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Little Known Banjo History

What was called a "perch pole" on a banjo in the old days?

The neck. String quality not being what it is today, banjoists often used fishing line instead. Cheaper too. Although it too could break, it was easy to leave a bunch extra on the tuner up by the peghead, which was then often used for ice fishing. The banjo would be put in a forked stick over the hole in the ice, and the perch would bite on the hook attached to the other end of the string.

Fishing Blues was written in an ice fishing shack on Raquette Lake, Hamilton County, NY . It has nothing at all to do with Hamilton County Breakdown.

What was called an "Apron" on a banjo in the old days?

The edge of the pot. Any mention of a skirt was too risqué for polite company, so a similar but more mentionable garment, the apron, was used in mixed gender gatherings. At Slingo Sam's Saloon and Fancy House in Ray, Arizona, they did not mince words though, and called it a skirt.

What known banjo had the first cast metal tone ring?

A banjo built and aggressively marketed in the gold rush country of California, circa 1852. It was made with a cast gold tone chamber by one Felonious Williams of Sonoma, California as part of the line of boutique catalog items to market to the nouveau riche of the gold fields. Gold was used because it was handy, easy to cast and could be priced high. The Williams of Sonoma banjo was branded with the name Gold Stir, because the same pour was also used to make golden soup ladles for the catalog that were though to be a sure seller at the time.

Quite surprisingly, the market was not as strong as expected, and the company moved on to other items still in line with its basic high end sales philosophy. No examples of the Gold Stir banjo or the ladles are known to survive. It is worth noting that history becomes garbled and thus the name of Williams of Sonoma has been erroneously reported in the press as Williamstone, and credit falsely given to a Birmingham kettle drum tuner named Williams. Such are the difficulties of documenting the folk process.

What kind of animals do gut strings come from?

The question is incorrectly phrased. It should read, "What kind animals do gut strings come from?"

To get gut strings, gut string technicians interview literally thousands of animals to determine if their personality is of a kind, caring and sharing enough nature to produces the sweet sounding tones valued in gut strung banjos. It has been found animals with unpleasant dispositions yield harsh, twangy, raw sounding (almost like steel!) gut strings. This is also the reason the animals are murdered in their sleep, so that no harsh emotions are included in the string manufacture.

The apprenticeship to become a master gut string maker is a very long and secret path.

I don't believe you. That's the craziest thing I've ever heard. I heard you recently got the real skinny about gut string manufacture form an old Adirondack woodsman.

OK, OK, there is a bit more from Bill Gokey, formerly of the Cranberry Lake region in the 1950's and tutee of E. J. Dailey.

"Little known fact: The old timers made the finest "gut" strings from a rare fur-bearing animal found only in the remote wilds of the Cold Brook "high peaks" region of the Adirondack Mountains in Northern New York State - the only place in the continental U.S. where these elusive animals can still be found. E.J. Dailey, one of the last of the high wilderness trappers, used to trap them for their fur and entrails, too. He told me that people like Farland, Levitt, Green, & DeJango used to practically beg for these strings and would pay any price. The fur was also very valuable at the time; it was used to make expensive sweaters for the affluent socialites of the 1919 - 1942 pre-war era.

"These animals were best trapped in a "cubby-pen" set originated by the renowned trapper & fur-bearing animal authority, E. J. Dailey (look him up on the web.) A cubby-pen is a three sided enclosure with a roof which is big enough for the animal to enter. Bait and lure is placed in the back. A forked branch with a leather pouch across the fork is placed outside the entrance, aimed & bent back to a certain tension, and tied to the bait in the cubby-pen with a line and an adjustable triggering mechanism. When the animal pulls on the bait, the trigger lets go and throws the contents of the leather pouch on the backside of the animal at the base of the tail. These animals were obsessed by Roquefort cheese and that was E.J.s secret of catching them; he used that for the bait.

"E.J.'s method was an example of the most humane way of trapping that was ever devised. The leather pouch on the forked stick contained about an ounce of powered salt-peter. When this hit the backside of the animal, it caused his whole rear end to go limber so the animal couldn't move - it was completely "limp" for at least 48 hours! That is why the finest gut strings were made from their entrails - they were completely relaxed and no interviews by "high-priced technicians" was necessary. All E.J. had to do was to walk around and pick them up..! Their fur was used to make fine moe-hair sweaters. But, alas, they were trapped to near extinction and the conservation authorities declared them an endangered species shortly after the onset of WW-2 . The name of the animal was the "Moe!"

What did the old-timer put on skin heads to keep moisture out of them?

Boiling oil, poured over the castle wall. Cooked the moisture right out of them...

For what purpose were Mastertones actually created?

To prop up the sagging bronze market following WWI. Many military items were made of bronze/brass and profits were high. Things were leaner in the copper mines in the 20's and 30's, so the philosophy of design was "Make 'er heavy, Lloyd." (An unnamed executive had heavy holdings on margin in copper stocks). This trend is borne out by the ever increasing amount of copper alloys used through the 30's, culminating in the Top Tension.

An illegal incentive payment by the Zamac Trust to a different employee of the Gibson company is the rumored reason for the material in the cast flanges, tension hoops and rumored flat head tone rings. Zamac had seen the success of the Cupric Trust, and followed suit. A congressional committee was convened to investigate, but the repeal of Prohibition sparked parties in the capitol city, and the investigation floundered. It was the original plan to have cast brass flanges.

What famous recording artist did Don Reno listen to inspire him to play banjo instead of saxophone?

An Edison cylinder recording of Peter Petrokopolis and his Palpathetic Polka Pumpers playing "Selections From Tibetan Temple Bell Melodies and Aborigine Didgire Do (sic.) Tunes.". He had been considering the saxophone, but was so taken by the cross cultural music of Petrokopolis that he had to play something at once. There being a banjo in the room, and no saxophone in the house, he set out at once to make his mark on the world with the banjo with the exclamation, "Why, I could play some of those Yankee Tin Pan Alley songs on the banjo!".

The cylinder recording was offered as a free bonus for a short time with boutique aluminum cookware from the now defunct Martha Stew It company mail order catalog, circa 1931. This cookware was made from melted down WWI Zeppelin frames, and a certificate of authenticity was enclosed with each pot signed by Luftsleutnant Fredrich von Gazgesass. No banjos are known to have been made from these pots.

From who did Ralph Stanley learn to play three finger instead of two finger style and where did it take place?

Little Ralph encountered an extraterrestrial from a parallel universe while meditating on the medicinal powers of certain mountain herbs at age 8 while way down in the hollow 1/2 mile behind the privy.. The slime being from the planet Zorg was playing a hyper banjo with a laser light picks on 3 of the 9 fingers on his picking hand. (Zorgian hyper banjo allows for picking with 2, 3, 5, or 7 fingers, the number must be prime so as not to anger the Freem God.)

Ralph realized in a flash that he could use more than the 2 fingers he had been using, and proceed to develop the laser clear picking style he is known for. The fact that not the laser, the parallel universe concept nor the Calvin and Hobbs comic strip was in existence at this time has no significance to the matter.


Excerpt by Bill Gokey ©2006 by Bill Gokey

Last Updated 15 Jul 2006 by PJH

Edited 07 Apr 2007 by WF