I am fond of saying “You don’t have to be a linebacker to play banjo.” What I am trying to stay is that the banjo is so responsive that it does not require a great deal of force to make it respond beautifully. With this in mind I thought it would be interesting to find out how women, historically speaking, are connected with banjo. It was a most interesting journey!
The Role of Teacher
It would not be difficult for any of us to see our mothers (and fathers) as our first teachers. In the most general sense, they taught us how to survive; teaching us how to eat, walk, brush our teeth, dress and take care of our personal daily needs.
It is not surprising then to find out that many of the historically well known banjo players actually learned how to play banjo from female members of their families or communities.
Just to name a few:
• Ralph Stanley learned to play clawhammer banjo from his mother, Lucy Smith Stanley.
• “Grandpa” Louis Jones took his first frailing lessons from Cynthia May Carver, aka “Cousin Emmy” of Lamb, KY
• Clarence “Tom” Ashley, who popularized the tune “The Coo-Coo,” learned to play clawhammer banjo at the age of 8 from his Aunts Ary and Daisy.
• National Heritage Fellow and banjo player Morgan Sexton got his first lessons from his sister Hettie
• In 1936, 16 year old Pete Seeger would hear his first 5-string banjo played by Samantha Bumgarner of North Carolina. Samantha was probably the first Appalachian banjo player of either sex to cut a commercial record according to Charles Wolfe in his article written about her for the Old Time Herald in 1987.
• Earl Scruggs’ two older sisters Eula Mae and Ruby both played banjo and it would not be far-fetched to think that they too could have taught Earl a few tunes.
Banjo Craze of the 1900s
By the late 19th century, the minstrel shows had waned in popularity. Then, as today, commercial manufacturers and promoters tried to shape the interest of the public. They sought to change the image of the banjo; to one of a parlor or classical instrument that would appeal to middle class whites. Women figured most prominently in this movement.
There are many photographs clearly showing the fact that middle class women in the Northeast were swept into the banjo craze of the 19th century. Manufacturers like S.S. Stewart, Fairbanks and Cole made a conscientious shift to banjos manufactured with elaborately engraved metal rims, inlayed ivory and mother of pearl fingerboards and pegheads and intricately carved heels to attract the interest of middle class men and women who could afford a store bought banjo.
In 1893, famed artist Mary Cassat created the portrait of “The Banjo Lesson” showing a 19th century young mother strumming her banjo while her daughter gazes over her shoulder. The banjo was to become the symbol of a white, liberated woman of middle class America. I did find a great quote taken from a book by Charles Wolfe (Kentucky Country: Folk and Country Music of Kentucky) about the importance of women in the advancement of banjo in our society: “The advance of banjo began when it was taken up by the ladies, and by them introduced into the home circle…Before that it was heard most frequently in barooms and out of the way places…” Banjo clubs for men and women began to sprout up on Ivy League college campuses. According to banjo scholar Karen Linn, “the banjo was a fad among young women from the upper classes in many parts of the country.” Women started taking their banjos out of the parlor and out into public. In 1888 the popular publication, Harper’s Magazine, carried an illustration of a white middle class female vacationer to West Virginia, playing her banjo outside in the fresh mountain air.
In another article from the Old Time Herald by John Lilly, we learn about the Coon Creek Girls. In the 1930’s a Chicago radio man named John Lair created a band called the “Coon Creek Girls” to package and market old-timey music on an on-air barn dance radio show and road tours. He located real “country gals” in sisters Lily May and Rosie Ledford of KY, Ohio born Evelyn ”Daisy” Lange, and Esther “Violet” Koehler of WI; nicknamed by Lair for effect. They were all singers and multi-instrumentalists. He packaged them “dressed in calico” and on Oct 9, 1937 he introduced them on Chicago's radio station WLS’ barn dance radio show. They were a hit and continued performing with a variety of changes of players until 1957. There are some incredible YouTube videos of these ladies. Please be sure to look them up.
One of the richest sources of information on women in banjo is a study done by Susan and Geoff Eicher; “Banjo Women in West VA and Eastern KY.” Their personal interviews bring a wealth of information that might normally not be available.
While documentation is difficult to find, it is fairly safe to say that Appalachian mountain women had surely been playing banjos in their homes long before this popular appeal of the banjo began. As with our own mothers, the mountain women were the conservators of the Appalachian culture for their families. It is most likely that they often sang and strummed their banjos to soothe and entertain their children. Most of them did not play in public as their male counterparts did; Karen Linn (That Half-Barbaric Twang) notes “both men and women played instrumental music, but playing outside of the home for community or commercial occasions was largely limited to men.”
