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Nov. 23, 1999 -- No.717

Authors produce definitive book on banjo, ‘America’s Instrument’

CHAPEL HILL -- For many Americans, mentioning banjos evokes images of the Southern plantation or bluegrass music. A new book by a historian and one of the nation’s major collectors of banjos and related memorabilia puts those stereotypes to rest, showing the stringed instrument for the uniquely American phenomenon that it is.

"America’s Instrument: The Banjo in the Nineteenth Century" (1999, University of North Carolina Press) by UNC-Chapel Hill professor Philip Gura and collector James Bollman is the first comprehensive book on the history and evolution of the banjo. Evolving from its origins in black slavery, the banjo became a sophisticated instrument that, at the height of its popularity in the late 19th century, was used for everything from social dance music to European art music.

"The stereotypes are of an instrument that represents something about slave culture or, oddly enough, that it is an instrument identified with white ‘hillbilly’ music," said Gura, professor of English and American studies. "But, in fact, research quickly showed that in the early 19th century the banjo became a northern, urban instrument used in minstrel shows and developed in the manufacturing environment in northern cities.

"The banjo offers another example of what happened often in American music history," he said. "White entrepreneurs used African-American instruments or music for different agendas. Jazz and rock ‘n roll also emerged in that way."

A longtime fan of "old time" or Appalachian music, Gura began playing the banjo as a college student after he heard it being used for music with guitars, fiddles and flutes at contra dances. Later he became more interested in early instruments and how music must have sounded and been played in the 19th and 20th centuries.

When his path crossed 15 years ago with that of Jim Bollman in Bollman’s Music Emporium near Boston, the duo became fast friends, drawn together by their shared love of the banjo.

"As our friendship developed, I began to realize the incredible wealth of material he’d accumulated – several hundred instruments, photographs from the 19th century and early magazines dealing with the banjo," Gura said. "Walking into his home is to walk into a museum of that music."

After discussing how little solid information on the banjo was documented, he and Bollman decided to pool their resources – Bollman as the curator and collector and Gura as historian and writer – in a book.

"I worked with him to select things from his collection," the scholar said. "I'd pack them in my suitcase – sometimes priceless items -- and bring them home for photography and analysis – something a library or museum never would have allowed. It was wonderful."

Gura, who also knows a lot about the history of photography, was especially taken with Bollman’s 11 daguerreotypes, photos taken between 1840 and 1855, of people playing banjos – images reproduced among the 250 illustrations in the new book. He also points to "remarkable runs" of ephemeral periodicals – larger than that of the Library of Congress -- in Bollman’s collection.

"So what began as an avocation became something I knew was important for the scholarly world as well – to figure out how early banjos were made and marketed and to fill out the musical history of the instrument," Gura said.

The book illustrates the unique history of the banjo, contrasting it with the history of the guitar and other instruments.

"We call the banjo ‘America’s instrument,’ not only because 19th century people believed it was America’s contribution to the musical world, but also because it exemplifies something about American technology," the professor said. "By the early 19th century, the guitar’s outward form was pretty much established. And instrument-makers are still trying to make violins like Stradivarius made in the 18th century. But the banjo was always in evolution, always being tinkered with. When it was at its height, there were 100 patents filed for banjo improvements and developments."

The authors, who enjoy playing their banjos together at several old-time music conventions across the country each year, are gratified with the results of their publication.

"The best kind of scholarly work is when you can combine your vocation and your avocation and know – really not fooling yourself – that the project is promoting scholarship while, at the same time, you enjoy your hobby," Gura said.

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Note: Gura’s numbers are (919) 962-4033 (w) and 968-8121 (h), gura@email.unc.edu.

Contact: David Williamson, (919) 962-8596. For a photograph to illustrate stories on the new book, call Williamson.