Wednesday, June 6, 2018

My British Banjo Collection - A Recollection


In the late 1990s/early 2000s I began collecting British banjos. 

Unfortunately, since those years for me were way before I dove into the shallow end of the pool insofar as modern digital photography was concerned, no worthwhile photos of that collection survive. 

I selected British banjos as my collecting focus for very basic economic reasons: they were cheaper, fewer, and far less interesting (at the time) to the majority of American banjo collectors, meaning that I had a virtually clear and open field uncluttered by the high rollers who dominated the American vintage banjo market during my ten or so years of active collecting. 

Most American collectors did not know British banjos, and did not place any collecting value on them.  British collectors did know these instruments, but few considered them worthy of attention.  A perfect example of this is the attitude evinced by A.P. Sharpe in his circa-1960s pamphlet, A Complete Guide to the Instruments of the Banjo Family, (London: Clifford Essex Music Company, Ltd., no date):

Monstrosities that have lain hidden in attics or junk shops for many years are being unearthed, dusted off and abortive attempts made to make them playable.  Many of these old attic discoveries and junk shop “finds” are virtually useless as musical instruments.  Most are the crude large and deep hoop tack-tead “tubs” of the minstrel era whilst some are even six and seven-string unfretted instruments over eighty years old that were never intended for anything more ambitious than an elementary vamping accompaniment to a “coon song.”  Neither are worth spending money on.

Such minstrel era “monstrosities” have long been extremely big-ticket items for American collectors.  I suspect that during the last 20 or so years they have become equally important to British collectors.

There was a period of time during the late 1990s and early 2000s when eBay was still relatively new and modest in size and scope, that this online site offered a treasure trove of attic finds, heirlooms and other banjo interests – before the proliferation of eBay “stores” selling modern inventory crowded out the small time hunters and gatherers.  I accumulated a very decent number of British originals as the result of fishing expeditions on eBay.  And more than that, I developed a keen interest in British banjo history, and wrote and published my fair share of studies of the subject, including the first comprehensive profile of Joseph Daniels.[1]

My favorite British banjo was one built by Samuel Wells Kemp who described his 1884 invention as an attempt to “construct or arrange a trumpet or bell concentrator of sound at and within the belly portion of a banjo so as to modulate, soften or mellow the musical tones as the strings are acted upon.”  Kemp, who worked for the Middlesex Musical Instrument Manufacturing Company, acted through a Fleet Street agent to register his “specification,” number 9439, 26 June 1884.  He was credited by A.P. Sharpe as the first to patent a banjo.  The Kemp banjo had one of those oddly configured pegheads, the kind that have the power to cross the eyes of even the most jaded of American banjo experts. 

The 11-inch pot was bent oak, designed to accommodate 18 diving helmet shoes that were sufficiently eccentric so as to defy efforts to track down matches for the six that were missing.  Nice large dome headed screws secured the shoes.  The south end of the neck bore two decals, one of Queen Victoria overlapping an insignia of the 1885 International Inventors Exhibition.  The neck was wide enough to accommodate six strings (31/16th inches) with a nice “V” shape down the center, from the peghead to the fifth string tuner.  I have seen one other Kemp in a collection displayed on the website www.Banjoworld.  

The first thing that caught my eye about the Temlett in my collection was the sculptured shape of the rolled brass rim with the built-in bell and donut ring.  Many of the British innovations were motivated by the desire to elegantly conceal hardware.  Temlett’s role in developing the zither banjo gave him plenty of opportunity to experiment with solutions to exposed hooks and nuts.  On my Temlett, the hook ends and nuts were fitted comfortable into a cove in the interior of the bell.  The Temlett in my little arsenal was distinguished by a significant number of geometric inlays on the fingerboard composed of various combinations of diamond shapes.  These may have been added later; my sense is that British inlay work was generally simple and sparse.  The most striking dimension of this Temlett was the dramatic layering of neck and fingerboard wood, mahogany on maple on ebony on maple, just under the thin ebony fingerboard.  But what captivated me most about the layering was the intricate manner in which the neck and peghead layers were joined.  In some ways it was just a simple butt joint but it was accomplished in a way that lined up the seams nicely.  Unfortunately, the layering contributed over time to the bowing of the neck.

