Banjers I have Known & Loved
Even though the original banjers in the New World, including the United States, were probably made with gourds, an indigenous style of wooden box-type banjer developed in the Appalachians, perhaps as early as the mid 19th century. Instruments like those above showed great imagination and skill, culminating in the classic Watauga County North Carolina style, personified by the Hicks, Proffitt, and Glenn families of dulcimer and banjer craftsmen. I began collecting examples of these “mountain banjers” as soon as I had disposable income in the 1960s.
Banjers I have made
In 1963, I made my first traditional instruments: a Kentucky dulcimer and a fretless banjer neck. I wanted the banjer to fit inside a wooden fiddle case so I mounted it on a little bird’s eye maple banjo mandolin rim. I played it for a decade but it was not quite what I had hoped, so in 1976, for the Bicentennial, I refurbished the neck and made an octagonal box of flame maple. The direct antecedent was Stu Jamieson’s octagonal box banjer of more conventional dimensions. His had been inspired by one he had seen while collecting and studying with Rufus Crisp in eastern Kentucky in the 1940s. (In the 1980s, at a workshop with Jean Richie in Hindman, I saw a photo of an old woman, sitting on a porch, playing an octagonal banjer. Sure enough, it was Aunt Liz Hill, of Martin KY.) Stu’s instrument had a small, circular skin tacked over the center of the wood face and violin-type “ff” holes in the back. I was curious what an all-wood face would sound like: I figured if I didn’t like it, I could reverse the box, cut the hole and tack the skin later. But I like it. The front has the “ff” holes and the back has sound holes in my stylized initials.
[Not to intellectualize it too much, but the crescent “c” could allude to my studies of the Middle East and the “b” is reminiscent of an early C-clef, blah, blah, blah.]
In 1983 I made my copy of the William Sidney Mount banjer, just missing getting it into Bob Webb’s MIT exhibit. The neck is from a piece of birch with a sap wood color change running down the 5th string side. The rim was made from some beautiful cherry and I cried the whole time I was japanning the exterior so I decided to make another banjer to show off the wood. The hardware was made from sheet brass and brass bolts with the heads filed off and hammered into hooks.
After I finished the Mount banjer I determined to make an instrument which would really show off the glorious cherry I had been given. Many of the early descriptions of the banjer describe it as “a cheesebox with a neck.” [Not to be confused with a cheesebox on a raft.] I made a complete Shaker-style, round, lapped box with a small, heart-shaped soundhole and screwed on a simple neck. I made cherry pegs, the blades of which are tapered and tapered the plain, rectangular peg head. The fifth peg uses a box design I saw on a Gold Rush era banjer from San Francisco. Some say the result looks like Banjer Meets Scandinavian Design. The cherry bridge has a thin strip of bone on top to match the bone nut. I use real gut strings, tuned quite low, which produce a hauntingly subtle sound, nothing at all like a Mastertone. [I used a closeup of the face for my album, “Punkin’ Pie,” and you can hear it on many of my recordings.]
I had been collecting old wooden fiddle cases for years, with the intent of making more banjers, or mountain dulcimers, to fit inside them. My compadre, the late Bob Webb, had always admired my little box banjer, so I finally got around to making this one for him when he made one of his infrequent visits back out to his old stomping grounds in 1984. The neck is walnut and rather larger and more flamboyant than mine. But then, so was Bob. The box is a great piece of bird’s eye maple. I left the finishing off of the case to him.
I only recently got around to making a couple of mountain banjers of my own. One was made from pine – which I had to reinforce in the neck after some warping I should have seen coming – and the other was a vanity piece, made from heavily quilted maple. I painted the pine black, leaving a knot on the peg disc with only orange shellac and reusing an antique skin head; with the maple version I used only an oil finish. We learn by doing, as they say.
In addition to my exposure to old-time banjers and other traditional instruments I am an ethnomusicologist. I study the music-making process in the web of human culture. One of my greatest interests is the analysis of musical instruments around the world and I had always intended to try a gourd banjer and, as the trickle of people making gourd instruments became a stream in recent years, I plunged into the torrent. My approach to gourd banjers has thus been from two different and complementary directions: the American historical and the African contextual.
One of the most important insights from this process is that there is no one, authentic, gourd banjer. There is a range of possible ways to approach the instrument. If we had numbers of extant banjers we would look for similarities and differences. We could, perhaps, identify traditions, styles, individual hands. Without these we must gather information from a wide range of sources and make arbitrary, if informed, decisions.
