The Old-Time Banjo in Europe
When I inquired about banjo playing in Europe, Anita Kermode reminded me that the tradition goes quite far back in the United Kingdom. Anita, who grew up in Southern California but moved to the UK in 1970, said to me, “I'd lived in England for fifteen years when, during a visit to the States in the mid-1980s, I suddenly found myself wanting to learn to play the banjo.” Anita wrote to me about old-time banjo playing in the UK, saying,
First of all, it might be worth mentioning that Britain differs from mainland Europe in having enjoyed an enthusiastic relation with the banjo ever since the 1830s-‘40s, when minstrel shows from the States started touring the British Isles. Not only five-string but six- and even seven-string fretless and then fretted banjos were being turned out in England for some decades. Later on in the century, when finger-picked “guitar-style” banjo gained the ascendancy (paralleling what was happening in the States), it became highly fashionable for young persons of the upper-middle and upper classes to play the instrument. That's when the zither-banjo was being manufactured here in abundance. An American, Alfred Cammeyer, invented it in the 1880s; it never caught on in the States, but became very popular here for “parlour” music. The banjo was increasingly being used for the performance of complex musical pieces, technically very demanding; banjo composer/performers, like Joe Morley and Olly Oakley, became celebrity entertainers. Sheet music of banjo pieces and songs sold in quantity beginning with minstrel ditties. I possess a fascinating print from the London Illustrated News of 1899. The caption is "Othello's Occupation's Gone" and the image reveals a pleasure-party on a riverboat. The young people on the boat are all fashionably dressed and gathered round listening to a stylish girl who is picking a tune on a zither-banjo. But, on the shore, a blacked-up minstrel player stands disconsolate, his banjo dangling useless from his hand. This is an interesting lapse, since the dangling banjo looks like another zither-banjo, perhaps showing that by 1899 the illustrator didn't know what a minstrel banjo might look like. This illustration was clearly meant for an educated audience, who would immediately recognize the quote from Shakespeare's tragedy: Othello in a famous soliloquy declares that his "occupation's gone" when he, the formerly great military commander, wants to emphasize how his jealous love for his wife has unmanned him. The implied comparison of the tragic Othello to a now unfashionable and unemployed minstrel banjo-picker may be inspired and clinched by the fact that, just as the white minstrel musician appeared in black-face, so the white Victorian actor also blacked up with cork to play the part of the black Moor Othello.
As for modern old-time players, there were individuals scattered about the country who took a keen interest. Tom Paley was doubtless one chief instigator; but the great American folk-scare had certainly had a big impact in England. Before I became at all aware of them, there were established festivals, like Sidmouth, or the Cambridge Folk Festival, where folk musicians, bluegrassers, and a few (and far-between) old-time fiddlers and banjo-pickers convened. And then there was that very British institution, the folk-club—which usually hires the function room of a pub for its meetings, and welcomes not just performers and devotees of indigenous traditional folk-music-and-story but acoustic musicians of all sorts and traditions. The British folk-club audience is nurtured in a wide variety of styles and also by the ceilidh tradition, is usually very receptive to the unfamiliar. Since 1990 or thereabouts when I first began to play at the then one-and-only old-time session in London (there were loads of sessions for Irish music and several for bluegrass), I've observed a steady if not exactly explosive growth in the numbers of people playing the music, a large expansion of the common repertoire, and vastly increased opportunities for old-time players from all over to get together. Quite a few English banjo-players started out back in the late 1950s, inspired by the skiffle craze, and also, some of them, by Ramblin' Jack Elliott and his banjo-playing compadre Derroll Adams, who lived in the UK for some years and was an inspiration to many. From strumming banjo in skiffle-bands young English banjo players usually went on either to bluegrass or old-time. Those who took up banjo in the ‘50s or ‘60s and kept on at it usually became better at playing the instrument and learned more tunes to boot, and so on and so forth. But the thing that made a big difference almost immediately was the founding in 1994 of the organization known as the Friends of American Old Time Music & Dance, or FOAOTMAD (pronounced by everyone as “footmad”). You can go to the website http://www.foaotmad.org.uk. In brief, a lonely apprentice banjo-picker, Keith Johnson from Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, went to a banjo workshop being given by Sara Grey (an American banjoist and singer long resident in the UK), where he met another local picker, and out of that meeting grew the first Gainsborough Old Time Music Festival (the only one of its kind in Britain). Out of the festival grew the formal organization now known as FOAOTMAD, of which Tom Paley has been Honorary President since year one, and we've now reached year fifteen.