Vol. IX, No. 4, 1996


The Five-String Banjo in the Ozarks: From Factory to Folklore

By Michael Ellis



When the first settlers from the eastern states began migrating into the Ozarks, some of them very likely carried fiddles along to help lighten the hardships of life on the frontier. The banjo probably came along much later, and if any existed in the region early in the nineteenth century, they would have been African-American gourd banjos, the only form of the instrument then in existence. The banjo, in its presently recognizable form, did not become really common anywhere until the 1880s and 1890s, when hundreds of thousands of cheap banjos poured out of northern factories in response to a short-lived and now largely forgotten banjo fad which swept the country just before the turn of the century. In those days, Boston was the banjo center of the country, and northeastern banjo player-entrepreneurs mounted a campaign to distance the instrument from its African-American origins and from its low-brow association with minstrel shows. In doing so, proponents of banjo "elevation" hoped to transform it into an acceptable parlor instrument fit for polite society. Music publishers produced dozens of newly-composed songs for the banjo, and those who took up the instrument were encouraged to learn their music not in the old way, by ear, but from the printed page. Professional and semi-professional banjoists who played the "classical" repertory of the 1890s typically performed in formal attire, sometimes as part of banjo orchestras, complete with "piccolo" banjos, "cello" banjos, and "bass" banjos. After the turn of the century, the nation-wide popularity of the banjo began to decline and other parlor instruments, particularly the guitar' and the mandolin, took its place. By the 1920s, the only type of banjo still being produced it quantity was the relatively new, four-string tenor banjo of the Jazz Age.

In the Ozarks and throughout the Southern Highlands, however, the popularity of the old 5-string banjo continued to grow, although those who played it adapted the instrument to suit their own musical tastes. They generally ignored published sources and preferred playing by ear, drawing on a variety of traditional musical forms but especially from the wealth of ballads and fiddle tunes familiar to the people in the region. Unlike the big city banjoists who were limited to playing in C tuning, backcountry banjo pickers felt free to experiment with a variety of tunings, including some in minor keys, which suited the wide range of music played on the instrument. Moreover, instead of using the upstroke "guitar" style of playing favored by the classical banjoists of Boston and Philadelphia, the banjo players of the Southern mountains favored the more traditional down-stroke style, now commonly known as "frailing" or "clawhammer." Eventually, the fiddle and the banjo became integral and complementary parts of the "string band," which evolved into Country and Western, and most particularly into Bluegrass.

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Today, these old turn-of-the-century, five-string banjos regularly surface at flea markets, antique stores, and estate auctions throughout the Ozarks. They represent a complex and generally overlooked relationship between the mass-marketed products of industrialism and the perpetuation and transformation of folk traditions. Certainly homemade banjos existed and were played in the Ozarks and elsewhere in the Southern Highlands, but without the availability of cheap, relatively good-quality factory-made instruments, it is doubtful that the banjo would have caught on in quite the way it did, or be as thoroughly identified with the region as it is today.

Exactly how the banjo came to be the foremost American "folk" instrument is not entirely clear but probably resulted in part from the nature of the instrument itself, and particularly its
musical and physical adaptability. Compared with the guitar and the mandolin, the banjo is a very forgiving instrument in the sense that a person with minimal skills can make minor repairs or adjustments to maintain or enhance the old banjo's sound and playability. Most of the cheap guitars and mandolins from the turn of the century have long since self-destructed through the stress of steel strings on weak neck joints and inadequately braced tops. The wood used to construct the bodies of these stringed instruments often cracked or split, requiring repairs beyond the capabilities of the average player and usually far in excess of the value of the instrument.

The open-back banjo, on the other hand, was much more accessible to the tinkerings of its owners. If the strings pulled the neck upwards to an angle which made the instrument difficult to play, scraps of metal or other material could be wedged where the neck and rim join, or a couple of stout wood screws could be driven though the bottom of the rim into the heel of the banjo neck, thus restoring the "action" of the banjo and bringing the strings down on me fingerboard to a point where it could be played. Occasionally, owners would come up with ingenious homemade devices made of threaded steel rod which could be tightened with a wrench or screwdriver to adjust the angle of the neck. The calfskin heads of the old banjos would often dry out and break, but unlike the cracks in the spruce tops of guitars and mandolins, banjo heads could be fairly easily replaced, either with storebought calfskin heads, or with skins obtained locally (groundhog and sometimes housecat skins being popular replacements). One Ozarker tells the story of a neighbor who had a banjo with a broken head. One day the neighbor had been sampling some homebrew when he began thinking about making a replacement banjo head out of metal. After looking around for a likely source, he took a cold chisel and cut a circular piece of metal from the door of his Chevrolet. My informant says that he can still remember the man driving that Chevrolet around with the big round hole in the door.

