Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Banjo Orchestra of Otterbein College

“An Interesting Musical Novelty:” Otterbein College and its Banjo Orchestra


From the perspective of 21st century musicologists, it may seem hackneyed or hayseed. It was the music of country bumpkins, frivolous college boys, and the musically clueless. Even the instrument itself has a flavor of “Hee-Haw,” “The Beverly Hillbillies,” or “Deliverance.” At the very least, the music is a not-easily-acquired taste.

If a banjo, the instrument of the rube, does not suit your taste, think of the Otterbein College campus in the 1920s, where an orchestra of nearly a dozen banjo-mandolins could be heard practicing in late winter or early spring days. Touring the country towns or larger cities of Ohio and Pennsylvania, this brace of banjos played as a sideshow to the Otterbein Men’s Glee Club of singers. The Otterbein Banjo Orchestra (sometimes called the Banjo-Mandolin Orchestra) lasted for two decades, from about 1921 to 1940. This odd phenomenon, long forgotten now, was one of Otterbein’s most heavily publicized performing ensembles of the period. The banjo group played on early radio, cut a record, and generally displayed a finely-tuned (for the banjo) performing style.

While the radio performances were not taped, and the records have disappeared, interest in banjo music is still alive and well. The dalliance of Otterbein College with its Banjo Orchestra, carefully reconstructed from newspaper articles, playbills, and contemporary recordings, do give insight into a world where music was a special treat, and where one small-town college made it to within leaping distance of the big time. That their world is not completely knowable does not prevent the story from being interesting.

Banjo-Mandolins, Mandolin Banjos, and Banjo-Orchestras

It is not commonly remembered now, but there was a “banjo craze” in the United States in the 1870s and 1880s. Individual performers and true banjo orchestras were all the rage, especially on college campuses. The banjo, an instrument created by African-American slaves from memories of similar stringed instruments in their homelands, faded in the mind of the general public as the 1890s arrived. The banjo was replaced by enthusiasm for the mandolin. College students also took to the new instrument, sometimes adding guitars and/or banjos. “In an era that seemingly delighted in musical instrument inventiveness, it is not surprising that manufacturers hybridized the banjo and mandolin.” The banjo-mandolin was mandolin sized, and had double strings, but sounded and played like a banjo, with “loud and percussive strumming.” Harold Boda, an Otterbein alumnus and a member or the Otterbein Banjo orchestra from 1922 to 1925, left us the following description of his instrument:

“I purchased [my] Gibson Banjo Mandolin from a graduating senior who had been a member of the Glee Club and had played in the Banjo Mandolin Orchestra. The banjo mandolin is a double string instrument and is tuned like a violin and was played with a plastic pick like ones used on a banjo.”

The fading of banjo orchestras and replacement with banjo-mandolin orchestras marked a shift toward a more easily learned and played instrument. Banjo-mandolin clubs or orchestras “performed light, popular music for occasions such as club meetings, church socials, and local radio broadcasts.” Otterbein’s banjo-mandolin club (club and orchestra were used interchangeably) fulfilled this billing almost exactly. Playing in churches and assemblies, and appearing on early Columbus radio stations, the banjo-mandolin ensemble spread the name of Otterbein, provided performance outlets for students, and gave an outlet to high spirits in the 1920s, while helping people forget their troubles in the more somber 1930s.

Arthur Spessard

Credit for instituting the banjo-mandolin orchestra at Otterbein College goes to Professor Arthur Ray Spessard (1885-1954). A native of Maryland, Spessard was a graduate of Lebanon Valley college and studied at the Peabody Conservatory and in England. He joined the Otterbein faculty in 1913, and spent the next 34 years teaching, organizing and conducting choirs, and supervising the college glee clubs. Retiring in 1947, Spessard returned to Maryland where he died in 1954.

Spessard left no writings to detail his involvement in the creation of an instrumental ensemble to tour with the college Glee Club, a vocal group. The Otterbein Glee Club was formed about 1910, before Spessard arrived in Westerville. Dedicated to popular and audience-pleasing songs, the Glee Club was, at first, co-ed, with male and female members. By the time Spessard took over, a men’s Glee Club and a women’s Club were in operation.

We don’t know how Spessard decided to add a banjo orchestra. Banjo orchestras collaborating with vocal ensembles were common during the banjo and them mandolin crazes. The University of Wisconsin in particular had a popular banjo orchestra that toured with its glee club. Banjos were popular solo instruments in Otterbein Glee Club concerts. In 1911, the Columbus Dispatch, in an article about a Glee Club concert, noted that a “song with banjo accompaniment…will be a novel feature of the entertainment.” And there was interest at Otterbein in string instrument ensembles. In the oldest surviving Sybil yearbook, the class of 1900-01 included an ensemble of five mandolins, two guitars, and at least one banjo in a photograph that bears no caption. Professor Spessard himself led a Mandolin Club from 1919 to 1921, members of which included banjo players. They might have inspired the banjo orchestra.

