So You Think You Know about the Banjo in Irish Traditional Music?: Part 1
There are many myths about the banjo in traditional Irish music. It is commonly believed that a special type of tenor banjo (a 17 fret, 4-string banjo tuned in 5ths to G d a e' ), called the "Irish Tenor Banjo", has been part of Traditional Irish Music since at least the 19th Century. There are several myths implied by this notion.
The First Myth:
The idea that a tenor banjo, "Irish" or otherwise, has always been part of Irish traditional music could not be further from reality. It was most likely the American Minstrel Banjo, introduced to Ireland and England in the 1840s, that was first adopted for use in Irish Traditional music.
The Minstrel Banjo, the fretless precursor of the modern 5-string banjo, had evolved from the early gourd banjos (originally with 4 strings) invented by Black slaves centuries earlier in America, inspired by, but not copied from, similar instruments in Africa. Most banjo historians agree that what we know as the banjo was invented in America, by descendants of Africans (i.e. slaves). This is but one of a multitude of inventions by African Americans.
The fretless Minstrel Banjos were probably used mostly for simple accompaniment in Irish Traditional Music. Upon the introduction of the modern fretted banjo in the late 1870s by Dobson (a famous banjo manufacturer), this newer type of banjo became the type of banjo used in Irish Traditional Music.
The simple Minstrel style of playing evolved into the more elaborate "clawhammer" style. Not much is known about how widespread melodic clawhammer style playing became in Irish Traditional Music in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Melodic Irish banjo playing of the time might have sounded like the examples of Cooley's Reel and The Congress Reel by clawhammer banjo magician Cathy Moore (www.BanjoMeetsWorld.com) below.
See Cathy Moore play an outrageously great medley of these Irish tunes on YouTube (see player below)
While it is doubtful that there were many 5-string banjo players in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries who could play melodies as well as Cathy Moore in the video, hopefully I conveyed the point.
The tenor banjo in Irish Traditional music would not come until well into the 20th Century. Part 2 of this article will address the tenor banjo in Irish music and the mythology surrounding it.