Classic Banjo

Classic Banjo Composers

Although it was once one of the most popular musical styles in England and the United States, recordings and sheet music of classic-style banjo are now hard to find. Well over 7,000 pieces were published in standard notation for the five-string banjo. The bulk of this music was composed and published from approximately 1880-1920, and it ranges from sentimental ballads and characteristic marches of the day, to transcriptions of light classics and opera. While some pieces followed a pop formula that gives them a sense of predictability to modern ears, there were many original and well-written compositions.

During this golden age of classic banjo, there were many groups and performers/composers who were overlooked. As most classic banjo aficionados know, it is difficult to find any information about them. There is very little in libraries, though the Internet may hold valuable information on these performers. In an attempt to make this website more complete, I would welcome biographical information and photos, if any, on the many performers and composers that are not highlighted here. If you have any information that would benefit this site, please send it to Classic Banjo Research.

Alfred D.Cammeyer (1862-1949)
A.D. Cammeyer photo

Alfred D. Cammeyer, originally from Brooklyn, NY, moved to London in 1888, and remained in England for the rest of his life. His compositions have a refined quality about them, featuring long, lyrical phrases and gentle rhythms not usually associated with the banjo. One other unusual feature of Cammeyer's compositions are the piano accompaniments, which support the banjo with eloquent harmonies and clever exchanges of the melody.

Much of Cammeyer's music was intended for an instrument of his own invention, the zither banjo. This closed-back variant of the regular banjo had five strings, with the first, second and fifth strings being made of steel and the third and fourth of gut. Zither banjos had a more sustained, ringing tone than their open-back counterparts.

There is an excellent site dedicated to the zither banjo at www.zither-banjo.org

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Joe Morley(1867-1937)
Joe Morley Photo

While the banjo is acknowledged to be an American instrument, it took the British to write some of the best music for it. Without argument, Joe Morley was not only the most famous finger-style player but also one of the most prolific of composers, having published nearly 200 pieces in his lifetime. His compositional style ranges from delicate gavottes to rollicking, banjo-swinging romps. He toured widely and played regularly on BBC radio. His distinct style is marked by the constant use of triplet figures and often driving, syncopated rhythms. Unfortunately for Morley, he sold many of his manuscripts for paltry sums of money to help finance his gambling habit. He was virtually penniless when he died. A wonderful website dedicated to Joe Morley can be accessed by clicking on his name above.

There is an excellent site dedicated to Joe Morley at Joe Morley

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Sylvester "Vess" L. Ossman
Vess Ossman photo

Born on August 21,1868 in Hudson, New York, Ossman was known as "The Banjo King," he was one of the first popular banjoists of the recorded age. Beginning with his first cylinder recording in 1893 of Sousa's "Washington Post," his fame was spread far and wide through his thousands of recordings of popular ragtime and marches. He performed extensively in England as well as the USA. Later in his career, he led his own dance bands in Ohio and Indiana.Prior to Ossman's success, much of what was published for the banjo was in the classical or sentimental vein. Once Ossman became a household name, publishers churned out ragtime-influenced pieces by the hundreds to a public always hungry for this new style.

Early recordings of Vess L. Ossman can be heard at:

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A. J. Weidt
A.J. Weidt photo

A.J.Weidt (Albert J. was born on February 15, 1866 in Buffalo, New York. He died in 1945. He spent most of his career based in Newark, New Jersey where he was a well known teacher and director of many large banjo and mandolin orchestras during the early decades of the 20th century. His friends referred to him as the Captain because of his love of boats and he often spent his summers on his houseboat the Rambler. He composed hundreds of pieces including some 96 solos for guitar, not to mention the many for classic and tenor banjo, mandolin orchestra, etc.

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Parke Hunter (1876-1912)
Parke Hunter photo

Though the British may presently be better known for their compositional skills, some Americans published fine pieces for the banjo. Parke Hunter, for example, published over 150 pieces in his short life, several of which have become standards in the repertoire.

As a performer Parke Hunter was, by all accounts, one of the most dazzling musicians ever to play the banjo. He performed hundreds of recitals and concerts, many with his partner, banjoist Cadwallader Mays. Hunter made dozens of recordings before his untimely death at age 36. His music ranges from sentimental ballads and characteristic marches of the day to spectacular transcriptions of light classics and opera.