It is agreed that the idea of the banjer came from West Africa, though much research remains to be done to flesh out the details. There are a number of similar instruments and, whether a physical instrument was transported to the New World or not, banjo-like instruments were reported in the Caribbean and the American colonies. The basic structure of the banjer is simple, and shared with instruments around the world: a resonator (often covered with a skin) and a neck. Resonators abound in nature: seed pods, gourds and other dried fruits, turtle shells. American Indian rattles used some of the same materials. Gourds were common in early colonial America and an obvious choice for the resonator. Skins of various animals were plentiful byproducts of hunting as well as farm slaughtering. All these elements were present in the instruments that Africans played.
However, the banjer was substantially different from its African inspiration. It was a new creation, integrating African and European influences in a unique way. The same process was at work in language, food, religion, and all aspects of the slave world toward the end of the eighteenth century. Enslaved people were active in music making on European instruments from earliest times and likely adapted the idea of the neck with its implied fingerboard and the curvilinear scroll and pegs from the ubiquitous violin.
I decided to create an instrument which was as simple and light as possible, utilizing basic European tool technology and construction methods combined with an African concept of the remembered instrument which was adapting to the new world and new materials. The neck and scroll reflect the variety of undulating patterns which characterized early banjers. The neck is stabilized against the gourd with two simple pins. There is no fingerboard and the simple tailpiece is tied on to the end of the perchpole. The gourds are burned with traditional West African gourd designs. The bridges, as with all of the earliest instruments, are of soft woods: pine and cedar.
My first two gourd banjers were 4 stringers (3+1) made from the same oval-shaped gourd. The pegheads were literally in the shape of heads, tilted back, singing, reminiscent of a scroll shape. (If I had made the eyes closed they would have resembled Southwestern story tellers, but that’s for another day.) Mine had eyes of trade beads and a necklace of small whitehearts; the spalted maple with deliberately-mismatched used pegs, along with a rattlesnake rattle, gave the rustic impression I wanted. I gave the other one to my best friend, Robert Webb of Phippsburg, Maine. It’s surprising how many tunes we’ve discovered can be played on just 3 strings. (Tunings, melody strings: 1-5-5; 1-4-5; 1-5-7; 1-5-8; etc., with chanterelle tuned variously.)
This banjer, another 3+1 stringer, was influenced by the early drawing attributed to Jamaica (or the Western Sudan: see my inquiry elsewhere) but with European-style pegs, albeit inserted from the front. Called “bonja,” it is the instrument on which I developed “Bonja Moan.”
You can hear, and see, the bonja here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b9C_pjIdKeM
In the early years of the nineteenth century American society combined their rugged individualistic ways of doing things with exciting new ideas from the rest of the world. This 5-string instrument incorporates one of these fashionable elements: the paisley. The swirling “boteh” leaf shape of Persian design is integrated into the curvilinear peghead and brass tacks accent the edges. The entire neck is shellacked in a dark mahogany shade, probably not the most practical choice for a fretless neck.
Another 3+1 string instrument with a totemic hawk, or Sankofa peghead of African inspiration. A simple, early style, integrating the essence of the European and African traditions. It is in spalted red maple and uses the other half of the gourd used for the “bonja.”
As I was shaping another “singer” scroll I noticed a resemblance to George Washington. I burned his likeness into the peg head and his arms and accomplishments onto the gourd. The very first tune it played was “Yankee Doodle.”
These two instruments were made from the same beautiful pear-shaped gourd. One has a simple scroll with notches around the edge and the other has a fleur-de-lis [sold]. They both have 5-string necks in flame maple with tailpieces in oak. The notched banjer has a pair of small pin holes in a triangular pattern in the head (carrying out the notch motif), such holes being common from the Sahel to Central Asia and almost diagnostic of skin-faced instruments. I used this banjer as the cover art for my 11th album, “Juba.”
On my first bowl-shaped gourd, I used a skin which I had removed from a small Southwest Indian cottonwood drum. It was the same size and had already been formed into scallops along the edge so I used larger tack-headed nails to affix it. In keeping with the Indian theme I inlaid a new Lewis and Clark nickel with the peace medal motif at the base of the neck. The gourd has a traditional African spiral motif which would not have been out of place on either continent.
Another totemic peg head banjer, this time a horse, in beautiful spalted red maple. The gourd is an unusual variant on the pear shape, looking something like a giant top. It is one of my standard players with an elegant, deep sound. I played this banjer at the 2007 San Diego Folk Festival and Mike Seeger’s set followed mine. He borrowed it to play a tune.
Most modern makers utilize round gourds with only a slice off the top and though I generally prefer to cut more interesting shapes in half, I have made a few of the more common form. This is another one of those: the neck is beautiful spalted red maple with a slightly fan-shaped scroll.
And a similar one, also from a canteen gourd.
This gourd was very heavy so I cut only a small slice off the top. The shell was extremely thick so I decided to utilize it in a design to show through a translucent calfskin head. The resultant sound was so brilliant I pierced several decorative holes in the shell to mellow it somewhat. It is still, by far, the loudest banjer I have made.