‘With a Banjo on my Knee’: Early Recordings of the Banjo in Irish Traditional Music

‘With a Banjo on my Knee’: Early Recordings of the Banjo in Irish Traditional Music

Now playing: Auld Blackthorn / The Flanagan Brothers
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  1. Auld Blackthorn / The Flanagan Brothers
  2. Night Cap ; Mysteries of Knock / Michael Gaffney
  3. Bonny Kate : First house of Connaught / William N. Andrews, Joe Milton
  4. Fair of Mullingar / Frank Quinn
  5. Off to the Hunt ; Butcher’s March / John Fahey ; Johnny Connors
  6. Terry’s Rambles / Mr. and Mrs. McNiff-Locke
  7. Frost is All Over / Mr. and Mrs. McNiff-Locke
  8. Mouse in the Cupboard / Edward Herborn ; James Wheeler
  9. Kitty Malloy’s favourite ; Bonnie Annie / Paddy Killoran’s ‘Pride of Erin’ orchestra
  10. Stack of Barley / Edward Herborn ; James Wheeler
  11. Rocky Road to Dublin / Edward Herborn ; James Wheeler
  12. Leitrim Thrush / Flanagan Brothers
  13. The sidewalks of New York / Flanagan Brothers
  14. IRA / Flanagan Brothers
  15. Three O’Clock in the Morning / Flanagan Brothers
  16. Tom Steel Medley / Flanagan Brothers
  17. Miss Dalton’s Reel / Edward Herborn ; James Wheeler
  18. Speed the plough ; Johnny Gorman / William N. Andrews, Joe Milton

‘With a Banjo on my Knee’: Early Recordings of the Banjo in Irish Traditional Music

The banjo has been a popular instrument in American culture, particularly in jazz and minstrel music, since the early 20th century. It is now generally accepted that the banjo originated in Africa and was introduced to the United States as a consequence of the slave trade. In its original form, it would have been constructed from timber gourds and hide skin with hemp or gut strings. In the United States the instrument underwent numerous modifications, such as the addition of frets, tension hoops, synthetic skins and steel strings. Gradually the banjo was integrated into mainstream popular American music.

However the popularity it was to gain in Irish traditional music most probably began with the invention of the four-string or tenor banjo in the opening years of the 20th century. This differed in a number of ways from earlier models, but most significantly the tenor banjo had four strings instead of five, had a shorter neck and was played with a plectrum. It was tuned at a higher pitch than its modern equivalent, but in fifths, similar to the mandolin, and thus complemented the fiddle. It also had the advantage of being loud, making it suitable to play in the noisy, poorly amplified venues of the time. Another factor in its popularity was the ready availability of high quality instruments, at affordable prices, by makers such as William Lange of Paramount fame, with a factory on 225−227 East Twenty Fourth Street, New York.

This selection of early 20th-century recordings reflect the sounds of the pioneers of this ‘new’ instrument in the tradition. Without there being teachers to imitate, a range of styles and approaches developed:  James Ryan, from Paddy Killoran's Pride of Erin Orchestra, tended to use the banjo largely as a backing instrument; Michael Gaffney adopted a plain melodic style, while the virtuoso playing of Mike Flanagan was a mixture of melody and chords held together by a wonderful underlying sense of rhythm.

The earliest-known commercial recording of Irish traditional music played on the banjo dates back to 18 December 1916, when James Wheeler recorded with accordion player Edward Herborn for the Columbia label.

We hope you enjoy this eclectic mix of early banjo-playing styles from ITMA’s collection of 78 rpm discs.

BD, 1 February 2016