A charming interview seen in “Banjo Women in West VA and Eastern KY” by Susan/Geoff Eacker, tells the story of Sylvia Cottrell O’Brien, well over 90 at the time of the interview. Sylvia learned to play the banjo when she was “just a tadpole.” Her brother, Jenes Cottrell, became a well-known banjo maker and player in West VA. “She lives alone in a house in central West VA her parents built in 1907. In the spring of 1997 she had finally gotten electricity and the exposed wiring was strung along weathered chestnut walls. On her bed lay a rifle, a pistol and two banjos ‘manufactured’ by her brother, using parts of a Buick transmission for the metal rim. She was proficient with all four items, and had used her ‘high powered rifle’ to scare off poachers on her property…Syliva told her interviewers that when musicians in the area of Clay County used to come to their home for ‘midnight suppers,’ she opted to playing banjo in the living room over cooking in the kitchen.” The Eackers found tale after tale of women who testified that it was other women in their families or communities that taught them to play the banjo. The study by Susan/Geoff Eacher is filled with the legion of names of early women banjo players from the regions of West VA and Eastern KY who popularized the banjo.
Susan Bumgarner was dubbed by musiciologist Charles Wolfe as “The Original Banjo Pickin’ Girl.” He states in an article written for Old Time Herald in 1987 that she was probably the first Appalachian banjo player to cut a commercial record. Susan Eacker goes on to say that “in 1924 Samantha travels to New York City where she recorded 10 songs for Columbia Phonograph Company, playing frailing style banjo on 6 tunes, including “Shout Lou” and “Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss… Although she never received critical acclaim, (even though she performed at the Roosevelt White House in 1939, where the king and queen of England were being entertained with authentic American music), Bumgarner was an inspiration to other women in the southern mountains,…”
The Women of Today
We women of today are still the conservators of our culture. It is fortunate that we have many women who are as passionate about banjo as their forebears. Thanks to the courage and persistence of the women who came before them, the restrictions of playing in public are no longer of concern.
Today’s women banjo players can be found on performing stages around the world and in our own home towns.
Among the women Deering banjo endorsing artists with whom you may be familiar are:
Rhiannon Giddens: Rhiannon is the beautiful banjo and fiddle player of the group called Carolina Chocolate Drops. Playing American Roots music with great skill and a loving passion, the Chocolate Drops are being greeted with landslide approval by their world-wide audiences. Rhiannon started with a Goodtime banjo and now plays our John Hartford model.
Taylor Swift: Taylor has made an impact in the music industry, especially among the younger crowd. She played our Boston 6-string Acoustic/Electric model in front of 25 million TV viewers singing her single hit, “Mean.” Proving that it is “cool” to play banjo and that you can do it your own way, Taylor has encouraged thousands of fans to embrace the sound of a banjo and make it their own.
Mary Z. Cox: Mary’s enthusiasm for the banjo is abundant! She has a large collection of banjos and plays mainly in the clawhammer style. She has a Deering Hartford, a unique custom GDL banjo with a mermaid on the fingerboard and sea-inspired inlays throughout and carved fish on the heel. Mary also owns a Gabriella by Deering; the entire fingerboard is mother of pearl and it is gold and engraved. She is a player with a generous spirit; sharing her music and her banjos with great joy to all her audiences around the world.
Beverly Dillard: Beverly tours with her husband Rodney Dillard and is often seen on stage in Branson, MO. She is a clawhammer style player and has a Vega #2 tubaphone banjo and our Vega Old Time Wonder. Her lively, experienced performances are welcomed by all her audiences.
Linda Williams: Linda plays an openback Black Diamond banjo. She is a clawhammer style player who has modified her bell bronze tone ring banjo with a Renaissance head to give it her own unique sound.
Pam Gadd: Pam Gadd has played Deering’s beautiful Calico banjo on the Grand Old Opry stage. She plays bluegrass style banjo, composes her own material and has a beautiful singing voice.
“Mean” Mary James: Mary James has proved that YouTube is a very viable vehicle to promote yourself. She started with our original Goodtime banjo and she is a delight to listen to and watch. Her videos are full of life and humor and she plays Clawhammer style banjo with great proficiency. If you haven’t already watched her videos, they are a great treat.
Elizabeth von Trapp: Granddaughter of Maria von Trapp, Elizabeth’s husband bought her a Deluxe 6-string banjo as a surprise. She has a beautifully melodic voice that is well suited to the sound of her Deluxe banjo. Because she wanted something a little bit lighter in weight, she also has a Goodtime 2 resonator banjo.
Abigail Washburn: Abigail began her playing with a Goodtime banjo. She is an award winning banjoist and plays clawhammer style banjo.
Janet Deering: While the focus of my article has been around women who play banjo, I would be remiss not to mention Janet Deering as a woman who has been pivotal in the advancement of the banjo as a musical instrument and influential in introducing it to artists and banjo enthusiasts around the world. Along with her husband, Greg Deering, she shares a passion for banjo that has made Deering banjos the number one manufacturer of American banjos in the world.
This is just a short list of the wonderful women who are playing banjo professionally today. They are a credit to their sisters who came before them. This article barely skims the importance of women in banjo both historically and today. I urge you all to make your own investigation because there are so many wonderful stories that I could not share them all with you in this brief summary.
We have an ad that says “Anyone anywhere can have a Goodtime.” I would like to say that “anyone, any time, can play the banjo” and it is clear from my brief research that women have always and will always be an important part of the world of banjo.
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