A Fairbanks Banjo

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The five-string banjo pictured below is a custom, presentation-grade Electric model produced by the A. C. Fairbanks factory in Boston around 1895. Although they possessed great beauty of tone, presentation-grade banjos were works of art designed to be appreciated visually more than aurally. This one has an ebony fingerboard set on a carved oak neck inlaid with mother-of-pearl urns, leaves, flowers, birds, and dolphins. The pearl itself is of exceptional quality, with highlights of green and pink. Both the peghead and fingerboard are bound with ivorylike celluloid to match the real ivory used for the tuning pegs, tailpiece, and nut (the grooved bar holding the strings in place above the fingerboard). The metal fittings of the body—rim, tension hoop, and brackets—are nickel-plated brass. Fairbanks built very few presentation banjos, and those that survive are highly prized by collectors.

Born in Massachusetts in 1852, Albert Conant Fairbanks began making banjos in Boston in the late 1870s. In 1880 he entered into partnership with William A. Cole, and as Fairbanks & Cole the two produced high-quality instruments until 1890, when the partnership dissolved and each formed his own company. Fairbanks called his best banjos Electric, a patent name that had nothing to do with electrification but rather was intended to make the instruments seem modern (in the 1890s “electric” sold everything from corsets and medicine to rat poison and soap).

The five-string banjo has been called the only truly indigenous “American” instrument, a designation that ignores the superior claim of the tom-tom, the bone flute, and the medicine rattle. Still, as an import from the Old World that evolved in the New, the banjo serves as a paradigm of the American experience. Developed from ancient Arab prototypes, the West African gourd banjo ( banza ) arrived in the American colonies by way of the slave trade in the late seventeenth century. Slave banjos typically had four strings, three long and one short. The short string was the instrument’s most unusual feature and the main source of its distinctive sound, a sound that white colonists described as “droll,” “discordant,” and “weird.” Plucked by the thumb on the offbeat, this string creates a rhythmic and harmonic drone, a repeated note of constant pitch that alternately blends and clashes with the notes of the melody strings.

The banjo entered the mainstream of American popular culture in the early nineteenth century, when it was appropriated by minstrels, white entertainers in blackface who took its exuberant thump and twang across the country and around the world. As they experimented with ways to improve and amplify its sound, the minstrels radically transformed the plantation instrument and in the process “invented” the American banjo. Joel Walker (“Joe”) Sweeney, an early blackface performer, is said to have produced the first five-string banjo around 1830 by adding another long string to the existing four. When he retired from the stage in 1845, Sweeney entered into partnership with the Baltimore drum manufacturer William Boucher, who became the country’s first large-scale banjo maker. The two are credited with developing the drumlike hoop body and adjustable tensioning brackets that have become standard. Around 1880 frets were added to the previously smooth fingerboard, a modification that helped transform the banjo into an instrument on which complex and sophisticated music could be more easily performed.

“Those who excel upon it,” said William Dean Howells, “appeal to the patriotism which is never really dormant in us.”

Because of its slave origins and its later association with the rough and raffish minstrels, the banjo had long been deemed disreputable by decent folk, like the mountain minister who said, “You might as well give your son a ticket to hell as give him a five-string banjo.” But by the 189Os the banjo had shed its uncouth image and become a fashionable parlor instrument. Communities formed banjo orchestras featuring instruments in a range of sizes, from the tiny, high-pitched piccolo to the rumbling six-foot bass, while banjo clubs sprang up on college campuses across America. The infant recording industry was quick to capitalize on the banjo’s syncopated sound. As early as 1896 the ragtime banjo virtuoso Sylvester (“Vess”) Ossman made cylinder recordings, and he was one of the first artists to record flat discs for the newly invented gramophone. By the turn of the century the banjo had become so popular that William Dean Howells declared it “America’s leading instrument. . . . Those who excel upon it appeal to the patriotism which is never really dormant in us.”

This banjomania inspired a flowering of American banjo design and manufacture that set standards of quality rarely equaled since. The Fairbanks Electric fittingly represents the golden age that saw the five-string banjo take its place among our national icons.