Hamilton College Library Online Exhibits

Simplified Method and Thorough School for Banjo (1879? edition)

by George C. Dobson

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  • The copyright given is 1874; however, this book is labeled "New and Revised Edition" on the front cover and contains an arrangement of an excerpt from an opera that premiered in Paris, November 1879 [1]. The claim that new editions of this book were issued through 1879 [2], however, seems problematic since the opera in question, Olivette, did not premiere in America until January 1881 [3]. In any case, the book, first published in 1874, was popular, undergoing a few revisions and remaining popular through the 1890s [4].
  • As implied by the title, the book is split into a "Simplified Method" section and a "Thorough School" section. Much more weight is given to the simplified section; "Thorough School" comprises about 36% of the pages and 27% of non-trivial pieces [5].
  • In preface, Dobson explains that he devised the simplified system for a (female) pupil who was struggling with the regular system of musical notation. He taught the system for about thirteen years before publishing this book and making the banjo accessible to a wider audience (2).
  • Whereas the other books in this exhibit make no mention of frets and their illustrations show fretless banjos [6], Dobson declares, "Every banjo should be fretted," and gives instructions on fretting a non-fretted banjo (3-4). Fretted banjos began to appear in the late 1850s, and became popular in the 1870s, at which time people began to fret older banjos as Dobson instructs here [7].
  • Dobson's method is similar to modern tablature in that staff lines represent strings of the banjos as opposed to pitches (the basis of regular musical notation), but uses a more complex method to notate left-hand fingering. Open circles (rings) mean the left hand does not press down on that string, while a closed circle (black dot) means the left hand presses on a fret; Dobson dictates the default frets on page 6, and uses a number for other frets.
  • Unlike modern tablature, Dobson's method does not incorporate normal rhythmic notation, instead directing that all notes have equal rhythmic value unless a curved line covers "one or more notes," in which case the notes are "performed much quicker" (5). This method is rather primitive, and seems to require guesswork, outside knowledge of the song, or guidance of a teacher.
  • While Converse's New and Complete Method, first published in 1865, teaches stroke style before guitar style and has more than a 2:1 ratio of songs specified for stroke style to songs specified for guitar style, Dobson here recommends mastering guitar style before stroke style (which he also calls "banjo style") but does not specify which style to use for which song.
  • "Simplified Method" includes "Additional Pieces, Instructions, &c., Arranged Expressly for the Second Edition."
  • The preface to "Thorough School" explains that the simple method is so simple that one can easily learn to play the banjo and feel ready for regular notation. Dobson does not impart any music theory directly, instead associating notes on the staff with the strings of the banjo. He does, however, provide the scales as well as the basic chord progressions (I-IV-V(7)-I) for a number of keys, major and minor.
  • Hamilton College's copy is missing the back cover.

Music Notes

  • The pieces range from short and simple to long and fairly complex in both "Simplified Method" and "Thorough School."
  • One song for voice and banjo, "Don't Let the Old Folks Suffer," strangely enough employs simple notation for both the banjo and vocal part (63).  Perhaps the student first learned his or her part by playing it on banjo and then memorizing it.  Or perhaps it was a piece for which the melody was widely known: The same song appears in Vocal Banjoist: A Collection of Popular and Favorite Songs Arranged for the Banjo, another book in the college's collection [8]. Here, Dobson is credited with arranging the piece, the only attribution in "Simplified Method", though Dobson is acknowledged as composer for a number of songs in "Thorough School."
  • Another vocal piece appears in "Thorough School," written in regular musical notation.
  • Notable pieces include "Maryland" (54), the Maryland state song set to the traditional tune "Lauriger Horatius," perhaps better known as "O, Tannenbaum" [9] as well as "Blue Danube Waltz" (61), an arrangement of Johann Strauss the Younger's famous orchestral waltz.
  • This book contains the three most popular songs of Hamilton's collection: "Spanish Fandango" (21), "Home, Sweet Home" (24), and "Blue Bells of Scotland" (51) [10], and some of the other popular songs in the collection as well: "Coming through the Rye" (12), "Highland Fling" (14), and "My Love She Is a Lassie, O!" (20) [11].

     [1] George C. Dobson, Geo. C. Dobson's Simplified Method and Thorough School for the Banjo, Two Books in One, new and revised ed. (Boston: Ditson, c1874 [1879?]), 101; Edmond Audran, Les Noces d'Olivette: Opéra-Comique en 3 Actes, accessed July 6, 2011, IMSLP/Petrucci Music Library (IMSLP #78526), PDF p. 3.

     [2] Philip F. Gura and James F. Bollman, America's Instrument: The Banjo in the Nineteenth Century (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999), 126.

     [3] George P. Upton, The Standard Light Operas: Their Plots and Their Music (Chicago: A. C. McClurg, 1902), accessed July 27, 2011, Open Library (OL23339777M), 26.

     [4] Gura and Bollman, America's Instrument, 119, caption under fig. 2-32.

     [5] Here "non-trivial pieces" disregards scales and other preliminary exercises.

     [6] Frank B. Converse, Frank B. Converse's Banjo Instructor, without a Master: Containing a Choice Collection of Banjo Solos, Jigs, Songs, Reels, Walk Arounds, etc., Progressively Arranged, and Plainly Explained; Enabling the Learner to Become a Proficient Banjoist without the Aid of a Teacher(New York: Dick & Fitzgerald, 1865), front cover; Frank B. Converse, The Banjo, and How to Play It: Containing, in Addition to the Elementary Study, a Choice Collection of Polkas, Waltzes, Solos, Schottisches, Songs, Reels, Hornpipes, Jigs, etc., with Full Explanation of Both the "Banjo" and "Guitar" Styles of Execution, and Designed to Impart a Complete Knowledge of the Art of Playing the Banjo Practically with the Aid of a Teacher (New York: Dick & Fitzgerald, 1872), front cover; Frank B. Converse, Frank B. Converse's New and Complete Method for the Banjo with or without a Master, later ed. (New York: S. T. Gordon, 1869), 7-9; Elias Howe [Gumbo Chaff, pseud.], The Complete Preceptor for the Banjo: Containing All Necessary Instruction, with a Large Collection of Music Adapted to the Instrument, Including Most of the Songs Sung by the Christy Minstrels (Boston: Oliver Ditson, 1851), 2.

     [7] Gura and Bollman, America's Instrument, caption under plate 1-30.

     [8] Vocal Banjoist: A Collection of Popular and Favorite Songs Arranged for the Banjo (Boston: Oliver Ditson, 1885), 70.

     [9] "State Song of Maryland," Maryland Kids Page, accessed July 7, 2011, http://www.mdkidspage.org/StateSong.htm.

     [10] "Spanish Fandango" appears in seventeen books, "Home, Sweet Home" in sixteen, and "Bluebells of Scotland" in eleven books. The titles vary slightly. Together, these songs span twenty-four of the thirty-five books in the Robert Fraker Collection of 19th Century Banjo Instruction Manuals containing multiple pieces of music.

     [11] "Coming Through the Rye" appears in six books, "Highland Fling" in five, and "My Love She Is a Lassie, O!" in five as well (not the same five books). Titles of the first and third songs vary greatly from book to book; "Highland Fling" in this book appears in the second part of "Grandfather's Days."

Simplified Method and Thorough School for Banjo (1879? edition)