Sunday, October 26, 2008
The Old Banjo
I’ve been reading Picturing the Banjo lately, the catalog from the exhibition of the same name. Fascinating stuff—how images of the banjo thru U.S. history have signified in often contradictory ways. I’ll be posting a full review of Picturing the Banjo at a later date; but this a.m., while stumbling around on the wonderful whacky web, I found a fascinating collection of old banjo (& guitar, mandolin—all bowlbacks, or tater bug, if you will—, uke, fiddle, etc.) images here.
This site is maintained by a banjoist named Joe Bethancourt. While the pix aren't high resolution, there are some very evocative images here—as well as a few somewhat problematic ones (for instance, musicians in blackface) which frankly, can’t really be avoided with an instrument whose history is so emeshed in the complicated & often terrible history of race in this country. Overall, the pix show the banjo & other instruments in a variety of settings—everything from posed pix of family bands & banjo orchestras to sentimental greeting cards & pix of bric-a-brac, from old sheet music to vintage cheesecake pix.
Anyhoo, Bethancourt has 40 pages of these images, with eight or nine (I believe) per page. He states that all the images are public domain, which seems very likely. I’ve included several with this post, just to give you an idea.
Bethancourt has a masthead that reads: “Edifying Pictures for the Collector & Historian”; this clearly seems to be tongue in cheek—still, there is an edification in terms of our culture: how it’s transformed, what its roots are; as an example—there are quite a number of pix of women playing the banjo. I know from other reading that the banjo was quite a popular “parlor” instrument for women in the late 19th century, yet in the (unfortunate) way that instruments take on aspects of gender, it seems the banjo now is culturally more indentified with the male.In addition to these sorts of considerations, there’s always something interesting to me to see people interacting with instruments in unfamiliar settings—what is different & what’s the same about a musician’s affect & bearing & presentation over time.
It’s an interesting site. Check it out when you have a chance.