Collection Background WS2
Although my enthusiasm for
the banjo may match that of Mark Twain, I cannot compete with his eloquence
as expressed in the San Francisco Chronicle in June 1865 : "The piano may do
for love-sick girls who lace themselves to skeletons and lunch on chalk,
pickles, and slate pencils. But give me the banjo............When you want
genuine music-music that will come right home to you like a bad quarter,
suffuse your system like strychnine whiskey, go right thru you like
Brandreth's pills, ramify your whole constitution like the measles, and
break out on your hide like the pin-feather pimples on a pickled goose-when
you want all this, just smash your piano and invoke the glory-beaming
I started playing 5 string banjo early in 1963. The remainder of this paragraph will briefly deal with my playing interests before I discuss the collection. Like many viewers may have done, I learned from Pete Seeger's instruction book and focused mainly on the frailing/clawhammer style of playing. It works ideally for "folk music" and "old time music". I enjoy the former but must confess to little affinity for the latter. Having a strong leaning toward Broadway Show tunes and "popular music" from the early 20th Century up thru the 1940s, the frailing style presented significant problems. Only over the last decade or so have I managed to make adjustments that allow me to "play what I enjoy". If any viewers struggle with such handicaps, I would enjoy discussing this via email and might be able to help.
I began casually
collecting in the late 1970s. My early, rather random acquisitions became
much more focused after attending the 1984 “Ring the Banjar” exhibit at
M.I.T. and viewing the superb collection of Jim Bollman. Securing his
agreement to help me acquire quality vintage banjos, I almost immediately
liquidated the ten or so I had acquired and focused on instruments actually
bearing the Fairbanks name. From the very start my primary emphasis was to
acquire instruments in superb condition and as original as possible. That
obsession has never waned. Within months I was made aware of the
desirability for players and collectors as well as the manufacturing
relationship of the earliest banjos marketed by Fred Bacon and sought
examples of those. After about three years, as I read more about banjo
history, I began adding a few fretless instruments from the era shortly
before and after the Civil War. Over the next three years, as I learned
about the close Fairbanks ties with other companies, my interests expanded
to encompass what I call the Fairbanks “family” of banjo makers. As used on
this web site, that term includes Fairbanks & Cole, Fairbanks, Cole, Vega,
and the early Bacon models apparently made by Vega. The relationships
amongst these firms are shown in a chart under “Web Site Goals”. The reasons
I have included each of these as part of the Fairbanks “family” will be
found in the information on each company under “Groups of Banjos”.
Also in early 1990, I
made the decision to try to acquire an example of every named model marketed
by the several Fairbanks companies doing business from 1890, when Messrs.
Fairbanks and Cole split to become competitors, until the 1904 fire when the
company and its patents were sold to Vega. Attention focused on that
transition quickly led to seeking every “new” model offered by Vega in the
very progressive period from 1904 until approximately 1915.
Although the Fairbanks “family” has always remained my top priority, over the years I became quite interested in earlier banjos (before the Fairbanks & Cole era), piccolo banjos by any makers, and Cole Eclipse models. In addition, thru my whole period of collecting I have vacillated in a “love-hate” relationship with Stewart banjos. In the last few years the entire collection has hovered closely around 100 instruments. All of the banjos pictured are currently in the collection as I prepare this web site with a single exception. I have chosen to include an 1870s Fairbanks I owned for many years because its features are so relevant to the early Fairbanks & Cole instruments.
In addition to the banjos,
Nancy and I became especially fond of statues of banjoists. Beginning in
1992 we started acquiring “antique” ones of exceptional beauty. That
eventually led to commissioning two sculptures, the first in 1996 and the
other in 2001. The statues are obviously three dimensional art. I think of
this collection of vintage banjos as four dimensional, the usual three plus
the added dimension of being able to use them for playing music.
My wife’s love of the statues, however, has been far-exceeded by her patience, toleration and understanding of the “collector virus” and this collection is a tribute to those attributes and many others of hers as well. Our son, Mark, fortunately inherited a sizeable dose of her patience without which he would have never been able to create and organize this web site for me. His daughter, Kody, devoted many hours to entering data onto the site. Hank Schwartz has cheerfully improved several aspects and helped us eliminate many errors. I also want to take this opportunity to thank Jim Bollman for sharing his wealth of knowledge so unselfishly and for the many ways he has contributed to the formation of this collection. It is not overstated to say it could not have happened without his input.