An instrument as old and seemingly simple as the banjo: Could we possibly learn anything new about it? Can anything more be done with it? Yes, indeed. Centuries since the banjo in its earliest forms was introduced from Africa to The Americas, its study and art are in exciting phases, as witness the newly-published Banjo: An Illustrated History (Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard Corporation) by Bob Carlin.
Carlin, an accomplished banjo performer, instructor, and historian, surveys the instrument’s history right up to the twenty-first century with emphasis on its most influential makers and players. Entrancingly illustrated with gorgeous and detailed color photographs and numerous rare archival images, its text transcends old cliches and myths about the banjo to bring its story vividly to life. As Tony Trischka notes in his introduction: “It stands as a basic primer for the novice, but also has enough detail and rich historical data to entice that person who has had a longstanding, incurable itch for the banjo.”
Says Carlin, “People ask me, ‘How long did it take you to write the book?’ And I say, ‘All my life!’” He laughs, while adding, “But once the contracts were signed, my part was under a year.”
Bob had long wanted to do such a project, “actually a bigger, encyclopedia kind of book. But I didn’t have the time or the money.” However, the opportunity came to create a book with the potential to find an even larger readership. He was contacted by the Elephant Book Company, a small yet busy operation in London, England, specializing in information-rich, visually high-quality books about music, art, and popular culture. They, in turn, successfully pitched the project to the Hal Leonard Corporation for publication by its Backbeat Books imprint. Hal Leonard had already found success with a beautifully illustrated and thoroughly researched book on early Martin guitars (see “Inventing The American Guitar: The Story Of The Amazingly Modern Pre-Civil War Martins,” Bluegrass Unlimited, March 2014).
The greatest challenge, Carlin says, was creating his new book on the modest budget he was given. It was also sometimes difficult to get collectors to agree to have their rare holdings photographed. But successful negotiations were made with many of them, as well as noted contemporary banjo makers.
Craftspersons who make historic-style banjos for modern pickers are especially celebrated by Banjo: An Illustrated History. This strategy illuminates both the instrument’s storied past and its happy present. “Here’s an historic instrument and here’s a maker now who’s making the instrument in this style,” Bob explains. “Here’s the influence, and here’s how it all happened.” A striking example is the recreation of instruments from the early 1800s that were not much changed from the traditional West African originals (see sidebar, “Music From The True Gourd”).
The painstakingly composed and lovingly lit photos reveal almost touchable details of wood grains, carvings, and mechanical appointments. For example, photographer Amanda Kowalski avoided harsh electric lights and instead used natural illumination to record the extensive collection of Jim Bollman. Carlin praises the results as “very detailed, very fancy.” Bob also expresses gratitude to photo editor Joann DeVries for carefully processing the book’s images prior to printing.
Bollman was one of many experts whose passion for the banjo informed the project, especially to the benefit of a general audience. “This book contains information that the insiders have known for a long while,” Bob says. “It really grows out of groups like the Banjo Collectors Gathering [now known as the Banjo Gathering]. This book owes a lot to that organization and to collectors and scholars like Jim Bollman, Eli Kaufman, Peter Szego, Pete Ross, and many others—people who have been researching the instrument for a long, long time.”
In addition to banjo collectors and luthiers, numerous master performers are represented in this book by rarely-seen historical images and/or full-color photos of their surviving instruments, such as the banjo of rollicking Grand Ole Opry pioneer Uncle Dave Macon and the Gibson RB-4 Mastertone of North Carolina three-finger-picking pioneer Dewitt “Snuffy” Jenkins with its distinctive guitar-style pickguard. Carlin also includes the fascinating saga of an all-original Gibson RB-Granada (a model which he describes as the Holy Grail of bluegrass banjos) that was sold by Jenkins to Don Reno, who swapped it for another banjo with Earl Scruggs, “who would make it his lifelong instrument.”
Of course, the chapter on bluegrass banjo prominently features the legendary Earl Scruggs (as well as melodic innovator Bill Keith and Deliverance movie soundtrack hitmaker Eric Weissberg). But as part of Carlin’s revelatory look at the development of Scruggs and his music is a wondrous, recently discovered 1920s photo of banjoist Smith Hammett—a relative of Earl’s and a major inspiration to him—in a formal group portrait with fellow musicians, many of whom worked with Hammett at the Cliffside Cotton Mill in High Shoals, N.C. Suddenly, the dignity and professionalism of these regional progenitors of modern bluegrass and string band music shines staunchly through. The photo and its identifying information was dug up by local researcher Tommy Ford. “I’m grateful he let me use it,” says Carlin.
Making this book inclusive within the limits of its 256 pages was a challenge, but one that Bob Carlin has met with sterling success. He was given guidelines on word count and the number of sections and asked to give two highlights per chapter. (Timelines listing key dates greatly help the reader’s orientation.) But the selection process within the project’s limits meant editing out historically dead-end items or topics that wouldn’t move the book along. “There’s lots of banjo patents that I could have talked about, but they didn’t result in anything. So, you want to focus on what, for the general public, would be the most important instruments, instrument makers, and players. You want to cover all the major movements, but you can only have a few figures for each.
“It’s mostly about the instruments themselves,” Carlin stresses. “But you include musicians as well because they have an effect on the way these instruments developed and were marketed. I wanted to use people who carried it forward.” For example, to represent the so-called “classic” banjo (immensely popular during the earliest days of commercial recordings and characterized by fingerpicking of strong melody lines), “It had to be Fred Van Epps and Vess Ossman. You have to choose the biggest names.”
