Mountain banjer studies
I have been fortunate to encounter several interesting mountain banjers that repay in-depth examination.
The Hawthorne Banjer
In 2014 I acquired an interesting old mountain banjer which is signed and dated. On the dark head, the name “W. I. Hawthorne,” and “May 15, 1922,” (plus 1923 and some other indecipherable but, perhaps recoverable, letters) are written. The initials W I H are also stamped on each side of the heel, likely indicating he was the actual maker. I obtained it from Mountain City TN; the story is that it was bought ca. 2000 from a man in Avery County NC and it was built by his uncle who lived in West Jefferson (Ashe Co).
The neck, top and back are made of walnut; the center layer seems to be a splint of oak or chestnut. The instrument is 34″ long, with a 10.5″ pot. The most distinctive thing about the banjer is the neck treatment and its join to the pot. There is an unusual combination of angular facets near the heel changing to a round cross-section at the fifth peg. There is a resemblance in the angular neck treatment to my banjer found in Winston-Salem and one from “Western North Carolina” in the Museum of Appalachia. The Winston-Salem banjer also has a (different but similar) dovetail joint at the heel. There is a nice star cutout in the back, a well-made (commercial?) metal 6-string tailpiece, external bolts joining the top and back, with pronged metal chair sliders covering the bolt heads on the top, resembling the more massive hardware sometimes found on these instruments. It is partially fretted – an old job – with narrow frets but some marks on the flat surface seem to indicate previous use without them. There are not many old mountain banjers around and so few that can be dated that I feel justified in reporting this example. Perhaps someone in the area can take up the search from here.
[From various genealogical sources I was able to trace only one W(illiam) I(ngram) Hawthorne (1889-1967) of North Carolina but he was born in Philadelphia, was in turn a farmer, minister, and jeweler, and lived, from the 1920s, in Charlotte. Not quite convincing enough to be certain he was the right fellow. I submit this for anyone following up on the ground. Perhaps the place to start would be West Jefferson.]
The Winston-Salem Banjer
This is an examination of an anonymous Watauga County, North Carolina-style fretless banjo I purchased on eBay in 2011. The seller, a woodworker and cabinet maker of Early American furniture, had purchased it from an antique store in Winston-Salem around 1988. It had several unusual characteristics which interested me and provided the impetus for my determined acquisition. The most obvious distinction is the elaborate peghead design which is idiosyncratic but reminiscent of some early factory patterns. However, the realization of the design, particularly the extreme angles of the planes of the sides, contrasted with the right-angled placement of the pegs, betrays a certain naive approach. The contrast between the rough and ready, traditional body and the more sophisticated neck design was apparent even at first glance. The differences became more obvious with closer scrutiny.
Upon disassembly there were clearly different hands at work on the neck and on the body. The body was made of a close -grained, but rather porous wood, probably maple, which seemed to have been wiped with a slight stain on the exterior. In the traditional three stacked ring construction, there were indications that it originally had tabs on the upper and lower rings facing the neck. The top tab was completely removed, its existence only betrayed by the sharper edges at the top and bottom of the ring and the slightly fresher wood between.
The lower tab had been recut into the unusual diamond-shaped appendage which was inset into the heel of the neck. Its previous extent could also be seen by the sharper edges and the lack of oxidation. Excepting the recut tab, all the tool marks on the body showed the use of hand tools, mostly rasps, files, and chisels. None of the surfaces was completely flat or rounded.
The interior surfaces showed no attempt at superfluous smoothing.
The heart of the instrument, the metal cylinder which stretched the head, is a likely hand-forged piece of iron with handmade copper rivets pinning it together. The technology still exists, and it could have been made up to 1988, or 100 years or more before. The use of modern stove pipe material in the Glenn-Proffitt banjos from the 1960s shows the modern evolution.
The existing, broken, skin head was attached to the upper surface of the center ring by 22 small metal brads. That it was not the original head is shown by the remnants of 65 tiny wooden pegs on the under side of the top ring. Thus the earlier head(s) was fastened to a different surface, probably at least twice. (20 or 30 pegs each seem more likely than all 65 to secure a single head.)
The overall appearance of the body is pleasantly distinctive. The center ring is recessed approximately 3/8″ all around and the top and bottom ring surfaces have a series of decorative scribed concentric circles. The top is fastened with 12 countersunk brass flathead screws centered on the second of the four scribed circles. The back, by way of contrast, has 12 round-headed brass screws, also centered on a scribed circle, the second of five.
The concentric circles, clearly made with the aid of a compass, also give data points to ascertain the amount of shrinkage in the wood. A given circle is as much as 1/4″ out of round, thus explaining the 1/8″ crack which has opened up in the top ring. Unable to prevail against the immovable iron ring, the top split. [This also provides me with a simple means of restoring the banjo to playing condition; I shall re-join the crack and simply enlarge the center hole to fit the iron ring.]
Thus, the original instrument was probably a typical example of the Watauga County style with a simple neck fitted between tabs on the top and bottom of the body.
