Rob MacKillop | Recital: The Art of the Banjo 1910 - 1930

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Recital: The Art of the Banjo 1910 - 1930

by Rob MacKillop

Contemplative, soothing, soulful, sublime - the banjo as rarely heard. The publications for banjo from 1910 to 1930 reveal a side of the instrument which seems to have been largely forgotten. Classical, Ragtime, Blues, Jazz - all beautifully performed.
Genre: Jazz: Ragtime
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  song title
1. Ballad No.1
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1:55 album only
2. Albumblatt
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5:03 album only
3. Blue Eyes
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3:19 album only
4. Lazy Rhythm
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3:48 album only
5. Sparklets
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4:08 album only
6. Flirtation
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5:45 album only
7. Banjo Blues
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3:19 album only
8. A Fireside Idyll
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6:16 album only
9. An April Blossom
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3:55 album only
10. Cantabile and Valse
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2:31 album only
11. The Banjo Polka
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2:51 album only
12. Languid Blues
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3:48 album only
13. Rose Leaves Gavotte
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3:47 album only
14. Nocturne in Eb
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3:02 album only
15. El Dorado, Tango Foxtrot
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3:14 album only
16. Blue Stocking, Caprice
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2:28 album only
17. Monday Morning Blues
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3:33 album only
18. Sparkling Crystals, Novelette
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4:43 album only
19. Tangled: A Syncopated Mixup
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1:39 album only
20. My Lady Jazz
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2:35 album only
21. The Dixie Rube
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2:27 album only
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Album Notes
The Art Of The Banjo
c.1910 – c.1930

Alfred Cammeyer – Ballad No.1; Albumblatt; Blue Eyes [all Plectrum]
Bert Bassett – Lazy Rhythm [Plectrum]
Walter E. Miles – Sparklets [Plectrum]
Budd L. Cross – Flirtation [Plectrum]
Emile Grimshaw – Banjo Blues [Fingerstyle]
Alfred Cammeyer – A Fireside Idyll; An April Blossom [both plectrum]; Cantabile and Valse; The Banjo Polka [both Fingerstyle]
Edmund Caselli – Languid Blues [Fingerstyle]
Joe Morley – Rose Leaves Gavotte [Fingerstyle]
Frédéric Chopin – Nocturne in Eb, arranged by Emile Grimshaw [Plectrum]
Arthur J. Weidt – El Dorado – Tango Fox Trot; Blue Stocking Caprice; Monday Morning Blues; Sparkling Crystals Novelette; Tangled – A Syncopated Mixup; My Lady Jazz; The Dixie Rube [All Tenor]

Recital: The Art of the Banjo, c.1910 – c.1930

One need only look at the first three lines of the score for Budd Cross’s Flirtation:

Gracefully; rallentando, a tempo, poco a poco accelerando, ritenuto, a tempo, poco accelerando, rallentando, ritenuto, a tempo, poco a poco accelerando, ritenuto, etc, etc.

These contrasting tempo indications are found alongside almost as many dynamic indications, fermatas and staccato marks. The music for the banjo in the early part of the 20th century was, like the instrument itself, in a state of flux.

Frank B. Converse (1837-1903) promoted a new way of playing the banjo, what he called ‘guitar’ style (and what we might call fingerstyle) as early as 1865, and he was not the first to do so. He was, however, the most talented composer for the banjo in the post-bellum period. His advanced non-dance based works moved far from the minstrel-style roots of his youth, and showed those who would listen, that the banjo was capable of playing the Romantic classical repertoire already popular in Europe for the guitar. But by the dawn of the 20th century, Converse represented the old school...

The new century brought new music and new instruments. The music explored new harmonies, new forms and structures, and new ways of phrasing a melody. The instrument itself also explored new forms and structures, a greater dynamic range, and new colours. New techniques were introduced, especially the use of the pick or plectrum, as the newly developed Plectrum and Tenor banjos sought to be heard in the new raucous ‘jass’ bands.

Most of the music on this recording dates from the period circa 1910 to circa 1930, and as far as I can tell, has mostly never been recorded before. It is a largely forgotten heritage, yet a rich and surprising one. It is my hope that this recording will help this repertoire find a new audience, curious about the banjo’s voice outside the familiar worlds of Bluegrass, Old-Time, and Dixieland.

The technique used on the majority of tracks is with a pick or plectrum. When first introduced, many fingerstyle solos were reset for plectrum technique, either by the composers themselves, or by arrangers, plectrum banjoists in search of a repertoire of solo works. Flirtation, Sparklets and Lazy Rhythm, were all originally conceived for fingerstyle technique, and brilliantly arranged for Plectrum banjo by a young American, Frank Bradbury (Flirtation and Sparklets) and by the English banjo virtuoso, Emile Grimshaw (Lazy Rhythm).

At the same time as the new techniques and instruments were being explored, many players adopted the use of steel strings as opposed to gut. Steel strings had been sold to banjoists for decades, yet it was the use of the plectrum, and the desire for greater volume, that led many to play exclusively with steel. And steel strings have a unique singing quality, one found attractive by the great Anglo-American composer (American by birth, domiciled in England), Alfred Cammeyer (1862-1949).