And the biggest name during the pre-Civil War heyday of the minstrel shows was of course Joel Walker Sweeney of Virginia. The hugely popular Sweeney was so personally responsible for introducing the banjo to new audiences on both sides of the Atlantic that for years he was erroneously credited with inventing the banjo itself. It was a particularly bitter error, given that Sweeney had of course learned the instrument from African-Americans whose culture had actually given birth to it.
In Carlin’s view, the nineteenth-century banjo boom coincided with America’s development of a distinctive creative identity independent from Britain and Europe in general. The banjo, as played by Sweeney and other white minstrels, “had European melodies in the left fretting hand and African rhythms in the right picking hand,” Carlin points out. “And so that’s new. Whoever was responsible for it—whether it was a single person or a group of people—that’s where it finds its place.”
Born in New York, Bob Carlin now makes his home in Greensboro in the great five-string state of North Carolina. He traveled extensively through the South to learn old-time banjo with authentic practitioners and is now ranked among today’s best frailing/clawhammer players. (Goldtone has honored him with three Bob Carlin Signature Model open-back banjos, ideal for this style.) In addition to teaching at various colleges and fiddle and dance camps, he’s created or co-authored several banjo instructional books and videos. (See www.bobcarlinmusic.com).
Bob has performed extensively, notably touring over a six-year period with the late John Hartford. (He currently appears with the John Hartford String Band, consisting of other former Hartford bandmates.) His fascination with the banjo’s African roots is manifested not only in the opening chapter of Banjo: An Illustrated History, but also on From Mali To America, his acclaimed CD with Cheick Hamala Diabaté.
As a writer/historian, Carlin’s publication list includes the landmark and certainly definitive book The Birth Of The Banjo: Joel Walker Sweeney And Early Minstrelsy (McFarland & Co.), as well as more than 100 deeply-researched articles for such leading music magazines as Banjo Newsletter, Old Time Herald, Journal Of Country Music and, of course, Bluegrass Unlimited. He’s currently preparing biographies of banjo greats Bill Keith and Eric Weissberg.
Although Bob himself is a five-string aficionado, Banjo: An Illustrated History doesn’t ignore the beloved four-string. The charming chapter “The Banjo And All That Jazz” considers tenor, plectrum banjo-ukulele and banjo-guitar instruments. It rings out with more gorgeously reproduced, detailed full-color images, plus features on inimitable four-string performers George Formby and Roy Smeck and a major nod to the popular Eddie Peabody.
Then, Carlin immediately follows up with “Down Home On The Farm,” about the rural string band culture that produced such five-string notables as Charlie Poole, Uncle Dave Macon, Kyle Creed, and Samantha Bumgarner. And, as always, there are the banjos themselves—such delightful instruments as lovingly carved, octagonal wooden-bodied “mountain banjos” from the late nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, open-backed banjos both fretted and fretless, and even clawhammer master Fred Cockerham’s famed Formica-covered fretless five-string.
Classic Boucher banjos with their S-shaped pegheads (as well as modern Boucher reproductions) are in the book, along with a Dobson banjo circa 1867 with an early patented top-tension head tightening system. And one-person artisanal luthier workshops are featured right along with such larger operations as Ashborn, Deering, Fairbanks, Gibson, Huber, Goldtone, Lyon & Heally, Ode, Stelling, Stewart, Vega (now Martin/Vega), Weyman, and many others. Some of these are still vibrant companies, some now only vibrations in music history. (A true revelation is the feature on master engraver Icilio Consalvi (1865-1951), who applied his mastery of jewelry making to banjo inlays.)
Carlin has been asked why he didn’t include more makers of modern, bluegrass-style resonator banjos. “My answer is, well, they all look like [Gibson] Mastertones. The ones we didn’t include, they’re all making ‘Master-clones.’ With equal frankness, he admits, “Historically, it’s not quite fair, but I had to err on the side of going for stuff that was really interesting and wasn’t just duplicating what Gibson had already done.”
However, there’s no end to the creativity—even the joyful excess—among contemporary crafters of this most artistic of instruments. Consider the delightful final color plates in the book, showing an open-back, fretless banjo built in 2008. Although it’s constructed in a mid-nineteenth century style, its headstock and fingerboard inlays celebrate the classic 1954 sci-fi flick Creature From The Black Lagoon. Its multi-shaded green and white decorations even capture the jump-out-at-you feel of the film’s original 3D format (and, Carlin reveals, required luthier and monster-movie fan Pete Ross to spend “a punishing 200 hours of handwork—cutting, fitting, and inlaying shell.”)
Of course, twenty-first century banjo isn’t just about decorative flights of fancy. In the final chapter “The Banjo Today,” Carlin celebrates performers who are boosting the instrument’s popularity with new audiences. Along with Bela Fleck and Steve Martin are young stars as diverse as Taylor Swift, the Avett Brothers, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, The Duhks, and Mumford & Sons.
“The banjo has become emblematic for authenticity, real music, roots—everything anti-technology that many bands are trying to project,” Carlin observes. Although some of these performers don’t play in traditional styles, he says, “The banjo has become emblematic for America, for this realness.”
Certainly, Banjo: An Illustrated History is finding a readership among devoted banjo fans. But, Bob says, “I also think it will serve people who don’t know anything about the instrument as a good introduction. I’d love to get this into the hands of a wider culture because I think the banjo’s very important to America.”