Saturday, 9 June 2012

Gran's Old Banjo

On special nights back in the late 1940s the landlady of The Fox Inn on the Old North Road would take down the case from the shelf and take out her banjo. Then she'd sit up on the bar and play for the customers till closing time. That lady was my maternal grandmother.


My grandparents had taken on the pub having moved out of London during the Second World War. They didn't have the pub long before my grandfather passed away at the age of 49. Gran never played the banjo much after that.


The musicians among you may have noticed that it's not the usual 5-string or even a tenor banjo but a mandolin-banjo or as it was more often called at the time a banjo-mandolin. This particular one, so the story goes was made for Pasquale Troise, an Italian player of the mandolin (the kind shown on the right above) who led his own very popular and successful band who played all the London music halls in the pre-war years. The band was known as Troise and his Mandoliers and played an astonishing mixture of music - Italian melodies, of course, but also Russian folk melodies, odd bits of classical music, tunes from Eastern Europe, Hawaiian pieces and cowboy songs. All this was topped off with an Irishman who called himself Don Carlos on vocals.

Gran

Troise also led a second band, Troise and his Banjoliers, essentially the same musicians swapping to play a wide variety of banjos. This band broadcast regularly on the BBC's "Workers' Playtime"** radio programme, the louder sound of the banjos being more audible in noisy factories. It was for this configuration of the band that Gran's banjo-mandolin was made. 

** it was "Music While You Work" not "Workers' Playtime" as pointed out by the comment below. Thanks to Brian Reynolds for pointing out my mistake.


My uncle now has Gran's old instrument and has had it repaired. As you can see his interest in the mandolin has expanded to other forms, the one on the left is the kind favoured by bluegrass players. And there's a fourth kind, also owned by my uncle, which is the flat-backed mandolin that Irish folk musicians tend to play.



A story often told by my mother:
    One New Year's Eve Gran made a phone call to her brother Arthur, a very fine banjo player himself. After the usual greetings Arthur says " Hey, 'ave you 'eard this one?" and proceeded to play a tune over the phone. " That's a new one to me, Arthur, but how about this one?" and Gran played a tune. Thus they went on exchanging tunes until Gran said, "Look, this call's going to cost me a fortune, I'll have to hang up." At this point the telephone operator from the exchange interrupted "That's alright, keep playing. All the telephonists here are enjoying the music. We won't charge you a penny for the call, just keep playing!"

To hear Troise and his Banjoliers try this link or this one. 

Take care.

13 comments:

  1. 'Banjolier' sounds like a cross between a minstrel and a bandit!! Fascinating tale that makes me realise I'd never before heard a banjo being played 'properly'!!!

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  2. Lovely story about your gran and her brother on the phone:) It's sad that your Grandfather died so young though. I used to listen to Workers Playtime when I was little so I suspect I must have heard Troise and his Banjoliers.

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  3. Great story to end on! I had never seen a mandolin-banjo, but I immediately recognized it was different from anything I had seen.

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  4. What a lovely story about the New year's Eve phone call. I too remember 'Workers Playtime' being on the wireless when I was little as well as 'Friday Night is Music Night':)

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  5. I know very little about these instruments (well, I know a bit more now) but I do appreciate their beauty. Very nice looking pieces. Nice post topped off with that cute story.

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  6. lovely story--nice to learn about the instruments

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  7. John I remember the Mandoliers and the Banjoliers - now you must realise how old I am.!!!

    Love the telephone story - those were the days.

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  8. Great story and an interesting instrument. I might not be allowed back to sessions if I turned up with one of those though.

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  9. This is a fine story, worthy of being shared as you have. Thanks!

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  10. Beautiful instruments. Sounds like there's lots of music in your family. I've really only heard Bluegrass banjo which is lots of fun, but I'll expand my horizon and go have a listen to Troise and his Banjoliers. We have some great fiddlers in our neck of the woods.

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  11. Another fine series of photos, as well as a terrific story!

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  12. interesting post and a great little snippet at the end!

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  13. Troise and his Banjoliers played on 'Music While You Work NOT 'Workers Playtime!' which was a variety show. They were the most popular band on the show and did 476 programmes.

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