I also had a banjo by Thomas Hewett, whose London-based Stainer Manufacturing Company consisted of himself, his wife, and his daughter who managed a “banjo team” that was available to play music for home concerts, banquets and other events.  My Stainer banjo consisted of an all-metal rim the bottom half of which was a flange type bezel, a tension hoop built into the rear end of the rim.  The tension hoop itself had thin, square top brackets through which 29 tension hooks were threaded to provide the force necessary to attached the stretched skin.  The 29 hooks were configured in an array of 14 on each side of the line bisecting the head, with the 29th seated between the two metal arms that formed the tailpiece.  Hewett held a patent for all-metal tuning pegs with built-in locks that were truly unique.  Of all the banjos with metal rims, this one was the sweetest sounding.

I had two banjos that could be attributed to Harry Spratt, and one that may have been made for him by a musical instrument dealer.  Two were marked, and one bore the decal marking it as a banjo manufactured expressly for the Roylance Company.  Both of the signed banjos had the same distinguishing feature on the back of the neck: a graceful curve that reached its height around the fifth or sixth fret.  George Wunderlich called this a backward ogee.  My older banjo dated to the 1870s when, according to Sharpe, Spratt was making deep pots of heavy wood and fitting them to wide and unfretted necks.  My second Spratt banjo, the “bedpan” banjo as it came to be called by my American collector friends, was his 1885 patent for “a new way of arranging the tightening hoop and screws doing away with the brackets,” and “a new method of fixing the handle to the body whereby the vibration of the latter are impaired.” 

Finally, I had two “Defiance” banjos by Joseph Daniels in my collection.  Daniels, born Joseph Toledano, was a professional musician and member of a well-known family troupe.  In 1887 he took out a patent for a metal “sound pan” and a tailpiece distinguished by its adjustable hinge and tension spring mechanism (number 14,162, 18 October 1887).  I owned one of these as well as an all-wood version of the top tension patent model, purchased from Richard Evans, a lovely British gentleman collector.  I eventually sold the earlier wooden banjo to Jody Stecher. 

During my ten or so years of flirtation with collecting, and my associated interest in research concerning British banjo history, I had some intriguing encounters. 

Ø  In early 2002, a Ms. Christine Emmerson posted a website query about Henry J. Spratt, “Professor of the Banjo,” who lived in Lambeth in the 1880s and may have had some connection to a museum in the area.  Spratt was Christine’s Great, Great Granddaughter.  She told me that Spratt was born in 1836 in Saint Pancras, North London.  He married Agnes Geal in 1861 in Huntington at St. Mary’s, and had nine children between 1862 and 1890.  He disowned his daughter when she married out of the faith.  Spratt taught music through at least 1901. 

Ø  In 2005 I made the acquaintance of Angela Heiss, the grand daughter of Alfred Daniels, Joseph’s son.  Alfred, the youngest son, was born in 1884 and christened David Alfred, and went on to perform in a minstrel troupe.  The Heiss family preserved sheet music composed by Joseph Daniels for the banjo, and had a handwritten notebook of Alfred’s in which the performer meticulously recorded his playlist.  Some years later I was contacted by yet another distant member of the Daniels clan who had produced birth records and contributed to a privately published family history.   

Ø  In late 2005 I corresponded with Alan Middleton who edited A.P. Sharpe’s “The Banjo Story,” and had in his procession (at that time) the original carbon copies generated by Sharpe.  I also conducted email exchanges with Pat Doyle, who started the publication “The Banjo,” which serialized Sharpe’s “Banjo Story” on the basis of Middleton’s carbon copies.  I met and exchanged ideas and material with Lowell Schreyer, who obtained the original Sharpe manuscript from Mr. McNagton, possibly at the point when Clifford Essex Company was finally going out of business in the later 1970s.  Julian Vincent, the editor of “The Banjoists’ Broadsheet,” published some of my articles. 

