The American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress (AFC) is home to several extraordinary and historically important banjos. We have mentioned two of these before in Folklife Today: the precious homemade mountain banjo made by Frank Profitt, Sr. (1913-1965), which belonged to Douglas Kennedy (1893–1988); and the similar banjo made by Proffitt’s father-in-law and teacher Nathan Hicks (1895-1945), which belonged to folklorist Frank Warner (1903-1978). In this guest essay written by banjo expert Gérard De Smaele, we will introduce you to another important banjo in our collections: a factory made banjo donated by John Cohen (1932-2019). It is part of the John Cohen collection, and will have the item number AFC 2011/059: AR01 . The acquisition was facilitated after John Cohen’s passing by his son Rufus Cohen and son-in-law Reid Cramer. The American Folklife Center is delighted to add this banjo to our collection, and consider it an honor to preserve it alongside the other collections of our longtime friend John Cohen.
The American Folklife Center has recently acquired a five-string Fairbanks Vega banjo donated by musician, photographer, and filmmaker John Cohen before his death in 2019. It is a fascinating instrument for several reasons.
As background to its story, let us offer some banjo history. People are increasingly aware of the African roots of the banjo, and of its development in the Caribbean and the American South among people of African descent. The American Folklife Center has featured programs detailing some of this early history for anyone with an interest in the deep roots of the banjo. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, different styles of banjos emerged. Tenor and plectrum (four-string) banjos, as well as hybrid banjos that borrow their necks from other instruments such as guitar, mandolin, and ukelele, are all played with a pick. They were very popular during the ‘Roaring Twenties,’ while the original five-string type of banjo, played with the fingers, was losing its popularity.
After the Second World War, with the exception of the Southern Appalachian region, the five-string banjo was almost forgotten. But a strong revival of interest resurfaced during the great folk boom of the 1950s and 1960s: a movement that had begun much earlier and that exploded with the commercial success of the Kingston Trio and their hit 1958 recording of “Tom Dooley.” If Pete Seeger (1919-2014) and Earl Scruggs (1924-2012) were the main actors of this resurrection of the five-string banjo, Alan Lomax (1915-2002), Frank Warner, and other folklorists and ethnomusicologists, also played a determining role by finding and recording authentic traditional musicians. The folk archive at the Library of Congress, initially part of the Music Division and now part of the American Folklife Center, has also played an essential role in this whole revival as a repository of archives and old collections.
While collectors and ethnomusicologists sought to record traditional musicians for archival purposes, The New Lost City Ramblers–Mike Seeger (1933-2009), Tom Paley (1928-2017) and John Cohen– aimed to revive the music by learning to play it. They found their repertoire in several ways: seeking out out old 78 rpm commercial recordings, such as those collected by anthologist Harry Smith (1923-1991); spending time in archives such as the Archive of Folk Culture at the Library of Congress; and seeking out traditional musicians from whom to learn songs, tunes, and playing techniques. As a founding member of the New Lost City Ramblers, John Cohen devoted a lifetime to collecting, studying and promoting all aspects of American folk music. His archive of manuscripts, recordings, films, and photographs is a national treasure, now protected by the AFC (AFC 2011/059).
In an essay he wrote for the liner notes to an album of his field recordings of Roscoe Holcomb (1911-1981), Cohen explained how he first came to do field collecting in 1959:
As a child, I had heard records of the folk singers Burl Ives, John Jacob Niles, Richard Dyer-Bennet, and later the Almanac Singers and the Weavers. They always referred to a source where these old songs existed in their home atmosphere, in the hands of an old tradition, cradled somewhere in the heart of a mountain farmer or a Kentucky coal miner. I longed to experience the music at that source, even as the urban Folk Revival went the opposite way producing the Kingston Trio, the Limelighters, and other commercially misdirected collegiate brother groups. I was looking for music that rang true, and the closest I had come were the Library of Congress Folksong Records (thank you, Alan Lomax) and some old hillbilly records on scratchy 78s or on Harry Smith’s Folkways Anthology of American Folk Music. So when the opportunity presented itself, I went to Kentucky to look around and hang out in the rural mountains. It was there I met Roscoe.
This encounter between John Cohen and Roscoe Holcomb would change the lives of both men. Holcomb is one of the emblematic figures of American traditional music. He personified what Cohen called “the high lonesome sound,” so appreciated today for its strong power of expression. His distinctive vocals and brilliant banjo and guitar playing transport the listener to the oldest and most authentic roots of American music: a style that has remained alive in his native Kentucky.
At the time he met John Cohen, Roscoe Holcomb played on a very modest instrument. During his recording sessions and many public performances, Cohen often let Holcomb play his Fairbanks Vega, a much better banjo. Holcomb played the Whyte Laydie in many of his concert appearances, often accompanied by Cohen on guitar. He also played it in Alan Lomax’s film “Ballads, Blues, and Bluegrass,” whose original film elements are in the Alan Lomax Collection in the AFC archive. You can see and hear Holcomb play “On Top of Old Smoky” on the Whyte Laydie banjo in a scene from that film, online at this link on the Association for Cultural Equity site.
Eventually, the Vega Company, at Cohen’s insistence, offered Holcomb another banjo. The Fairbanks Vega remained with Cohen, and continued to be one of his favorite instruments. He continued to play it, and also to lend it to other musicians, until his death in 2019.
