Mountain banjer exemplars

The documented history of the mountain banjer is sparse due to its humble, rural regional distribution but there are numerous diverse examples extant which bear the stamp of age and authenticity, though they may not date earlier than the early 20th century. Some come with family histories, others without, but all can serve as examples and confirmation of a strong tradition. The range of individual solutions to construction within the constraints of a perhaps hypothetical model are instructive, stimulating, and are witness to a flourishing, mature style.

In 1924, during a two-year tour of western North Carolina, the folklorist Robert Winslow Gordon of the Library of Congress took numerous photographs, of which only a few survive; luckily for us they include these mountain banjers.

These photos may show the same banjers, perhaps played by the maker. If so, the instrument on the Left (with the deeply-indented figure-of-eight peghead) may be the one under the man's feet with the peghead to the right. The banjer on the Right (with a rare view of a back) may be the other instrument on the ground. The Center banjer then, may be the one played. The construction (of at least two and, inferentially, all three) seems to show the somewhat unusual long heel and, perhaps a space under the heel in the center round. If so, one wonders if it was a reference to the 19th-century gap in commercial heel design.
Am I just imagining a square peghead in this photo? Look at the (admittedly small) original.

At the 2011 Banjo Gathering, an annual meeting of scholars and collectors, there was an unprecedented showing of early mountain banjers.

Note the arrow-shaped neck joint on the right.
Note the fancy inlays at the right.
Note, at lower left, a round banjer (wooden) top and back over an octagonal body. Also, above, interesting diamond shapes and inlaid hand.
Scribed fingerboards and arrow-shaped joint. Above: Parker Long, Wilkes Co, NC ["ca 1880"], ex coll. Roddy Moore.
Simple compass-scribed decoration. (Plummer banjer at left. See below.)
Note, at the very bottom, perhaps an octagonal body.

William M. Plummer (1873-1943) was an African American  inventor and craftsman from Jeffersonville, VA, who built at least one mountain banjer.

In 2014 The Antiques Roadshow featured an octagonal folk art banjer with an inlaid, faceted neck, made in the “early 1900s” and gifted to the woman’s grandfather in 1920. It is a tour de force of a woodworker’s craft.

Note another arrow-shaped neck joint, center right.
This case should belong to that banjer...

The Museum of Appalachia, in Norris, just north of Knoxville TN, has a good collection of musical instruments, including mountain banjers, which used to appear on their website but, of late, are missing. Fortunately I took screen shots of the more interesting ones.

The body may be a gourd-like bowl; the intact tail of the (probably groundhog) skin is typical country humor.
Note the elongated heel..
Note the rarely-seen painted surface in addition to the scribing.
Note the beveled peghead.
"We went to the woods and we cut us a poplar. Then we killed us a groundhog to make a head, and we made us a banjo. A fellow named Kenneth Williams that made that for me." --Renda Whitaker
Note the beautifully double-beveled and scribed peghead.
John Okus McBee (1888-1968) lived in the Cumberland Gap area, Claiborne Co. TN.

Over the years other old mountain-style banjers have shown up on scholarly groups and auction sites like eBay; I document what I can and I thank all those who have shared their knowledge and acquisitions. Most are undocumented, though there are notable exceptions.

The scalloped peghead and metal heart ornaments are notable.
Sold on eBay in 2011. Note arrow-shaped neck joint and interesting back piercing.
Here are two other interesting neck joints.
Another eBay offering, called "Gramp's banjo." Notice the almost identical peghead to the Museum of Appalachia's #96. Same maker?
Only a close comparison shows that these are Not the same banjer. (The heads could have been cleaned - not difficult.)
Very crude example but not necessarily early. Note arrow-shaped neck joints.
Offered on eBay, 2017. Interesting peghead shape; compare with Kingsport banjer, below.
From Tennessee. Note turned back.
Note turned back, similar to previous.
Instrument by Leroy Wilson, ca. 1920. Hear it at 42:00, below. Note Bruce Green's 2-finger up-picking on this banjer as opposed to clawhammer elsewhere.
Found in Virginia, 2014.
"PT FLATS" 1923, 21" (w/ 'H')
"PT FLATS" 1926, 26 1/2"
"PT FLATS:" P.T. Flats? Pt. [e.g., Pete] Flats? Point Flats? Port Flats?
Named and dated, 1925.
George Washington Blake (1855-1922) Wilmington NC, 1919
found, Jonas Ridge, Burke Co., NC
George Alvin Huskins (1908-1989) Spruce Pine NC
"W.A. Price[?] April 4. 1917" Found Elizabethton, Carter Co, TN
Found Washington Co. TN
Anon box banjer (29.5 x 9.25" head 4.75") Worthpt. auction
Anon mt banjer 34.25" (ex-Morgan Rank coll); Anon box banjer. Both 2014.
Perhaps RA Sanders [not mt.] banjer. Interesting peghead, bracket system.
Anon EKy mt banjer, inscribed A.D.C., head is Postmaster tobacco can.
Anon mt banjer, "Johnson City, 22 Feb, 1922" and 2 uncertain names. Note metal fingerboard addition? repair?
Anon mt banjer, found Greene Co, TN, from Henry family. 33 7/8 x 8 3/4" chestnut (only 2 lbs)
[The same banjer as above.] Note the angular heel on the neck. I particularly like the half-closed eyes on the back...