Cammeyer had an important role in developing the largely steel-strung zither banjo, an instrument which became quite popular in England. His music for zither banjo (itself apparently developed in the 1880s) exploited the intimate quality of the light steel strings, but the instrument’s lack of volume led to it not being regarded an altogether successful concert instrument. My own experience with a fine zither banjo by the great English luthier, Temlett, was not an entirely happy one, I must admit. The thin steel strings were like cheese cutters to touch, and the sound was thin and with little projection. Yet the compositions by Cammeyer are among the finest ever written for the banjo.

When I came to augmenting the early repertoire for Plectrum banjo with new arrangements, Cammeyer’s music seemed the most obvious place to start. I was delighted to learn that much of his work fits the Plectrum banjo beautifully, with hardly a note being left out. And I believe that Cammeyer’s music on the Deering Eagle II banjo is a match made in Heaven. The sparkling treble of the zither banjo is there, but there is also a warm bass register, entirely absent from the zither banjo, but a warmth perfectly suited to Cammeyer’s contemplative and soothing music.

Long before English guitarists, Eric Clapton and Peter Green, explored the blues genre, English banjoists, Emile Grimshaw and Edmund Caselli discovered how well the early jazz-blues style could transfer to the solo banjo. The big interpretive question is whether to perform these pieces in the early swing style, or with a straighter, more ragtime feel. As Emile Grimshaw was very particular that his works should be performed exactly as written, especially in respect to time values, I have taken him at his word; whereas I play Caselli’s blues with a light swing feel. I perform these solos, Banjo Blues and Languid Blues, fingerstyle; likewise two solos by Cammeyer, Cantabile and Valse, and The Banjo Polka, both of which are better suited to a fingerstyle technique.

Joe Morley (1867 – 1937) is the most celebrated of all English banjo player-composers, and rightly so. I am happy to include his Rose Leaves Gavotte in this selection. Emile Grimshaw’s arrangement of Chopin’s Nocturne in Eb is inspired and beautiful. Both Grimshaw and Morley did their part in elevating the musical art of the banjo.

The tenor banjo first became popular in the 1920s, and has since become associated with both traditional jazz and Irish styles. Arthur J. Weidt (1866-1945) wrote engaging music for both the 5- and 4-string banjos, and his 1920s tenor pieces reveal a variety of influences, from ragtime to classical, popular music and jazz. His works deserve to be studied and treasured by all students of the banjo. El Dorado – Tango Fox Trot, is a respectful nod in the direction of the development of the early tenor banjo through the popularity of the fashionable Tango bands; Tangled – A Syncopated Mixup, has the performer darting about the fretboard, grabbing chords and scale fragments in wonderfully syncopated rhythms; Monday Morning Blues, sounds to this performer to have more in common with ragtime than swing jazz; while Blue Stocking Caprice, and Sparkling Crystals Novelette, are among his finest compositions.

With this recording I have tried to recover a largely neglected banjo repertoire, and show how well it can sound on modern steel-strung banjos, played with either a fingerstyle of plectrum technique. We banjo players are lucky to have such a beautiful musical heritage.

Rob MacKillop
June, 2011

Thanks to all the geniuses at Deering Banjos – there is no such thing as a solo artist: Deering were with me on every note; Nick Cliffe for art work; everyone at Banjo Hangout; Penny Evans; and to the Manhattan Minstrel, the great Eddy Davis for inspiration, and to whom this recording is dedicated.

Rob MacKillop
"One of Scotland's finest musicians" Celtic World

"A top-drawer player" Early Music Today

"A true champion of Scottish music" The Herald

"A player of real quality, with warmth of personality and communication skills to of Scotland's top professionals" Classical Guitar

"MacKillop displays dazzling virtuosity...the playing is exceptionally musical" Sounding Strings

"a leading traditional talent who is single-handedly responsible for unearthing some of the nation's finest music" The Scotsman

Rob MacKillop - Rob has recorded eight CDs of historical music, three of which reached the Number One position in the Scottish Classical Music Chart. In 2001 he was awarded a Churchill Fellowship for his research into medieval Scottish music, which led him to studying with Sufi musicians in Istanbul and Morocco. He broadcast an entire solo concert on BBC Radio 3 from John Smith's Square, London.

He has presented academic papers at conferences in Portugal and Germany, and has been published many times. Rob has been active in both historical and contemporary music.

Three of Scotland's leading contemporary composers have written works for him, and he also composes new works himself. In 2004 he was Composer in Residence for Morgan Academy in Dundee, and in 2001 was Musician in Residence for Madras College in St Andrews. He created and Directed the Dundee Summer Music Festival.

He worked as a Reader of schools literature for Oxford University Press, and as a reviewer for Music Teacher. He has also been Lecturer in Scottish Musical History at Aberdeen University, Dundee University (where he created an evening class), and at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama.

He was for five years the Musician In Residence to Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh, and is a regular article writer for BMG magazine.

Rob plays lute, vihuela, guitar (most styles and periods), banjos and ukuleles. Look out for Rob's books published by Mel Bay, Centerstream, and The Hardie Press.


to write a review

Jason Smith

wonderful banjo music
Rob's playing is exquisite. It is so refreshing to hear someone bring out the voice of the banjo through flawless technique and sensitive musicianship. Selections are well chosen and well balanced with an over arching rhythmic diversity. I am already wearing grooves in this "record". Thank you, Rob!