Cello Banjo History - Bob Carlin - by Paul Roberts 9/9/08
Bob, tell me something about the history of the cello banjo.
Bob Carlin: There was a big boom in banjo orchestras in the 1880’s until a little after the turn of the century. Colleges and private high schools were hotbeds of banjo orchestras. Different size 5-string banjos would mirror the violin family instruments in the orchestra; cello banjos were used in these orchestras. If you look through the yearbooks from the colleges and prep schools from that era, you’ll see banjo clubs, mandolin clubs and guitar clubs. Just like they had debating clubs, they had banjo clubs.
Were they part of the music curriculum?
No, not necessarily, they were extra-curricular.
That’s when people had to entertain themselves.
Well, yeah, and two things collided in the late 19th century. One was the ability to manufacture instruments for the first time - not by making them one at a time, even in a factory situation, but to really knock out large numbers of instruments, to mass-produce. That coincided with the emergence, particularly in America, of the middle class. It was the first time people had leisure time, the first time they had disposable income. A number of the manufacturers were players as well, or at least the guys that designed the instruments and got the manufacturers interested. There was a general love for the instrument and a desire by people to play banjos that these manufacturers were able to fill.
You said the banjo orchestras - popular from the 1880’s until a little after the turn of the century - used 5-string cello banjos. The current revival in cello banjos started when Marcy Marxer began playing an old 4-string cello banjo. Where did the 4-string fit in?
Yes, the banjo orchestras used a five-string cello banjo. Marcy Marxer fell in love with a Gibson, which was made after the big boom in banjo orchestras. I don’t think Gibson ever made a five-string version of the instrument Marcy borrowed from Mike Seeger and fell in love with. By the time the Gibson came in, which was in the teens, the boom was pretty much over and 5-string banjos were starting to go out of fashion.
That’s when tenor instruments were starting to come in. I think that the four-string cello banjo that Marcy Marxer plays was either part of the effort to promote the four-string instruments or to be used as a bass instrument in other stringed instrument orchestras, like mandolins or guitars.
Marcy Marxer doesn’t play the four-string cello banjo particularly the way they would have played it back then. She’s using it more like an octave mandolin, combined with playing bass lines as well.
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From Lexington, North Carolina
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