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by Gregg Miner, as part of www.minermusic.com)
I Saw Three Ships / Good King
Tenor Banjo - Gibson TB-5, ca. 1920
Here's something you'll find hard to believe: In 1918 the Gibson Company decided to promote, or rather capitalize on , the banjo craze, just as it had with the mandolin, by organizing - you guessed it - banjo clubs - and once again created new instruments for them to use. It doesn't take much imagination to guess how one of these amateur groups sounded. And this was the second time the banjo went through a fad - and both times these unlikely ensemble settings were popular. The initial culprit was one S.S. Stewart, who conceived the idea of banjo "orchestras" about 1885 and manufactured banjos in all sizes and pitch ranges for this purpose. These were, for the most part, versions of standard 1890-era five-string banjos (tuned g',c,g,b,d', with a short, high-pitched fifth string), which were unlike today's five-string banjo in this important way: they were open-back, softer-toned, gut-strung instruments. And when their owners all got together, they played rags, marches, popular songs of the day and, if someone's not pulling my leg, classical music!
Regrettably, the ever-fickle public soon became enamored of the mandolin and let the banjo all but die out - until the commencement of the "Roaring Twenties" when people needed another new diversion. So the banjo came back, bigger than ever, this time with steel strings and rapidly evolving "resonator" assemblies and "tone rings" - enabling it to become, through the "tango frenzy", "jazz age," and "dixieland era," really loud.
At this point in banjo history the five-string banjo was the least popular model, looked down upon as a "hillbilly" instrument (we mustn't judge - classic 5-strings were a thing of the past, and the popular "bluegrass" 5-string was a long way off). The most popular model (and still in use today) was the brand new four-string tenor banjo, in cgd'a' tuning (corresponding to the mandola). In addition, the Gibson Company also made plectrum banjos, mandolin-banjos, ukulele-banjos, guitar-banjos, cello-banjos, and at least one giant bass banjo! These unlikely hybrids were all finely-made, well-designed instruments and quickly became accepted as "normal" by our grandparents.
These three early top-of-the-line examples share the classic "snake-head" headstock and "trap-door" resonators featuring a hinged back that could be opened or closed to alter the sound (a transition from open-backs to the large resonator still used today). Laughed out of every category of modern music, today these wonderful, bizarre oddities find a welcome home in traditional Irish music . . . and needing an excuse to learn the bodhran and bones, I flavored this selection as such.