I am interested in the origins and progress of 4-string banjos. I am currently working on a project that touched upon the Plectrum Banjo. Reminded that I wrote an article about the Plectrum 10 years ago I thought I'd post it for anyone interested. I don't think I've seen a written history of the Plectrum Banjo but there might be one. Let us know. I can only post 3 attachments so will have to continue the text in subsequent entries to this thread. Finally, a picture of vaudvillian Joe Termini with his 5-string "Plectrum Style" banjo ca. 1920's to put things in perspective and saving 1000 words.
Plectrum Banjo Story pages 4, 5, and 6
Edited by - beezaboy on 05/18/2023 07:59:14
The Plectrum Banjo Story pages 7 and 8 with picture of Joe Termini and his "Plectrum Style" 5-string banjo
Edited by - beezaboy on 05/18/2023 08:05:30
Hi John, is there any way this could be shared in a PDF format so that I could sit down and read it?
Joel - I haven't a clue. Strickly old school. I just scanned my Word to jpeg to post here. That's my techno limit. BTW - I wrote this when guitar style might have been called "classical style" by some before I was properly educated to "classic style" which should set some teeths on edge. Oh, well.
I thought most banjo pickers' teeth were missing.
Oh. wait. I think that only applies to Hillbillies, who generally play 5-string banjos, not plectrums.
Originally posted by Joel Hooks
Hi John, is there any way this could be shared in a PDF format so that I could sit down and read it?
Here it is!
Fantastic article, John! Thanks for posting this important and historical contribution. It really fills in a lot of cracks with solid information.
A couple of observations/questions. The resurgence in the mid 1950s would put young people who grew up in the 20s in middle age. How much of this new resurgence was based in nostalgia?
Regarding "old guards". This is a theme in works on banjo history, pointing out how the industry controlled/forced music and styles on the unwilling public. But they were never successful the few times they tried. Stewart followed what was popular but still supported stroke style playing. I have a feeling that if he lived to see pick paying he would have come around to that too.
Classes. I do not know if it was intended, but it was implied in your article that guitar style banjo was driven by the wealthy while pick playing was the love of the working class. This sort of "wealthy elite" connection to classic banjo has been so focused on that we are left to believe that only the 1% played classic banjo. We have been having some discussion over on the classic banjo site about class.
I would offer that the change was generational, just like every other musical style or genre that comes along. The older generation being against what "the kids" were doing.
When this subject comes up I like to point out that it was the working class that also drove guitar style banjo. I also like to share this list of names and occupations prior to the shift to musician.
George Lansing clerk in a drugstore
E. M. Hall barber
Vess L. Ossman delivery wagon driver for his family's bakery
Fred Van Eps watchmaker apprentice
Albert Baur runaway as a teenager, hotel desk clerk, sold insurance and later real estate
William Farmer plumber/pipe fitter
Alex Magee plumber/pipe fitter
Frank Bradbury sold insurance
Fred Stuber father ran a photography studio
Frank Converse runaway as a teenager, father was a music teacher
Clarence Partee, orphaned at 14 and took a job as an office manager for J. B. Schall.
George Gregory demonstrated instruments at a music store, suspected of embezzling money, went on the run, took his own life when cornered by police.
This is a working list and I am continuing to add names to it. The problem is that often period write-ups on banjoists do not include what they did before they took up banjo. These folks, many were driving forces in the fingerstyle banjo world, were all from working class families or jobs. And I suspect the story would be true for the vast majority of names we see in articles and on sheet music.
Have you had a chance to check out this thesis I posted?
I liked Mr. Schartz's thesis. Though, I more appreciate a story to unfold through mostly primary sources. I'm just an old f.f.f. (footnote following f**t).
Thinking about your observations.
1950's Banjo - I know a gentleman, Dave Herbert, who was inspired to play banjo by the 1948 "Clover" recording. Dave went on with his banjo to host tv shows in Cleveland and Miami. He often opened his shows with playing "Clover". I was inspired to play tenor banjo by banjo on tv in 1954. So, probably some new players and some re-inspired players joined in in the '50's revival.
Old guards - The "classic" guitar style of playing banjo featured in The Cadenza and The Crescendo seemed to be greatly encouraged by the respective magazine editors. Initially, until Farland no one appeared to speak up in favor of the "plectrum style". I often thought that vaudeville banjo performers were not necessarily members of the BMG group as I see many different banjo performers' names in The Vaudeville News and Variety magazine so those players may have been ignorant of or unimpressed by the BMG debates.
