would be nothing to get together with friends, throw one of these duets on a music stand and work it up on the spot. It was musical and easy to play.

Get into the late 90s and early 1900s and the bar gets raised quite a bit. The "easy" solos are much harder than the "hard" solos of the 80s. That can take the wind out of the sails pretty quick.

Then look at the British publications of the teens to 30s and the bar is much higher. Morley, Grimshaw, etc. published some solos that take me months of practice to be able to just play through slowly.

That does not include the Bradbury and Bacon music-- most of which will always be out of my reach. If that was all there was when I started I would have given up long ago. Lucky I had access to early SSS publications that were fun and easy to play.

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