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The First Banjo Contest

By Bob Flesher

When you say "Banjo Contests" you usually think of the big ones like The Old Fiddlers Contest in Galax, Virginia or The Appalachian String Band Festival, better known as Clifftop, WV, or the Topanga Canyon Banjo Contest in Aurora Hills, CA, maybe the Uncle Dave Macon contest in Murfreesboro, TN or Union Grove in NC as well as many others. Banjo contests are always fun and almost a way of life for some banjo pickers who want to test their metal or maybe just want to get their admission back after competing. But, like fiddle contests, there are always some who want to see what they can do and others who are never satisfied with the results because they are too political in some way or another. Nobody is ever satisfied except the person who won and the guy who survived the competition ordeal and got his money back.

The first banjo contest was held October 19, 1857 in of all places, New York City....NEW... YORK...CITY?. It was held in the largest hall in the United States at that time, the Old Chinese Assembly Rooms at No. 539 Broadway. Mr. Charles Morrell, a banjo maker from that city, put it on and offered a $100 banjo as first prize and the title of "Champion Banjoist of America". Now a $100 banjo in that day was the equivalent of a banjo worth several thousand dollars today. There was no second prize. No $5 and a participant ribbon either, and no money back for your camping. By the way, the Old Chinese Assembly Rooms had no showers like Clifftop has, but I bet it had a whole bunch of privies (out-door toilets) out back like our contests today. Somethings never change.

Mr.Morrell wrote a letter about the contest which was published in S.S. Stewart's Banjo and Guitar Journal, June and July, 1890. It seems to have been a pretty colorful and debated contest.

Mr. Morrell wrote that there were three judges for the contest and each player had to play five tunes: one waltz, one schottische, one polka, one reel and one jig. Each player was to play the five tunes one after another with as short an interval as possible. There were twenty banjo pickers entered, including the famous Picayune Butler, and Phil Rice who wrote his banjo tudor in 1860. It was mentioned that the famous Frank Converse was out of town.

It appears that New York City was divided into sections or different parts of town and all the contestants were from all the different sections. When they arrived they were accompanied by all their friends and supporters from their part of town. In some cases these numbered four to five hundred supporters for a player. Mr. Morrell wrote, "On the evening of the concert, ladies and gentlemen came early so as to get good seats, and as different sections (of town) came in it was not long before the hall was packed; so much so that many ladies in front fainted and had to be taken out the rear entrance as it was impossible to get out at the front door. At eight o'clock there were three thousand people in the hall , and a great many more on the outside trying to get in."

At 8:30 o'clock the show started with a performance by an amateur minstrel band called the New Orleans Serenaders. Morrell wrote that an old time minstrel performer named Billy Blair was master of ceremonies and announced each player as he came to play. That was the signal for his party from his part of town to give him a good reception, or in other words, make as much noise as they could.

The two best banjo players in town were Picayune Butler and Charles Plummer. Morrell said they were far superior to the rest and were reserved to the last to play. They drew straws to see who would play last. Plummer won and played last. When Pic Butler was announced, the crowd went wild. Morrell wrote, "I thought the roof would fall off, but it was plain to see that he was a little under the influence of liquor; so much so, that he broke two strings during his trial". When Charles Plummer was announced, his reception was still greater than all the rest. He played his five tunes as a medley, running one tune into another until he finished all five.

After the judges had conferred, Billy Blair announced to the audience that Charles Plummer was entitled to the $100 banjo and was the "Champion Banjoist of America".

So, there is the story of the first banjo contest as testified to by Charles Morrell, the promoter of the event. Two Months after the contest, Mr. Morrell moved to California and set up his banjo building business (as another wise banjo maker has done of late). He remained in business until his death, April 26, 1890, after building many instruments and teaching hundreds of "west coast pickers" to play the banjo. All of this was taking place in California before the banjo had made a major impact into the Appalachian Mountains after the War Between the States as research seems to indicate? Hummm, now there is a provocative thought.

An interesting footnote to the article by S.S.Stewart states, "Historical reminiscences are always more or less interesting, even when they chronicle the 'pugilistic' banjo age, which is now a thing of the past. Such exhibitions as here recorded have no place whatever in musical art, but are on a par with the underdeveloped condition of things musical, and banjoistic, at the time." I wonder if old S.S. Stewart had stood with me last year at the end of the line to compete at Galax, in the mud trying to keep your banjo dry while staying warmed up, he would had felt the same way about this having no place in "musical art"? One thing for sure, the popularity of the "pugilistic" banjo contest has out lasted the popularity of the classical banjo concerts that he endorsed and promoted.

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