For whatever reason the original neck was replaced at a later date by a very different, more urban style neck, made in one piece. This neck, with its imitation of a fancy, factory made peghead, is also much shorter in relation to the body, giving the banjo a somewhat stumpy look. The heel and the neck profile is a rounded vee shape, likewise reflecting a more urban sensibility. Not wanting to cut into the top surface of the already-existing neck, the worker removed the top tab and modified the lower tab to fit into the heel. The heel portion of the neck was originally much longer (and perhaps would have retained the proportions of the original neck) but was cut to fit into the old body, including a thin tenon which extended into the Middle of the center ring. It was then pegged through the center ring and, combined with the short section of the neck clamped between the top and bottom, as well as the inlaid tab at the base of the heel, provided an ad hoc security to the neck joint to take the place of the much more logical, traditional approach. Judging by the traces of the tabs the original neck was approximately 2 1/4″ at the top and at least 1 1/2″ on the bottom.
The Kingsport Banjer
I recently bought an unusual mountain banjer which was found in the area of Kingsport, Tennessee. The most distinctive aspect was that it had a top ring and a bottom ring but only small blocks around the edges for the middle ring. A fellow collector remembered it being listed (perhaps sold) on eBay some months before I bought it in January 2012.
It was screwed together with 8 iron threaded bolts with a square top section and round, mushroom-domed heads. (Someone will recognize them and tell me what they are.) The square shanks were countersunk into the top ring and square iron nuts were attached to the back (I added brass washers). It is about 35″ overall, with an 11 1/2″ pot and a 7 1/2″ head. There are no tabs from the body into the neck which is, therefore, one piece: the entire 2″ depth of the body. There was a thin, narrow wooden splint which was tacked over with a piece of chamois-like suede which was non functional. Though the splint had many tack holes in it and looked as if it might have originally held a skin head, I could find no method by which it could be reinstalled so I replaced it with a full height 1 5/8″ metal ring from a cookie tin. There were some faint marks but no definitive evidence of a center bent rim having been originally installed. Knowing, however, that this construction method was used by some North Carolina makers, I installed an alder splint between the top and bottom rings with a block at the tail position for support (to counteract the pressure of the tightened bolts).
The banjer is made of walnut with a distinctive peghead design and was covered with a rather thick, modern finish which I removed. The original(?) string holder was a piece of sheet metal held by the endmost bolt which I replaced by a rosewood block at the end, between the top and bottom. Except for the items mentioned above, the instrument seems to be within the range of variation of Western North Carolina homemade mountain banjers. I would be interested in hearing about other instruments with similar features.
The New York City Banjer
This is a big shout out to everyone around the Big Apple. I bought a mountain banjo from the son (in Pennsylvania) of the original owner, so the details may be a tad soft. It had been in the family for at least 30 years. All the son remembers is that it was supposedly made by a disabled WWII veteran who made them as a hobby. He supposedly lived either in Brooklyn or Huntington, L.I. and he had a collection of Martin guitars. The man supposedly felled the tree from which he made the banjos. Of course, he also said it was “cherry” when it is clearly walnut. So much for the oral tradition.
It is 38 1/4″ long with an 11 3/4″ body and 6 1/4″ head. The three piece body has flush rings and the top, which has a tab (but no fastener) is glued and pegged (screwed?), with 8 fasteners, to the center ring. There was a very thick polyurethane finish on the entire instrument (which may or may not be original) but it had been sanded off in places and I completely stripped it.
The back, which has a pierced, 5-petaled daisy/star, has 7 screws and one on the tab. Both the top and bottom are made of rather narrow strips glued together in the following order: 5/8″, 1 1/2″, 2″, 2″, 1 3/4″, 2″, 1 1/2″, 5/8″ (reversed back to front). Obviously, the outer, 5/8″ strips, were rounded out of a larger strip but the irregularity is interesting and unique in my experience.
The neck is joined to the body by a large bolt, the far end of which is accessed by a hole which is, in turn, hidden by the back tab (the screw hole for which can be seen to the left). Altogether an ingenious and, in my experience, a singular solution.
The metal stretcher is aluminum and the skin is attached to the underside of the top ring with small brads. Judging by the filled holes in the somewhat wonky peghead, the banjer has had several sets of pegs, including at least one geared set.
The hole for the 5th peg is drilled all the way through the neck and filled, demonstrating a straightforward, practical approach – or a lack of the proper tool. The inset tailpiece, on the other hand is a tribute to the original Watauga County pattern.
The most interesting feature, however, is the way the neck is joined to the top ring of the pot. In most Watauga County banjos it is a simple, right-angled butt joint. In banjos known to be made by the Glenns, on the other hand, the joint is a sophisticated Z-shaped joint. This may be characteristic of this sub-type. It was, certainly, the detail which most impressed me in 1963 when I saw my first one. I still am flabbergasted by the simple elan of that superfluous cut. This maker went to the trouble to replicate that hallmark; he must have been as impressed by it as I was and decided to copy it.
There may be other instruments by this maker out there. Does anyone else have one or recognize his description? There couldn’t have been too many disabled WWII veteran, Martin-guitar-collecting, banjo makers in the New York area…
= NECK JOINT CONSTRUCTION =
The construction of the pot is perhaps the most obvious characteristic of the mountain banjer but the way the neck joins to the body provides the most variety.
[Important caveat: we have no way of knowing the age of any of these techniques. Simpler May suggest older but there is little objective verifiable evidence.]