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If one were to collect instruments, art and ephemera to organize and document an exhibition about the banjo, a good place to start would be to review Gura's and Bollman's "America's Instrument: The Banjo in the Nineteenth Century." This impressive book actually seems like a comprehensive companion to a museum's exhibition which could have the same name, and I could envision such a treatise being a museum gift shop's best-seller.
James Bollman is recognized as one of our Nation's foremost banjo collectors, and his outstanding assortment of Victorian-era banjos and related paraphernalia is one of the finest in the world. He was very pivotal as a project consultant to the fine exhibition that took place in 1984 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology called "Ring the Banjar!: The Banjo in America from Folklore to Factory," curated by Robert Lloyd Webb. That exhibit's catalogue had some wonderful information, photographs and illustrations. After seeing it, I was personally inspired to research and write an article about "Banjos at the Smithsonian Institution" which subsequently appeared in Bluegrass Unlimited magazine (Vol. 27, No. 5, November, 1992).
Philip Gura, historian and Professor of English and American Studies at the University of North Carolina, is an expert in the history and culture of America's music industry. I found Gura's 2003 charming book, "C.F. Martin and His Guitars 1976-1873," to be well-researched, thoughtfully written, beautifully illustrated, and professionally executed.
In "America's Instrument: The Banjo in the Nineteenth Century," Gura and Bollman begin by documenting the banjo's evolution from the plantation to the stage. An interesting overview of the minstrel tradition and early performers is given. The authors show how the popularity of banjos increased, largely due to effective marketing. As the banjo made its way from the minstrel stage to Victorian parlors and concert halls, the physical development of the instrument was also affected. Part III of the book addresses "selling the banjo to all America," focusing on the efforts of Philadelphia's S.S. Stewart. It's interesting that Stewart's adoption of the "cause" of the banjo (nothing short of everything about it) set him apart from other makers. The book's fourth part, "manufacturing the real thing," delves into how the Boston banjo makers (Fairbanks, Cole) began to challenge Stewart's preeminence in the mid-1880s and eventually design and build the acknowledged standards of the banjo world.
Ragtime is given cursory treatment in this book. Another direction that banjo music took was into classical music, and the book could have devoted something to that incarnation of the instrument. I found it curious that this book makes no mention of Alfred A. Farland, "the progressive banjoist," who caused quite a stir in the banjo world in the mid-1890s when he played concertos, Beethoven sonatas, and even Rossini's "William Tell Overture" on the instrument. He was also known as the "Scientific Banjoist of Pittsburgh, Pa."
It also becomes quite apparent that the major banjo makers in the late 19th Century were located mainly in the urban north, and the great majority of major makers are discussed. However, this book should have at least acknowledged J.B. Schall, from Chicago, who built a large number of banjos about 1870-1907. Of a list of manufacturers of "classic" banjos in Akira Tsumura's "Banjos: The Tsumura Collection," most are addressed. Rettberg & Lange (New York 1897-1929) aren't mentioned, and only very brief mention is made of Weymann & Son (who made banjos in Philadelphia from 1864-1935) and Charles Bobzin (who operated in Detroit from 1892-1915).
While this book is beautifully laid out with over 250 illustrations, some of the very special banjos featured in the MIT exhibition, at the Smithsonian Institution, and in private collections such as Akira Tsumura's or David Vachon's, might have further enhanced Gura and Bollman's book. Some of the instruments are credited as from the collection of Peter Szego or Philip Gura, and the other uncredited photographs are apparently from the extensive collection of James Bollman. While the many full page color illustrations are definitely nice, perhaps the book could've added many more by placing two to four per page. Banjo afficinados typically enjoy such "eye candy," and photos speak a thousand words.
Keep in mind that this book only covers the banjo in the 19th Century. There is a cursory link to the banjo in the 20th Century, and there's only minor mention of firms such as Gibson, Paramount, Bacon and Day, and Weymann. While the authors state that "the stories of these companies and their instruments are fairly well known and...belong to the history of the new century," I hope that Gura and Bollman will consider pulling all these tales together into a sequel that documents the banjo in the Twentieth Century. All in all, they've done a very fine job covering a hundred years of the instrument's early history in America. Banjo-players and others interested in the instrument's history should certainly add this book to their library. (Joe Ross, staff writer, Bluegrass Now)