Ø  During my efforts to write about A.P. Sharpe, I corresponded with Clem Vickery, a former stock boy employed by Clifford Essex, who recalled Sharpe from direct experience.  Vickery went on to resurrect the name of Clifford Essex, publish some new instrument tutors, design and build a line of C.E. banjos, market a variety of C.E. publications – including the famed C.E. house magazine, Banjo-Mandolin-Guitar. 

So in some ways, as I immersed myself in British banjos, I found myself awash in a sea of charming British collectors, luthiers, musicians – all of whom contributed something significant to my flirtation with their musical and instrumental history.

For example:

In 2003/2004, probably as the result of a combination of my activities with the Banjo Collectors Gathering and my auctions (and purchasing efforts) on eBay, I met up, electronically, with the British banjo collector Richard Evans who, for me, personified the eccentric trajectory of both British and American collectors in general.  Richard told me that in the Spring of 2002 he watched the film “Hi-Fi,” and later looked to see what vinyl records were fetching on eBay.  On a lark, he looked at musical instrument auctions. 

Some years before he had wanted an alto sax to hang on a wall in his home in England to give expression to his love for swing music and traditional jazz.  Richard purchased a tenor sax, and this led to the acquisition of other brass instruments, but before long he realized that displaying these on his walls would become a challenge.  He already had a long necked Framus that had languished in the big family house for 30 years, and then migrated to the cellar of his modest cottage.  He dug it out, held it against the wall, and discovered that stringed instruments were indisputably easier to mount on walls. 

With no particular notion of what he was doing -- by his own admission -- Richard began buying banjos, engaging luthiers to do restoration work, and creating friendships with other like-minded obsessive compulsives that helped him narrow his focus and refine his ability to spot unique items.  Richard described his collection as consisting of an outrageous number of “nothing in particular” banjos.  At some point, before he passed away in October 2014, just a few days short of his 71st birthday, Richard had turned his attention to collecting bowling league shirts and bowling shoes.  See http://www.banjohangout.org/topic/292623

* * *

Sometime between late 2005 and the end of 2006 I began disaggregating the British collection.  I recall one evening having the feeling sweep over me that as nice as these banjos were, and as unique as they were, sitting on their racks in my basement banjo room they were little more than large pieces of costume jewelry.[2]  Some barely tuned to a playable scale.  Others failed to hold a tuning at all.  Many of the necks were warped by time and playing them required serious work-arounds or massive neck repairs - not the approach I took to collecting and resurrecting vintage banjos. 



[1] See "Joseph Daniels: British Banjo Maker, Minstrel Performer -- A 19th Century Musical Family’s History," Old Time Herald, April 2007 (http://www.oldtimeherald.org/archive/back_issues/volume-10/10-12/joseph-daniels.html). 

[2] “For the truly compulsive hobbyist, there comes a time when a collection gathers weight — metaphysical, existential weight. It becomes as much a source of anxiety as of joy.”  See Monte Reel, “The Brazilian Bus Magnate Who’s Buying Up All the World’s Vinyl Record,“ New York Times, 8 August 2014.

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/10/magazine/the-brazilian-bus-magnate-whos-buying-up-all-the-worlds-vinyl-records.html



Sunday, February 11, 2018

New Ken Perlman CD

Ken Perlman's new CD, "Frails & Frolics" includes over 45 tunes, most of them collected by Ken from traditional fiddlers on Prince Edward Island, arranged on banjo to reflect all their authentic flavor and nuance, and expertly organized into “sets,” or medleys. 17 cuts amounting to over an hour of music, with 8pp. booklet; accompanied by Jim Prendergast, guitar and Janine Randall, piano.