The Mountain Banjo

Ambrotype [fl. 1850-1870] or tintype [fl.1860-1890] of uncertain banjer. Color change on head may indicate a wooden rim and smaller skin. Circumferential lines are suggestive of layers.
Various 18th-century banjer-like instruments.
Found in Chatham County, Georgia.
Banjo, American or English, ca. 1830-1840; pine, beech, rosewood; 39".
The earliest examples of banjers: banjo-like instruments in the New World – both from the Caribbean, its presumed area of development, and North America, where it was spread as early as the 17th century – tend to have rather organic structures betraying their calabash and gourd ancestors and harkening back to African prototypes. But in the acculturation process two modifications changed the direction of the instrument. One was a flat fingerboard, common to all other European stringed instruments, which made an increase in the number of strings possible. The other was the use of pegs for tuning, likewise ubiquitous in folk and classical Europe. These two elements were not necessarily “improvements:” instruments in Asia and Europe had gotten along without them for millennia, but they made the banjer ultimately adaptable to majority tastes. Gourd banjers in the American colonies were likely constructed by and for the use of Black musicians, free and enslaved, in memory of their Caribbean and remote African ancestors. It was probably only when their distinctive music attracted the attention of White audiences that a more permanent construction was envisioned.
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, however, an indigenous folk version of the American banjo developed in the Appalachian region of Western North Carolina, commonly and aptly named the “mountain banjo,”  This instrument, which may have evolved from the gourd banjos and other early African American progenitors or, more likely, from the concept of box banjers, is made almost completely of wood and substantially different in concept and construction from the earliest urban versions. In no case is there the slightest indication – as has been dismissively suggested by some – that the instrument is merely a rustic imitation of the city folks’ “banjo.” It is conceived of as a composite unit, joining together several parts or layers, in which the skin head is only one element. The short tube over which the skin is stretched is the only part which, in modern versions, is metal, though it could easily have been made of a wood splint – as there are also examples of this. Though there are extant instruments dating only to the early Twentieth century, they all show considerable sophistication in their construction, suggesting a mature tradition.
Box banjers were made in a variety of shapes, octagonal keeping a regional niche, but round was the most widespread.
This lovingly-crafted rosewood banjo was found in Michigan.
Among round forms there was an important style based upon a lathe-turned body. Its origin and distribution is uncertain.
Mamie Graybeall Shull, ca.1915, Watauga NC
Buna Vista Presnell Hicks (1888-1984) & Roby Hicks (1882-1957), ca. 1920
Leroy Wilson, ca. 1920
Tennessee Fiddling Competition, Mountain View, 1925
Frank Debety, 1920, Tellico Plains, TN
"Upon the blue Ridge mountains, it's there I'll take my stand; rifle on my shoulder, six-shooter in my hand; I been all around this world."

Of the several varieties of mountain banjers the one centered on Watauga County, North Carolina, on the Tennessee border, is the most famous.

In Watauga County, as late as 1930 only the solid black lines represented hard surface roads; the rest were merely graded or "unimproved."

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 classic, small-body Watauga County mountain banjer is associated with the Hicks family, among the first settlers in western North Carolina in the late 18th century. Samuel Hicks III (1848-1929) is said to have brought the pattern to the area from one seen in Wilkes County, immediately to the east, sometime “around” the Civil War. Both his son, Roby Monroe Hicks (1882-1957) and grandson, Stanley Hicks (1911-1989), made banjers in this style. Through association and intermarriage the design was shared with the Glenn and Proffitt families, all of who were to become intimately connected with the instrument. Though there are subtle differences among the various family examples they are clearly derived from the same source and, as might be expected in a tight-knit community of relatives, the lines and attributions are sometimes blurred.
Frank Proffitt (1913-1965) was a notable musician and occasional maker of the instrument, as was his father before him, but as his fame grew due to his travels, concerts, and recordings, he turned to his neighbor and relative, Leonard Glenn (1910-1997), to provide additional instruments. This was a major boost, both for the local economy and the reputation of the mountain banjer, for Leonard was a master woodworker and perfectionist. He refined the instrument to a degree seldom seen or imagined in the practical world of hard-working musician farmers. After Frank’s premature death at age 55, his son, Frank Jr (1946-2005) continued performing and, with the assistance of Leonard’s son Clifford (1935-2015) and others, also made banjers.
Stanley Hicks was in the direct family line of the style but did not have the fame and exposure of Frank Proffitt or the finesse and production incentive of Leonard Glenn. He was, nevertheless an important influence and participant in instrument making in the area. He gave his banjer patterns to Ellis Wolfe (1922-2009) just over the state line in Butler, Tennessee, who made beautiful instruments and helped Frank Jr., as well.
But the maker who truly deserves the name luthier was Leonard Glenn, who lifted the instrument into the realm of fine art and, succeeded by his son, Clifford, produced mountain banjers which are still held as the standard today. Many of the refinements were anticipated by other makers but Leonard integrated them into a logical, traditional unit that has stood the test of time.
The concept of the body is simple enough: three layers of wood, the tension for the skin head provided by a metal (in times past, wood) cylinder surrounded by the central layer; held together by screws (often elegantly covered by wooden dowels); a long neck wedged between tabs of the top and bottom layers. The beauty comes in the fit and finish provided by the craftsman: the choice of woods, the shape of the pegs, the profile of the peghead, the simple tailpiece. There is nothing “primitive” or “archaic” about the instrument; it is a classic example of form following function. Too often eager disciples mistake the simplicity of elegance for easy: few succeed in approaching their exemplar.
In 1975, as the Folk Music Revival began to wane, an issue of the “Foxfire” books provided the first information most Americans outside the area had ever seen about the mountain banjer and a revolution ensued: hands young and old turned to their wood shops to attempt to recreate what appeared to be an instrument from the past. There were even commercial essays into the field.
A number of sketches of the details of mountain banjers were displayed in Foxfire 3. Here, Stanley Hicks' construction.
And Stanley's father, Roby Monroe Hicks' (1882-1957) banjer.
Their neighbor Tedra Harmon.
Plan of a banjer by Stanley Hicks, with measurements.
This schematic from Leonard Glenn shows an elegant inset tailpiece and the characteristic 'Z' cut in the neck joint which seems to be diagnostic of his work.
I assembled a chart of my Watauga mountain banjers by the classic makers for comparison purposes.

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 signed his name to instruments made by Leonard Glenn. 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.

Noted traditional musician Franklin George (1928-2017) of Roane Co. WVa, with old mountain banjer.