Friday, October 26, 2012

“Ballad #1” Alfred Davis Cammeyer

Banjo Friday returns, & it appears my fascination with the classical banjo style continues!

Today we have an odd banjo—one that is not heard much anymore, & that always had more of a heyday in Great Britain than in the United States.  In fact the instrument, namely, the zither banjo, was first designed in England by banjo maker William Temlet, who began selling the instruments in the 1840s. Although the zither banjo has gone through various manifestations over the years, the current version owes much to U.S. violinist (& later banjo player) Alfred Davis Cammeyer, who designed the 5-string model most commonly seen now. Other innovations were made by the British banjo manufacturer, Arthur O. Windsor—& Windsor banjos are dear to me, since my regular old open-back 5-string is indeed a 1930s Windsor "Popular" model. One of the main characteristics of the zither banjo is its mixture of gut & steel strings. While Cammeyer's version had 5 strings, there have also been 6 & 7 string versions of the zither banjo. Interestingly, even the 5 string models generally use the 3-on-a-side guitar tuners, which means one tuner is "just for show"!

The performer is Rob MacKillop, who we heard on an earlier Banjo Friday post, when he performed some 91th century popular pieces in the classical banjo style. As I mentioned at that time, Mr MacKillop is a Scottish multi-instrumentalist who is not only a banjo virtuoso (all varieties), but is also a master classical guitar player & lutenist, & who branches out into the ukulele, the vihuela & the medieval guitar! Mr MacKillop has published a book entitled Early American Classics for Banjo, which contains arrangements of pieces similar to these. You can find out more about this & more of his ventures into classical music on the banjo at his website  dedicated to this subject.

“Ballad #1” is a piece composed by none other than Alfred Davis Cammeyer himself. At this link, you can read Cammeyer’s own account of how the zither banjo got its name, & much more.  Rob MacKillop notes this is one of Cammeyer’s “easier” pieces,


Image links to its source at


  1. Ooooo, that's nice! And a very interesting-looking banjo, too. Thanks, John!

    1. Thank you Roy! So glad you enjoyed it.

  2. Fascinating info, John. Sadly, the vid won't download for me.

    1. Hi Dick: Sorry about that! It's loading ok here. Try following this link to hear it on YouTube!

  3. Hi John,

    great post! Just one caveat, however; you will notice that both Mr. MacKillop and us other Classic Banjo aficionados use the label "classic" banjo -- "classical" is an often-used misnomer which, unfortunately, tends to create unfair expectations in the audience. Mr. Cammeyer played very little classical music (especially after Arthur Sullivan encouraged him to compose his own music, as he explains in his book, "My Adventuresome Banjo"); he was, however, a brilliant composer who has left us over a hundred original pieces in many styles, from popular dances and marches to very personal, lyrical stuff.

    Calling it "classical", however, creates expectations which the genre doesn't live up to. Many people coming over to Classic Banjo experience some kind of cognitive dissonance trying to convince themselves that pieces like "A Banjo Oddity", "Zarana" or "The Syncopatin' Shuffle" are somehow "classical" music. They are not. People who expect to find Bach and Mozart in Classic Banjo are bound to be disappointed.

    I have conducted an informal statistical study on a population of 2268 published Classic Banjo solos (approximately 25% of total published material during the period, according to some estimates), 67 were "classical" pieces (in the broadest sense of the word, including some very light stuff which would sometimes not even be considered "classical" nowadays) out of which there were 7 by Bach, 3 by Beethoven, 5 by Chopin, 4 by Liszt, 4 by Mozart, 4 by Rossini, 4 by Schubert and 2 by Strauss, over a span of almost a century. Compared to the total of Classic Banjo music, it's about 3%. The remaining 97% is "popular" music in various forms ("banjo music", ragtime, jazz, traditional, etc.). This goes at odds with what the documentaries tell people about the banjo becoming a "classical instrument"!

    It's great so see people interested in this style. Feel free to join us at !

    All the best,

    Mike Moss

  4. Hi Mike: Thanks so much for stopping by, & for your wonderful comment. I am aware that classical banjo refers to a style, & not necessarily to pieces that would be considered in the "classical repertoire" (of course, "classical" is an odd term anyway, since lovers of Bach & Vivaldi would usually point out that they are "baroque," not "classical"--also, pieces by someone like Anton Rubenstein might well now be considered "classical," but were considered "popular" in their day) & I am aware that much of "classical style" banjo music refers to music in popular genres (or popular genres of the past.) Still, I've been featuring performers like Rob MacKillop & Robby Faverey, who do actually play some baroque repertoire on botht eh 5-string & the cello banjo!

    Thanks for the invite too--much appreciated.

  5. Hi John,

    thanks for your answer. I guess my point was that the term which is used to describe this particular style of playing used by today's associations and performers is "classic" rather than "classical"; this was a deliberate choice made by the ABF (American Banjo Fraternity), though the term "classic" as opposed to "classical" was already in use in the days of S. S. Stewart.

    In my mind, the term "classic" was used both to separate this style from the emerging folk styles in the 1950s, whilst reasserting its status as a purely amateur genre (there is no "classical training" in classic banjo, no standard syllabus or grade exams, etc.).

    Thanks again for sharing your thoughts, this blog is a must-follow!


    1. Hi Mike:

      Thanks so much for the kind words about the blog! Very much appreciated. I also very much appreciate your clarifying comments--interesting stuff indeed! Thanks.


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