Having been a leading maker, the Fairbanks house – bought by Vega in 1904 – is a prestigious provenance. Alfred Conant Fairbanks (1852-1929) began its production in the mid-1870s. Under different names and management (as A. C. Fairbanks had meanwhile turned to the manufacture of wooden rims for bicycles and left his company in 1895), the firm made banjos of great renown. The ‘Whyte Laydie’ (introduced in 1901) and the ‘Tubaphone’ (introduced in 1909) produced by Vega after a devastating fire in 1904, are the result of years of experience designing tone rings for acoustic banjos. They are still today among the most highly valued banjos by players of old time music. It should be remembered, however, that at the time of their conception, they were mainly intended for the so-called “classic” or “fingerstyle” style, played with bare fingers on gut strings, using a playing technique derived from the classical guitar. This represents a completely different aspect of the instrument than most people know. Even if little practiced today, its stylistic influence marked the birth of bluegrass.
Tone rings are metal rings built into banjos to improve tone; they generally help with clarity, brightness and note separation. The tone ring of John Cohen’s banjo is a “Whyte Laydie,” a style invented by A. C. Fairbanks, which includes solid and scalloped metal components. The back of the banjo’s body is completely closed by a removable bottom. The Gibson catalogs of 1919 and 1923 call this arrangement a ‘tone projector.’ It’s different than the resonator, which came later on tenor and bluegrass banjos. It should be remembered that this instrument comes from a time when amplification was based solely on acoustic principles. After a stint at Martin & Co. (Nazareth, PA) the Vega ‘Whyte Laydie’ banjo is now produced in California by the Deering Banjo Co., a label of exceptional longevity.
The John Cohen banjo, then, is extraordinary for three reasons: it is in itself a classic instrument, a beautiful example of a Fairbanks Vega banjo with a Whyte Laydie tone ring and an unusual tone projector; it belonged to John Cohen, one of the most significant figures in the revival of the five-string banjo; and it was often played by Roscoe Holcomb, a singular artist and crucial figure in American traditional music. It is fitting for the banjo to come to the American Folklife Center, where it joins other exceptional banjos and the unparalleled archival collections of John Cohen.
Gérard De Smaele is one of the leading experts on the history and development of the five-string banjo. He has written and edited many articles and books on the instrument, curated a major exhibition on banjos at the Musical Instrument Museum (MIM) in Brussels, and co-produced the documentary A Banjo Frolic. During a visit to the American Folklife Center in 2022, he examined the John Cohen banjo and wrote a brief essay for us to display with the instrument, on which this blog post was based. Find more of his writings at his website.
Roscoe Holcomb’s birth name was Halcomb, and Halcomb is also the name on his gravestone. However, he used Holcomb for his career as a musician, and his banjo recordings are all issued under that name. We have therefore used Holcomb in this article.
Bollman, Jim. “Fairbanks-Vega Serial Number Dating Chart.” Pickin’, June 1978, pp. 40-48.
Bollman, Jim, Dick Kimmel and Doug Unger.. “A History of Vega/Fairbanks Banjos.”, Pickin’, vol. 5/5, June 1978, pp. 26-38.
Cohen, John. High Atmosphere: Ballads and Banjo Tunes from Virginia and North Carolina. Rounder Records CD 0098 (recorded in 1965), 1995 (LP, 1974). Notes by John Cohen.
Cohen, John. The High & Lonesome Sound. The Legacy of Roscoe Holcomb. Göttingen, Germany: Steidl, 2012, 261 p. Includes rare CD and DVD material. [The High Lonesome Sound, 1963, DVD/Video, 30’ ; Roscoe Holcomb: From Daisy, Kentucky, 2010, DVD/Video, 30’ ; and an audio CD]
Cohen, John. The Legacy of Roscoe Holcomb. DVD, Shanachie SH 621. Captured in the 1960s, 1 hour 40 min.
De Smaele, Gérard. The Wayne Adams Old ‘Classic’ Banjo Collection. Vincennes: Frémeaux & Associés, 2022. 3 CDs box. Notes by G. De Smaele.
Gura, Phil, and James Bollman. America’s Instrument. The Banjo in the Nineteenth Century. Chapel Hill / London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1999, 303 p.
[An essential reading – J. Bollman is the main collector and an expert on Fairbanks and Vega banjos]
Holcomb, Roscoe. An Untamed Sense of Control. Smithsonian-Folkways SFW-CD-40144, 2003 (Folkways Records FA2368, vinyl, 1961). Recorded in 1959. Notes by John Cohen.
Holcomb, Roscoe. The High Lonesome Sound. Smithsonian-Folkways SFW-CD-40104, 1998. Recorded between 1961 and 1973). Notes by John Cohen
Kaufman, Elias. “A History of the Fairbanks Company.” The Five-Stringer, #123 (Fall issue, 1976) to # 138 (Summer issue, 1980)
Kaufman, Elias. “The Fairbanks and Vega Companies.” Mugwumps, VI/2, Spring 1978, pp. 18-20.
Schwartz, Hank. Fairbanks Banjos website.
Seeger, Mike. Southern Banjo Sounds. Smithsonian-Folkways SFW 40107, 1998. id. 3 Video tapes edited by Homespun Tapes, 2000.
Smith, Harry. Anthology of American Folk Music. Smithsonian-Folkways SFW40090, 1997 (Folkways FA 2951; FA 2952; FA 2953, 1952). Liner notes by Jeff Place et al.
The Vega Company. Electric, Whyte-Laydie, Tu-Ba-Phone. Boston, Mass.: The Vega company, 1908, 16 p. Catalog. [see also the 1912 and 1923 editions]