Mountain Music Fills the Air: Banjos and Dulcimers: The Foxfire Americana Libray - Eliot Wigginton, Foxfire Students (2011)
Trying to trace the history of the banjo as a musical instrument is one of those tasks that can quickly make you want to tear your hair out. Though hundreds of articles have been written on the subject [a fine bibliography is available from Joe Hickerson at the Archive of Folk Song in the Library of Congress], many are contradictory and filled with speculation. On one fact, however, nearly all are in agreement: that America’s favorite folk instrument was brought to this country from Africa and Jamaica by Negro slaves in the eighteenth century. Thomas Jefferson, for example, in his Notes on Virginia (1782) mentions the “banjar” as being the chief instrument of the American Negro.
How did it get to Africa? Pete Seeger speculates that the Arabs may have brought it to the African West Coast [How To Play the Five String Banjo, third edition, published by the author in Beacon, New York, 1961]. We know that instruments like it in the Near and Far East (the sitar and sarod, for example) have been common for nearly as long as records exist, and stringed instruments with skin heads and wooden shells are known to have existed nearly 4,500 years ago in Egypt [“The Five-String Banjo in North Carolina” by C. P. Heaton; Southern Folklore Quarterly, Volume 35, Number 1, March 1971, page 62]. What paths the instrument followed through these countries, however, is simply guesswork.
At any rate, the instrument did make it to this country, where it began to undergo (and survive) an amazing amount of experimentation and popularity, despite a popular white belief that all banjo players and fiddlers were certainly bound for Hell. “Thick as fiddlers in Hell” is an expression still used in our part of the mountains.
The first banjos to come to our coast “had two, three or four strings (of horsehair, grass or catgut) and a hide stretched across a gourd. Cats, possums, raccoons, sheep, snakes and other assorted creatures supplied the skins for the early banjo heads” [Heaton, page 62]. An article by C. J. Hyne in the December 15, 1888, issue of the “Boys Own Paper” [reprinted in the March 1974 issue of Mugwumps] says, “With rapid strides it improved in form. First a wooden hoop, and then a metal one; first a rough skin for the drum, then the best parchment; first nails to hold it on, then neatlymade tension screws. At one time the strings were made of anything that came handy; now they are formed from the ‘intestines of the agile cat.’ ” That was in 1888. Since then, the number of variations that have been tried that we know about would dwarf those of Hyne’s experience.
Usually cited as the most important development in the history of the instrument itself was the addition of the shorter “chanter,” “drone,” “thumb,” or fifth string. Here again, facts are hard to come by, but many historians credit Joel Walker Sweeney, a Virginian who was a professional blackface minstrel, with the addition sometime between 1830 and 1845. His original banjo is now in the possession of the Los Angeles County Museum. Arthur Woodward writes of Sweeney and the acquisition in the museum’s Spring 1949 quarterly [Volume 7, Number 3, page 7]. The article says, in part: “In 1890, Mr. F. J. Henning, a teacher of music and a skilled banjo performer, learned of the existence of Joel Sweeney’s original banjo … He entered into negotiations with the family and secured the old instrument … [It] is made of a dark, reddish colored hardwood. The head is of stained leather, fastened on with tacks. There are no strings. Scratched in the wood, still faintly visible, are the initials ‘J.S.’ ” [One Sweeney banjo will be found documented here].
Though all banjos prior to 1880 were fretless [Heaton, page 64], demand for fretted ones by minstrel banjoists at that time caused several manufacturers to put them on the market. Though their popularity lapsed in the early 1940s, players like Earl Scruggs brought them back, and today the five-string, fretted banjo (often with a plastic head) is again king.
Our interest in the banjo really began when a whole new group of students at our school began to learn to play it riding the crest of still another surge in its popularity. We knew almost nothing about it—not even where to begin to look for information. Now, two years later, we feel we’ve made a good beginning, and everything we read confirms that. In the Heaton article, for example, the author quotes Louise Rand Bascom, who, in 1909, described the North Carolina mountain banjo of that day for the April-June issue of Journal of American Folklore: “The banjo is home-made, and very cleverly fashioned, too, with its drum-head of cat’s hide, its wooden parts of hickory (there are no frets).” As you read the following articles, you’ll find that to still be true in some cases.
Heaton continues by quoting an article about Frank Proffitt that appeared in the October-November 1963 issue of Sing Out: “As a boy, I recall going along with Dad to the woods to get the timber for banjo-making. He selected a tree by its appearance and by sounding … hitting a tree with a hammer or axe broadsided to tell by the sound if it’s straightgrained.… As I watched him shaping the wood for a banjo, I learned to love the smell of the fresh shavings as they gathered on the floor of our cabin.… When the strings was put on and the pegs turned and the musical notes began to fill the cabin, I looked upon my father as the greatest man on earth for creating such a wonderful thing out of a piece of wood, a greasy skin, and some strings.” You’ll find many echoes of that here too. In fact, three of the banjo makers represented here are from Proffitt’s home county.