Class - I never had the impression that "classic style" banjo was connected to socioeconomic classes. I get the feeling that both "classic" playing and even vaudeville playing distanced the banjo from its minstrel image. I guess minstrelsy was often rowdy and rough (humor & presentation) and "classic" and vaudeville were both clean and family friendly. The mandolin and banjo clubs of the period (including college glee clubs) seem to have been populated by middle class people. My grandfather, a printer, was in a mandolin club in Philadelphia. I do not really understand the cultural definitions of upper class, middle class, working class, etc. But I think "classic" banjo and vaudeville banjo encompassed a broad spectrum of people both players and audiences. Both groups would have been challenged by playing the popular tunes of the era from sheet music.
Edited by - beezaboy on 05/19/2023 06:18:53
Looking at Dave Herbert's headshot, he was clearly playing on nostalgia.
My nostalgia question was slightly loaded. There are a few very outspoken Shakey's era pick players who are shaking their fist in the air and yelling about how there are very few young people taking up plectrum banjo.
But my observation is that it will pretty much be a small special interest market from this point on due to the fact that the youth have nothing to be nostalgic about regarding plectrum banjos, candy stripe vests and Styrofoam hats. I was born in 1977 in Dallas, TX and frankly, I did not even know what a plectrum banjo was until I started watching western movies and saw them played in saloons in 1950s movies.
Correcting record. To broad brush Dave Herbert as playing on nostalgia is irksome. Some 4-string banjo players began playing the banjo in the 1950's simply because they liked the sound of the banjo not for a wistful yearning for the past. Me for one. Dave Herbert for another. My tenor banjo playing was for at-home fun. Dave Herbert had more talent, ability and desire to become an accomplished banjoist. Seems to me that motivation is a very personal, unique driver of a person's goals and actions and behavior. I find no appreciation in lumping that dynamic into a single emotion or category. One size does not fit all.
I hesitate to respond to these kinds of discussions, but in the case of "nostalgia" I have to.
Although a person such as David Herbert may have begun playing because he liked the plectrum style sound, it is also quite probable that he had to rely somewhat on the nostalgia factor to become at all popular.
As a former "Styrofoam hat" wearer, I will say that although I began playing for my own entertainment, I wouldn't have gotten past my bedroom door without that G.D. hat. I hated the whole fakery, and even hated a number of the tunes I had to play 6-7 times per night, but I did become a better musician while wearing that stupid hat.
I have no real knowledge of plectrum banjo history, and don't find that history necessary for my enjoyment. I also find it rather silly to decry the lack of youngsters taking up pick-style playing. Times change and music changes.
"Dave Herbert, who was inspired to play banjo by the 1948 "Clover" recording."
So Herbert was inspired by a nostalgic recording of a song published in 1927 (which was seemingly written in a nostalgic style). He stared in a show called "Banjo Billy's Fun Boat" (was this a nod to the movie "Show Boat"?).
His costume was a vest and bow tie with a derby hat and he sang old fashioned songs.
Yeah, no nostalgia there.
"Nostalgia isn't what it used to be."
I'm sorry to argue, but that is what these revivals were driven by. Might not be all there was too them, but it was what paid the bills.
Take my area of classic banjo for example. It is what it is but there has never been a revival. Post WW2 US decided to grab onto different forms of nostalgia so there was no Cracker Barrel or Shakey's Pizza version of classic banjo. As such, it has only existed as a special interest hobby of a double handful of people. But even then there is a tendency of players to dress in old fashioned outfits when playing (I am guilty of this too).
Even the "Ragtime Revival" was subject to this, just look at photos of Bob Darch.
That was a really interesting read- thanks.
John Hoft--Many thanks for taking the time to write the 'The Plectrum Banjo Story'--a great read.
JLouis Thiry--Thanks for the download.
Regarding 'Hats'--Over the years I have done many traditional jazz style gigs. The audience love to to see the band wearing hats. I have learnt that the audience first 'listen with their eyes'--then the music.
A true story-- I had a 2 day daytime gig consisting of banjo / sax / trombone playing 'Dixieland' style. No hats. I had a call from the agency after the first day to say that the manager of the venue had telephoned him to say the band was not wearing hats--nothing about the music! The next day we wore hats!
Excellent article. From the book AMERICAN VAUDEVILLE by Douglas Gilbert (copyright 1940)
More. Never has a history of the era been so complete.
Thank You Beezaboy for the article. I knew a lot of this but it filled in a lot of gaps and was also entertaining.
When we discuss "trends", they are just that, trends. Something a number of people follow, certainly not everybody but they can certainly help shape culture. I think you have nicely pointed out the overall trends that helped shaped Plectrum banjo culture and history.
'Go West' 55 min
'Rubber Bridge ?' 4 hrs
'Dr Norman Doster' 4 hrs