‘Oh! Susannah!‘ is a milestone in American popular music. After its launch and first publication in Pittsburgh, it sold more than 100.000 copies. Later numerous minstrel troupes performed and registered the song: from 1848 until 1951 it was copyrighted and published no less than 21 times! What we show here is the illustrated British sheet music published by Duncombe & Moon (Holborn London, s.d.).
Probably due to its country-wide popularity ‘Oh! Susannah!‘ became the unofficial theme of the Forty-Niners (1849 goldseekers). This success, together with a royalty rate of two cents per copy of sheet music sold, makes composer Stephen Foster commonly regarded as America’s first professional songwriter.
‘Oh! Susannah!‘ tells the story of a man travelling from Alabama to Louisiana in search of his love. His instrument accompanies him on the road, which brings us to today’s topic: the banjo.
The handmade gourd instruments that would become the modern banjo originated in West Africa;
Enslaved Africans carried the ‘banjar’ and its music to North America by way of the Caribbean;
Traditional string music (and the banjo itself) was appropriated from slave culture and was spread into the greater American popular culture through minstrel shows and blackface performances;
The banjo was popularized throughout the United States and Europe by white performers, with various regional playing styles emerging and evolving simultaneously – from the rhythmic role the banjo played in traditional New Orleans jazz to the fingerpicking sound of bluegrass that bloomed in the Appalachian mountains, among many others.
Essentially the instrument is a drum with a long neck attached for securing a set of strings. The strings are supported by a bridge that sits on the drum membrane. The bridge vibrates up and down as the drum resonates. So there are effectively two different periodic changes to the tension of the string at the same time: (1) the string’s natural frequency when picked, plucked or struck, and (2) the drum’s frequency of vibration. It is this modulating frequency that produces the banjo’s bright metallic timbre. (This is all better explained by Nobel prize-winning physicist David Politzer in ‘The Secret of the Banjo’s Twang‘.)
The typical twangy sound of the banjo, its limited artistic… eh… rather plain or monotonous resonance, together with its rural background and folky/country/traditional connotation, probably gave rise to numerous jokes (aka banjokes) on the instrument, the ‘music’ and its players. Here we go.
How many strings does a banjo have?
Five too many…
No matter how much you tune it–it will still sound like a banjo.
Why was the banjo player standing on theroof? Because they told him the drinks were on the house.
How do you make a banjo player slow down?
Put some sheet music in front of him.
Like the banjo itself, whose twang can clear clogged sinuses and remove stubborn wallpaper, the mountain music is an acquired taste.
What is the range of a banjo? About 10 meters if you throw it hard enough.
Don’t tell my mom I’m a banjo player.
She thinks I’m a piano player in a whorehouse.
How can you get six banjo players to play in harmony?
Only give one of them a banjo.
Did you hear that they’ve isolated the gene for banjo playing?
It’s the first step to a cure.
Banjo player: “When I die, I want to leave the world a better place.” Guitar player: “Don’t worry, you will.”
What’s the fastest way to tune a banjo?
With wire cutters.
A man walked into a bar with his alligator and asked the bartender, “Do you serve banjo players here?”
“Sure do,” replied the bartender.
“Good,” said the man.
“Give me a beer, and I’ll have a banjo player for my ‘gator.”
(all jokes from Phillip Mann’s Banjo Tab CollectionandBluegrass Information Site)
Enough, enough! Stop the stupid jokes. It’s time for serious playing by 8-year old Jonny Mizzone:
The instruments on this cover are clearly not the ones played in a normal brass band. They are bigophones named after a French toy maker, Romain Bigot. From 1881 on he brought out a series of instruments which were shaped like orchestral ones.
The common feature of most bigophones is that they start at the mouthpiece with some kind of kazoo, which is attached to a horn section made in papier mâché (hence La Fanfare en carton/The Cardboard Brass Band) or in zinc. A bigophone had no finger holes and wasn’t used for any serious music. It was an instrument for carnival music: very noisy, cheap and easy to manufacture with a typical nasal sound. Just because of the nasal twang of the first telephones, bigophone became the slang word for a telephone in France. If you listen to the following fragment it will come as no surprise that a bigophone sounds just like… well, a kazoo.
As no musical knowledge was required to play the bigophone, soon complete bands were formed with it. But these were regarded with contempt by a certain elite. Louis Ferdinand Céline makes this clear in one of his letters, raging against the whole world and more in particular against Louis Aragon and Henri de Régnier: ‘Why do you want me to suddenly start playing the bigophone just because twelve dozen failures around me play it ? I who play the grand piano rather well. Why? To reduce myself to the same level as these shrivelled, constipated, envious, hateful bastards?’
Nonetheless, during 50 years the bigophones would remain immensely popular in France and in Belgium. Numerous bigophonic societies would be established, and even compete one another.
As the bigophones were also popular to put some spark into carnival parties, small ones were made in all kind of funny forms. And if one forgot to bring along his or her bigophone, one could always pretend…