We found four major head styles, all of them represented in this chapter: the all-wood head; the all-hide head; the wood head with the hide center; and the commercial head held on with brackets. Likewise, hoop styles and neck styles have great variety. In fact, there is so much variety in banjo construction that it would seem as though anything goes as long as it “rings.” Stanley Hicks, for example, showed us a banjo his father made out of a cake box. It worked well.
What we’ve done is to pick out seven banjo makers that represent the major styles we located. Their own instruments are documented here, as well as old instruments they may have owned from which they perhaps borrowed patterns or ideas. It was, and is, fairly common, for example, for an instrument maker to adopt a neck style from one banjo, a hoop style from another, and a head style from yet another, and put them together with his own wrinkles and ideas to form an instrument that is uniquely his in the best Sweeney tradition of borrowing/inventing.
Then, to conclude the chapter, Robert Mize, a dulcimer maker of genuine skill (he’s made over seven hundred of them) describes his method of dulcimer making in detail.
And on top of all that, you’ll also find fine diagrams by Annette Sutherland, one of our student staff members, which depict two of the banjo styles and additional details of the Mize dulcimer.
It’s taken us a long time to put this material together, but we think it’s been worth it. We hope you will too.
BEW WITH RAY MCBRIDE
Last February, we drove up into North Carolina to visit with Ernest Franklin who, we had been told, would be a good person to talk with about instruments. He came out onto his porch as we lurched up his single-track, rutted dirt driveway. The weather was cold, and misting rain.
His house is an old log cabin chinked with red clay that was later boarded over. It has a single fireplace and a porch that extends along two sides. Firewood is stacked out back. His two dogs looked us over and acted as if they wanted to bark or run up and jump on us but were either too old or tired to try. One of them slowly lifted himself to his feet and half-heartedly wagged his tail just to let us know he was there.
When we explained to Mr. Franklin why we had come and who had sent us, he grinned and waved us in. We followed him inside, greeted his dogs as we passed, and met his mother. He told us to sit down just anywhere. We settled down in a living room heated by the fireplace, lit by a kerosene lamp, and decorated with various family photographs, a picture of Jesus, an advertisement for Buck cigars, and the word “Love” in blue block letters above his bedroom door. His friendliness was overwhelming.
ILLUSTRATION 5 Two views of the poplar neck that Ernest Franklin is roughing out for a second type of banjo not based on his father’s design. There is no tail extension—the neck will be mounted directly to the side of the hoop as shown in ILLUSTRATION 6. The wood is seasoned at least three years before being sawed out. Once sawed, it is worked down with a drawing knife, pocketknife, and wood rasp. Note the indentation in the side of the neck for the fifth-string peg.
ILLUSTRATION 7 In the upper left and bottom photgraphs, note squared place on hoop where neck will be attached. The hoop is cut out of a solid piece of well-seasoned poplar. He takes out the center with a brace and bit. In the upper right photograph, note how a slot is sawed into the neck at the base of the peg head, and the wooden finger bridge or nut set into the slot. Holes for the strings are sawed into the peg blocks first, and the pegs are whittled out around the holes.
We asked him to tell us about his banjos. “Well, I’ll tell you, the first one I ever made—you’ve seen your wooden cigar boxes? Well, I made one out of a square wooden cigar box. I didn’t have no patterns or nothing to go by. I just thought that up myself.”
Later, using a banjo his father had made as his pattern, he produced another one using a rasp, a pocketknife, a saw and a drawing knife. Instead of using a hide for the head, however, as his father had done, he glued on a wooden head. I had never heard of that being done before, but I later found out that some of the other Foxfire editors working on this chapter had found a second man nearby, M. C. Worley, who used wooden heads also.
“It’s got a finer, mellower tone than that there,” he said, pointing to my factory-made banjo. We asked him if a different type of wood would change the sound. “Yeah, I imagine if a man had spruce pine it would sound better.”
We asked questions for hours, sitting in his tiny living room and later walking over the farm. Slowly we began to realize what a story could be here for the future. His grandfather (whose old log house still stands on the property) had made fiddles, so he had tried that too. Many of the tools his grandfather and father had used (a shaving horse, for example) are stashed away in corners all over the farm. Every outbuilding holds its collection of family history.
Each time we asked a question about his instruments, he headed for the attic or bedroom and soon produced another battered banjo or tool or pattern or piece with which to answer us. We had the sinking feeling that if we only knew the right questions to ask, we could trigger a flood of stories hidden away behind the walls. Next time, perhaps.
When we asked him why he didn’t use frets, he laughed. None of the old ones he had seen had had frets. Besides, “It’s pretty tedious getting them in. You got to be spaced just accurately or it won’t chord right. I tried one or two, but I never did get them right—they’d dischord—so I just made mine a plain neck.”
None of the instruments he was making were finished, and he didn’t have a completed one around either—as soon as he gets one finished, it’s bought—but we finally got enough pieces stacked up on the living room floor to get the following information about his technique.
Photographs by Randy and Don MacNeil.