The Mountain Banjo
The fragility of a gourd body was an obvious constraint and different solutions were essayed. One was a wooden substitute: a box, often with a skin stretched across it in imitation of the gourd. This obvious replacement obtained a certain popularity but ultimately lost out to a completely different approach to the concept; instead of concentrating on the resonator as a container for the vibrating skin, the skin itself was the focus. And there was already a family of instruments, both in Europe and Africa, which utilized the principle of the resonant parchment: drums, and especially tambourines. The standard model of the banjo, developed in the 1830s, and carried forward even into its most evolved, modern form, consists of two discrete parts: a circular body or “pot” with a skin head, pierced laterally by a separate slender neck. An early description called it a “cheesebox with a neck.” As might be expected from such a drum- or tambourine-like body, one of the most famous early urban makers also made drums. There is also an obvious adaptation of the two-part construction widely found in rural areas that obviated the need for complicated metal tensioners: the so-called “tackhead,” where the skin was simply nailed to the rim.
Homer Ledford (1927-2006) of Winchester, Kentucky, a traditional instrument maker who specialized in dulcimers, also made a number of banjos influenced by the larger-bodied, lathe-turned style.
Of the several varieties of mountain banjers, the one centered on Watauga County, North Carolina, on the Tennessee border, is the most famous.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, along with Ashe and Alleghany, Watauga, at 300 square miles in area, was considered one of North Carolina’s “Lost Counties,” due to its isolated, mountainous terrain rising over a mile high, with the county seat, Boone at an altitude of 3,333 feet. Even today, with a university, the entire county’s population is only 55,000.
The first two, though signed by Frank Proffitt, are clearly by Leonard Glenn, thus the first four are his. Number 5 is Clifford’s along with Frank, Jr. In personal communication, Frank, Jr. indicated that he had “made” the instrument in the sense that he had done “most” of the work, but had done so with the assistance, and presumably the supervision of Clifford. It is hard for those of us not intimate with the personal relationships of this cooperative community to fully understand the complexities of responsibility and power involved in an almost-communal product such as these instruments. When Frank Sr. wrote me that it took about a week to make a banjer he may have been involved in such a mutual arrangement or he may have been relating the time involved in the years previous when he had been building instruments himself – before time constraints of touring intervened. There are only a few documented banjers from the hand of Frank Proffitt Sr., though he routinely signed his name to instruments made by Leonard Glenn. (There is an anecdote, perhaps apocryphal, of a young visitor seeing an instrument of the Glenns and saying “Oh, so you make Frank Proffitt-style banjos?” To which Leonard replied, “No, Frank makes Leonard Glenn-style banjos.”) Certainly there may have been egos and reputations involved but they seem not to have interfered with the production of a valuable commodity. Ellis Wolfe, the protégé of Stanley Hicks, provided banjers for him to sell as well as selling them under his own name. As one who worked in a shop with a master luthier, I personally benefited from the interest, advice, and assistance of others while building my “own” instruments. This sort of mutual endeavor would not have seemed unusual – indeed, would have been the norm in a medieval guild or traditional atelier.
In an attempt to share information about traditional Watauga County mountain banjers I developed an elementary checklist. Since there are several other styles my endeavor is perhaps naive or premature but may prove suggestive for others.