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America's Instrument: The Banjo in the Ninteenth Century Hardcover – September 20, 1999

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Editorial Reviews

From Library Journal

Bollman's collecting passion is material on historic banjo manufacture and marketingAhe houses over 300 instruments, thousands of photographs, numerous patents, trade catalogs, ads, sheet music covers, periodicals, and banjo-themed "realia" in his Boston-area home. For this book, he shared his vast knowledge of banjo history with cultural historian Gura (English/American studies, Univ. of North Carolina, Chapel Hill), who augmented his research using other public and private collections. Thus, academic scholarship and collecting enthusiasm have combined to produce a responsible, entertaining overview of the banjo as an artifact of 19th-century American culture, one that crossed racial, economic, and stylistic lines and had a real effect on later musical developments, especially ragtime. Recommended for large American music and popular culture collections.ABonnie Jo Dopp, Univ. of Maryland Lib., Coll. Park
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.


[This book] makes it clear that the banjo is an essential constituent of what Greil Marcus once called 'that old, weird America."Times Literary Supplement"

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press; 1st Printing edition (September 20, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0807824844
  • ISBN-13: 978-0807824849
  • Product Dimensions: 11.4 x 7.3 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #657,736 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

27 of 27 people found the following review helpful By Robert F. DeVellis on October 16, 1999
Format: Hardcover
This is a great book for anyone interested in banjo history. It's well-written, authoritative, and loaded with wonderful illustrations. Even the physical construction of the book is outstanding. I had a copy on order before it was published, based on the strength of other publications of Jim Bollman's related to turn-of-the-century Vega banjos. I met Jim at his shop, The Music Emporium, in Massachusetts a while back. He told me about the book.
The book doesn't deal (other than a brief mention) with the later emergence of the 5-string banjo as the backbone of bluegrass music and the banjos pictured are all pre-war - WW I, that is. As the title suggests, it focuses on the earlier period of the prototypic banjos brought to America by African slaves, the evolution of those instruments during the minstrel era into the four-long-strings and one-short-string format that we all recognize, and their further evolution into technologically sophisticated and culturally refined instruments in the parlors of the wealthy. For many not familiar with the social transformation of the banjo in the late 1800's, this phase of its cultural history may come as something of a surprise. This book is extremely well documented, the product of the complementary skills and interests of its two authors, one an academician the other an ardent collector. Factory records, municipal directories, contemporary periodicals, patent applications, and other relatively inaccessible sources of information have been used to excellent advantage. You really get a feel for the personalities (banjo manufacturer and proponent S. S. Stewart being a notable and colorful example), the times, and significance of this instrument in the lives of people.
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21 of 21 people found the following review helpful By Tony Thomas on April 6, 2004
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
If you buy this book because the title might indicate it is an overall look at the banjo, its playing, its musics, and its place in society, that is not what this book is or pretends to be.
This is a history of the physical development of the banjo and its construction and manufacture during the 19th Century. There are some small references to the different musics the instrument was used for, but not many. There is elaborate and detailed discussion of the main lines of construction of the banjos during this period. The authors also write well and thoroughly about the business dynamics of the chief producers
of the banjo during the 19th Century.
While this book is obviously the work of two of leading banjo collectors in the world and of interest to banjoists and instrument makers of all kinds, it is an important picture of America social and economic history as well. Someone interested in the rise and development of capitalist industry, fetishism of "the finer things in life" by the middle class, and how culture wars were waged in the 19th Century would profit from reading this book.
For the artistically inclined there are a number of beautiful plates of 19th Century Banjos as works of art. It is clear that the authors priviledge the decoration and physical beauty of the instruments as much as they do the instruments "playability."
This work is great in itself. I found it very readable and believe someone who did not know much about banjos would also find this readable.
If you are interested in the social and cultural history of the instrument to the present day, what you need is
That Half-Barbaric Twang: The Banjo in American Popular Culture Culture by Karen Linn.
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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Hank Schwartz on March 16, 2000
Format: Hardcover
At last, another important book has emerged to stand with the few other necessary references on early American 5-string banjos.
Unlike the two fine Tsumura books which are primarily photographic essays of considerable magnitude, Gura and Bollman's treatise combines a highly readable and informed history with a remarkable collection of rare antique photographs and ephemera plus 4 lengthy sections of recent photographs of exquisite instruments and banjo related objects. Any one of these three aspects would be sufficient reason to own the book.
The frequently startling and personal photographs impart a very human feeling as we progress through the story of the evolution of the banjo in American culture. Amazingly, they represent just a minor fraction of Jim Bollman's immense collection.
Special praise is due Peter Szego for his magnificent photographs of the wonderful early banjos from his own collection.
I find it hard to remain objective as I turn the pages and imagine what it must have been like to pose for one of those Dageurreotypes, rudely dressed, banjo in hand, daring the photographer to capture my soul. And again, when I turn to that favorite Boucher or Fairbanks banjo and long to feel and play it.
Well done, gentlemen, and thank you!
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By J. Ross on December 16, 2003
Format: Hardcover
If one were to collect instruments, art and ephemera to organize and document an exhibition about the banjo, a good place to start would be to review Gura's and Bollman's "America's Instrument: The Banjo in the Nineteenth Century." This impressive book actually seems like a comprehensive companion to a museum's exhibition which could have the same name, and I could envision such a treatise being a museum gift shop's best-seller.
James Bollman is recognized as one of our Nation's foremost banjo collectors, and his outstanding assortment of Victorian-era banjos and related paraphernalia is one of the finest in the world. He was very pivotal as a project consultant to the fine exhibition that took place in 1984 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology called "Ring the Banjar!: The Banjo in America from Folklore to Factory," curated by Robert Lloyd Webb. That exhibit's catalogue had some wonderful information, photographs and illustrations. After seeing it, I was personally inspired to research and write an article about "Banjos at the Smithsonian Institution" which subsequently appeared in Bluegrass Unlimited magazine (Vol. 27, No. 5, November, 1992).
Philip Gura, historian and Professor of English and American Studies at the University of North Carolina, is an expert in the history and culture of America's music industry. I found Gura's 2003 charming book, "C.F. Martin and His Guitars 1976-1873," to be well-researched, thoughtfully written, beautifully illustrated, and professionally executed.
In "America's Instrument: The Banjo in the Nineteenth Century," Gura and Bollman begin by documenting the banjo's evolution from the plantation to the stage. An interesting overview of the minstrel tradition and early performers is given.
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