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History Of The Banjo
( Article orginally published March 1960 )
The five-string banjo, America's only native instrument, has slowly staged a comeback during the last few years, not only in college clubs, but also in many recent recordings. There was a time when it was considered the aristocrat of all string instruments, putting the ukelele, the mandolin and the guitar to shame.
Fred Van Eps is considered to be the greatest living banjoist. He made cylinder records as early as 1897 with the elder Frank Banta playing piano accompaniment. The Van Eps trio was organized at the height of the dance craze of 1912 to make dance platters, and continued active until about 1917.
The five-string banjo should not be confused with the so-called banjos having four steel strings and played with a pick, which were the by-products of the dance craze of the 1910's. Years ago, people lowed the banjo. They played it in the fields, in cabin doorways and they sang with the banjo. They played it softly and sweetly. They didn't bang the music out as is done in hill-billy bands. This may account for the reason so many people today do not like the, banjo--they have never heard it as it should be played.
There are banjoists who play the five-string banjo with a pick. Eddie Peabody is a well known virtuoso of the plectrum style, as it is known in this form. It is much easier to play in this manner as mistakes do not show up, and lots of volume and showmanship are possible. The melody is played in chords and all five strings are strummed.
The banjo was invented by two brothers, Ben and Joe Sweeney of South Carolina about 1820 and for many years afterward it was known as a "Ben 'n Joe." The brothers were wandering minstrels, traveling from town to town singing and dancing on street corners and country fairs. At first they used guitars, but soon discovered they needed an instrument with a louder sound to serve as accompaniment in the open air. After long experiment, they devised a method of attaching a long wooden neck, with cat-gut strings to a cheese box rim, over which was stretched a coon skin-dried until it was tight as a drum. When the strings, passing over a bridge in the center of this drum, were plucked, the sound could be heard quite well. Their original invention had six strings, but they re-strung it with five. The fifth string is shorter and known as the hum string. In time the cumbersome name "Ben 'n Joe," was shortened to "Banjo."
The banjo won quick popularity both in this country and abroad. Until Civil War days, there was seldom a southern song or bit of history written that did not mention the banjo in some way. Stephen Foster's great folk songs were written for banjo accompaniment. During the settling of the west, "Oh Susannah" with its line-"with a banjo on my knee" traveled with the wagon trains.
The original Dan Poke who retired at the age of 70 in 1890, spent a major part of his minstrel career trying to impress the public with the fact that the banjo was America's only native instrument. It is to America what the guitar is to Spain, or the mandolin is to Italy. Samuel Murdy--better known as Tambourine Mundy--was a devotee of the instrument. Writing in "The Five Stringer" in 1950 E. M. Johson, a professional banjoist, recounted working, with Murdy. "During the season of 1893 I was with the Saymond Vaudeville Co. and had the pleasure of working with Samuel Murdy, a banjoist and minstrel man with over fifty years of experience. He was known as "Tambourine Murdy" from his earlier work with the Billy Emerson Minstrels. Samuel Murdy began playing the banjo about 1840, and had with him, the banjo he had used for over fifty years. Today it would be called a very crude instrument, having no frets and no position, dots. However, it was well made and playable."