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Fred Van Eps (1878-1960)
Fred Van Eps photo

This remarkable banjoist was born in Somerville, New Jersey on December 30, 1878. On his father's side, he was a descendant of early Dutch settlers in New York's Mohawk Valley. His mother's lineage began in America with the emigration in the 1600s of a man named Hansen from Bergen, Norway. His name was erroneously given as "Van Epps" at the turn of the century by Edison's company. In the early 1920's, he began the making of his Van Eps Recording Model Banjo and received custom orders. The June 1921 issue of Talking Machine World states, "A new instrument firm to be known as the Van Eps-Burr Corp. has been formed under the laws of the State of New York with a capital of $50,000. The incorporators are H.H. McClaskey [Burr], M.T. Kirkeby and F. Van Eps." The Van Eps Recording Banjo was modeled after the one he used in his recording and concert work. It had an aluminum resonator with a sound hole in the head, which was made of calfskin. He spent much time marketing and promoting the banjo, which remained on the market until around 1930. By then electric recording had become nearly universal and the loud volume produced by his model was no longer necessary.

Despite competition from such accomplished banjoists as Ossman, Ruby Brooks (a member of the vaudeville team of Brooks and Denton), and the banjo duo of Cullen and Collins, Van Eps' cylinders sold well. He supplemented his income by teaching and playing with local orchestras. Edison company literature often gives his name as Van Epps. In 1900, a New York City musical instrument dealer, John A. Haley, reprinted a letter by the banjoist which endorsed Haley's products and he signed the letter "Fred F.Van Epps, Banjoist. Studio, 60 Westervelt Avenue."

Though Van Eps made his last 78 rpm records for Grey Gull in 1927, he continued to give banjo lessons during the 1930s. In the 30 years Van Eps had already been recording, he had managed to produce hundreds of individual titles that may well number over a thousand issues.

According to Heier and Lotz's The Banjo on Record: A Bio-Discography, the instrument was falling out of favor with the general public and he eventually could no longer earn a living as a musician. In the 1950s he attempted a recording comback. In the April 1952 issue of Hobbies, Walsh announced, "Mr. Van Eps,...whose address is R.D. 2, Plainfield, New Jersey, has made a new album of six recordings, which he is issuing under the 'Five String Banjo' label. Accompaniments are by his son, Robert, a brilliant pianist....If this album meets with the success it deserves he undoubtedly will issue others. Meanwhile, he has a large business, manufacturing radio equipment at Plainfield." The recordings were made in 1950, followed by more. Heier and Lotz state, "In 1956 Fred Van Eps recorded an LP...that was issued on his own '5 String Banjo' label." This recording made his 59-year recording activity one of the longest in history. Although in sheer technical terms Van Eps surpassed Ossman -- Van Eps could play 14 notes in a second -- many ragtime fanciers preferred the crude muscularity of Ossman's performances. Van Eps also never approached the harmonic complexity of his younger contemporary Harry Reser, and unlike Reser had no interest in sinking into the texture of a jazz band, preferring to work primarily as a soloist.

Van Eps died in Burbank, California on November 22, 1960, at the age of 85.

Early recordings of Fred Van Eps can be heard at:

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Emile Grimshaw (1880-1943)
Emile Grimshaw photo

Emile Grimshaw was a noted English banjo player who composed dozens of pieces for the soloist as well as the banjo orchestra. He recorded many of his compositions with The Emile Grimshaw Quartet from the early 1900s into the 1930s. A fine composer of music in the sentimental style, his pieces often had an Edwardian 'parlor' quality. Grimshaw also published several popular methods for the five-string and plectrum banjos as well as those for mandolin and guitar. Along with his son,Emile Jr., they formed a company that manufactured both banjos and guitars, including the highly-valued 'Grimshaw Guitar'. He was born in 1880 and died in 1943.

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Tim Mainland (b. 1950)

Tim Mainland was educated at the University of California at Santa Barbara, the Universite de Bordeaux and the University of Cincinnati, College-Conservatory of Music. He studied composition with Peter Fricker (an English composer and associate of Benjamin Britten), Lukas Foss, Scott Huston and Paul Palombo. In 1978 he became Professor of Music at Concord College in Athens, West Virginia. He has composed works for string quartet, wind ensemble and piano, in addition to banjo.

A banjo player since 1961, Tim began composing for finger-style banjo in the early 1990s. Five of his compositions have been recorded by Black-Tie Banjo on their CD, At Home. Tim is the co-director of the American Banjo Fraternity's finger-style banjo orchestra.

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Other Important Composers (more information is needed)

Some of the other composers and performers of the classic era that should be included are the Americans George Lansing, Bill Bowen, Alfred A. Farland, Paul Eno, Ruby Brooks, Burt Earle, and Fred Bacon.

In Britain, well-known banjoists included Olly Oakley, Frank Lawes, Bernard Sheaff, Tarrant Bailey,Sr., Tarrant Bailey, Jr., Charlie Rogers, Will Pepper, and Ray Andrews.

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