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Musician-Historian to Tell the Story of the Banjo at Museum L-A

LEWISTON -  Robert Lloyd Webb, a historian of the banjo and a renowned performer in the "clawhammer" or "frailing" style will present "Ring the Banjar!: The Story of America's 'Own' Musical Instrument" at 7 p.m. Thursday, August 23 at Museum L-A.

The program is being held in conjunction with the Museum’s current special exhibit, “The Power of Music, Photographic Portraits of Americans and their Musical Instruments, 1860-1915.” There are images of soldiers and children, girls and mothers, as both wealthy and poor families proudly display their prized possessions – many of which are banjos.  

The story of America is completely linked to the story of the banjo. It has been called "America's 'Own' Musical Instrument," and it has been adapted for playing every form of American popular music, including minstrelsy, jazz, dance-band, country, folk and bluegrass. A century ago, it was even popular for the presentation of the world's great classical and operatic compositions.

Though owing its birth to African antecedents, the banjo evolved on U.S. soil, first as a rhythm accompaniment to the dances of enslaved peoples, and then through the circus and minstrel shows into the American consciousness. Webb will demonstrate the rise in its popularity through the Civil War and westward expansion into urban cities and towns, where it became a parlor favorite, and then returned to the professional stage as an accompaniment to dance bands and traditional jazz groups following World War I.

He will also explain how the banjo got into the Appalachian and Ozark Mountains, where it became a distinctive part of rural entertainment, both as a solo instrument and as an accompaniment to the fiddle, and eventually became the driving instrument in the relatively modern musical style called "bluegrass." That performance style is familiar to all Americans through the media, from the theme song of "The Beverly Hillbillies" to the hit movies "Deliverance" and "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?"

Webb will tell how the banjo was mass-produced and sold through mail-order catalogues beginning in the 1880s, at the same time as banjomakers in Philadelphia, New York, Boston and Maine were building some of the most artistically elaborate and beautiful instruments ever manufactured.

His hour-long presentation will include performances on a half-dozen instruments, including two replica gourd-bodied banjos from the late 18th-Century; a replica "minstrel" banjo as played by theatre professionals during the 1840s and 1850s; a "classical" banjo of the style popular in urban parlors from 1870 to about 1920; a homemade fretless banjo from the hill country of North Carolina; and a modern, factory-made banjo of the familiar type.

Webb has his own history with the instrument. He developed and curated the first museum exhibition about the banjo, "Ring the Banjar!: The Banjo in America from Folklore to Factory," for the MIT Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1984. The monograph from that exhibition, under the same name, has remained in print, and is now available in its second edition. Webb will sign copies after the program, and will also make available his CDs of traditional folk and "roots" music, sung and accompanied on banjo, guitar and concertina.

Admission for the program is $5 for adults, $3 for seniors and students, and free of charge for children under 6.