Music through the Decades – Roots of America’s Music – Part 3

“The Banjo Contest”

With its origin made from a gourd covered with ground’s hog hide, goat’s skin, or sometimes cat skin, the “banja or banjars”, today’s banjo has become a part of America’s heritage. The story of the banjo is about America’s people from its African American roots to the cabins in the dark hollows of the Appalachians. The natural sound of the banjo is happy and joyous—the lighthearted sound of which could peel the bark off a tree.

Although in the early nineteenth century, the instrument was an oddity and denied respectability. In the twentieth century with the exciting performing “claw-hammer” of “frailing” styles of Uncle Dave Macon, it became a reputable standard on the early days of the WSM Barn Dance and Grand Ole Opry.

On October 19, 1857, the first banjo contest was held in of all places, New York City. The contest was organized by Charles Morrell, a banjo maker. The first and only prize was $100 equivalent to $1,000 today. It was held in the Old Chinese Assembly Rooms at No. 539 on Broadway. There were three judges which seem to be a followed custom even today in all the banjo contests around the country. Each player was to play five tunes: a waltz, one schottische, one polka, one reel, and one jig. Twenty players entered the contest with a packed house. Later in the July, 1890 issue of the Banjo and Guitar Journal, Mr. Morrell historically documented the event saying that the audience went wild, mesmerized by the colorful banjo players, “I thought that the roof would fall off!”Charles Plummer was announced the winner—“The Champion Banjoist of America” He played his five tunes in a continuous medley, running one tune into another until he finished. Charles Morrell took his banjo playing and contest idea to the West Coast to California teaching hundreds of to play even before the Civil War.

 

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