Temperance does not seem to be a virtue traditionally associated with the banjo, and the negative moral associations sometimes attached to the instrument can be summed up in the statement by one backcountry preacher that he'd rather give his son a one-way ticket to hell as a five-string banjo. Indeed, for many people the old comparative expression "thicker than fiddlers in Hell" could easily be extended to include banjo players. Some folk practices associated with the fiddle seem to have been taken up by banjo players. For example, one well-known custom was to drop a rattlesnake rattle through the f-hole of the fiddle to enhance the acoustic effect of the instrument (or as some say, to keep spider webs from building up). One informant says that his grandfather attached one or more rattles to the inside of the rim of his banjo, just underneath the head, to produce a kind of sympathetic percussive sound not unlike the maraca. Other players would sometimes attach a cheesecloth bag of charcoal "twisted seven times" under the calfskin head to absorb moisture and keep the head tight, a tight head producing a brighter, less "plunky" sound.

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The typical old Ozarks banjo does not carry a name which identifies the name of the manufacturer. When an occasional high-quality name-brand banjo, a Fairbanks or a Stewart or a Cole, does turn up it is usually quickly acquired by a dealer or collector. Most Ozarks banjos were probably obtained from one of the big Chicago mail-order houses, Sears and Roebuck or Montgomery Ward, and catalogs of the era show that banjos of varying degrees of quality were available at prices ranging from less than two dollars up to as much as twenty dollars or more. One of the more widespread bits of folklore about these mail-order banjos is that the quality of the instrument can be judged by the number of brackets it has, brackets being the metal hooks used to tighten the calfskin head: i.e., the more brackets, the better the banjo. This is partly true, in that the cheapest banjos listed in the old catalogs often have only six or eight brackets, and the number increases steadily with the price, although this increase also is accompanied with other quality features, including more elaborately decorative pearl inlays on the fingerboard and peghead. Manufactures must have caught on to the bracket myth fairly early, since by 1900 even cheap banjos, completely devoid of any other kind of decoration, often have thirty-eight brackets. The relatively large number of metal parts contained in these old banjos may have contributed to the superstition that a banjo was not to be played during a thunderstorm because it would "draw lightning."

Old banjos often show various signs of improvement or modernization by former owners. Often the old, original fiddle-type ebony or "ivoroid" pegs were replaced with geared, guitar-type tuners usually robbed from a wrecked guitar or mandolin. By the 1950s, players began replacing the old calfskin heads with the newly-available plastic ones, thus avoiding the old problem of adjusting the tension of the skin head caused by changes in the humidity. I have seen one old banjo to which a former owner had added an extra string by installing an additional peg in the middle of the peg head, and by using a bridge and tailpiece taken from an old guitar (this experiment had some precedent in factory-made six-string banjos, some set up like a guitar, some like the regular banjo but with an additional bass string). Other banjo owners experimented with various kinds of homemade resonators, some a simple disk of wood attached to the back, others fashioned from metal pie plates. Perhaps the most radical kind of banjo experimentation involved swapping the rims and necks of banjos to produce hybrid instruments, often with a neck from an old five-string and a rim taken from a 1920s or 1930 tenor banjo.

The old banjo appears to be quickly becoming a thing of the past as the older generation of banjo-pickers passes away. Among the younger generation of Ozarkers there appears to be a very limited amount of interest in these old banjos. Those few who take up banjo playing usually prefer the heavy, resonator-equipped, Gibson Mastertone style five-string of Bluegrass music. The old banjos are simply not capable of producing the kind of sound required for Bluegrass, and most old banjos are not playable in the higher positions (up the fingerboard that is) favored by Bluegrass musicians. At an antique shop on the Missouri-Arkansas border south of Neosho, ! ran across a nice, well cared for, 1880s-vintage Dobson "Victor" banjo for sale. "It belonged to Grandpa," the lady who owned the store informed me, "though he only used it for frailing. He had an Alvarez, too, but we're not selling it." The Alvarez is a fairly popular and generally good quality brand of Bluegrass banjo, an Asian import from the 1980s. I didn't ask, but wondered why they were selling the old banjo and keeping the newer one. Perhaps some younger family member had a liking for Bluegrass, and little interest in the older style of playing. Or perhaps the newer banjo had simply been the old man's favorite. I wanted that old Dobson very much, with its intricate pearl-inlaid fingerboard, but they were asking much more than I could afford to pay.

The places where the old banjos can be found are often also good places to hear banjo folklore or banjo stories. In another antique store a few counties away I ran across another old banjo hanging on the wall behind the counter. This one wasn't as fancy as the Dobson and didn't carry a name, a typical four-dollar, mail-order banjo. "Look at all those brackets," the man behind the counter said, "I hear you can tell the quality of a banjo by the number of brackets." The banjo was still in good condition, though it had clearly been played considerably. The veneer of ebony over the fingerboard was worn completely through in places from years of fingers pushing the strings against the frets. "Now I'm going to tell you a banjo story. A fellow was in here a just couple of weeks back and said that old banjo there looked just like the one his Grandaddy had. He said one day the banjo got hit by lightning, and after that every time it come a thunderstorm, all the strings would break." That old banjo went home with me.

For two outstanding recent books concerning the banjo see:
Karen Linn, That Half-Barbaric Twang: The Banjo in American Popular Culture, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991. Cecelia Conway, African Banjo Echoes in Appalachia:
A Study in Folk Traditions, Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1995.
Michael Ellis is Associate Professor of English at Southwest Missouri State University.

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