From the Sibyl and from other scattered sources, we gather that the Banjo Orchestra was formed in 1921. In October of that year, the Tan & Cardinal announced that a “large banjo-mandolin orchestra [would] accompany Glee Club this season.” Spessard recruited no fewer than eleven banjo players (himself included), plus saxophone, clarinet, trombone, horn, drums, piano, and two cornets. Although the date of the first concert by the orchestra is unknown, the first song on their first year’s home concert was Leo Fall’s “Lulu von Linden March.” And while the orchestra was in its infancy, it traveled with the Glee Club to Dayton, Ohio, where the Glee Club and the banjo orchestra played at the Victory Theater, the National Cash Register factory, and several high schools. All appearances greeted with enthusiasm, according to the Dayton News.

That first year began a tradition of mixing road trips with home appearances. In 1923, the orchestra visited near-by locales such as Worthington, Galena, and Sunbury but also going as far as Akron, Canton, Toledo, Bowling Green, Sidney, and Greenville. The Glee Club and the Banjo Orchestra traveled together by bus. The bus was sometimes decorated the concert advertisements and publicity. In succeeding years, most of the banjo-mandolin orchestra public appearances took place outside Westerville.

Spessard was well-liked by students, but adhered to a definite schedule. In the fall of 1924, the Tan & Cardinal placed the following message:

”To fill the place in the banjo-mandolin orchestra left vacant every year…Professor Spessard has for the past several years conducted a class for the instruction of banjo-mandolin.”

Harold Boda recollected that this instruction amounted to “a few group lessons with Professor Spesard [sic].” In 1927, it cost five dollars per semester to get banjo lessons. As the orchestra’s concerts were usually held in spring, Spessard sometimes found pre-Christmas or early concert renditions to be unpolished. It was only with more opportunity to practice that the ensembles came into their own.

In addition to the publicity garnered by road concerts, the Glee Club and the Banjo Orchestra found several opportunities to play for the new medium sweeping the nation, the radio. Unfortunately, no transcriptions appear to survive, but the Banjo Orchestra appeared on WBAV in Columbus on February 27, 1925. The two ensembles played for two hours, which included a banjo-mandolin duet. In 1926 and again in 1927, the group played over WAIU, also in Columbus. 1928 brought an appearance on KDKA, Pittsburg, Pennsylvania.

The Gennett Records Story - Big Break or Fiasco?

As the Glee Club and Banjo Orchestra gathered steam in mid-decade, the groups’ business manager, F. M. Pottenger, Jr., made an enthusiastic announcement: the ensembles were going to ‘cut’ a record of themselves performing, and would be selling the records for $1.00 each. By mid-April, plans were finalized. The Banjo Orchestra would travel with the Glee Club: “will leave Saturady, April 18, for Richmond, Indiana, where it will make records at the Gennett recording plant, Monday, April 20 [1925].”

That the Banjo Orchestra went on record at The Gennett Company makes certain sense geographically. The Gennett Company was headquartered in Richmond, Indiana, just about exactly halfway between Columbus and Indianapolis. But we need to take a brief diversion into the story of the company to explain why the Otterbein records did not exactly launch the Banjo Orchestra into recording stardom.

Gennett Records was an offshoot of the Starr Piano Company, which had operated successfully for decades in tiny Richmond. About 1915, with the increasingly popular phonograph record replacing the homemade music of the piano and its brethren, the Gennett family decided to branch out into the new medium. The Gennett label pioneered much musical ground in its offerings to the consumer. Bix Beiderbecke, Hoagy Carmichael and other jazz musicians made their first recordings on the Gennett label. But jazz was not the only style Gennett recorded: blues, gospel, and Appalachian music (the early forerunner of what we now call “Country”) was also marketed. The company recorded a profitable series of Ku Klux Klan songs that sold well during the Klan revival of the 1920s. The Gennett family, who personally viewed the KKK with disgust, opened their company’s doors to anyone who could play something:

While still dwarfed by New York’s leading labels, the Richmond pressing plant
pressed millions of eclectic discs….marimba bands, marching brass bands,
xylophone trios, and hotel dance orchestras.

This was the ‘anything goes’ milieu into which Otterbein’s banjo orchestra and glee club made their foray towards musical celebrity. The two groups traveled to Richmond on a Sunday morning and gave a concert at the local United Brethren church before an enthusiastic audience of 600 people. On Monday morning, the banjoists and the singers entered the Gennett recording studio.

The Gennett studio was located in a glacial valley in Richmond, where the warm moist environment was conducive to working with the soft record wax used at the time. The studio was a makeshift affair compared to modern studios. Recording in the early 1920s was still done acoustically, without the help of electric microphones. This meant that the singers or players had to gather around a large phonograph horn, a la` Thomas Edison. As the Tan and Cardinal reported,

All day yesterday was spent in the making of records, which is a very
tedious and time-taking operation. It requires a great length of time for the
placing of the men ….

Harold Boda also found early recording to be a chore:

We spent a long, long day at the Starr Piano Company in Richmond, Indiana singing and playing to a large horn protruding from a monks cloth hanging
at which time the metal recording plates were made. These were then used to press the records.

Mr. Boda’s experience was not unlike that of jazz great Hoagy Carmichael, who recorded in the same Gennett Studio:

The studio was a dreary looking Rube Goldberg place with lily-shaped horns sticking oddly from the walls. It didn’t have the effect of soothing me.

But if Francis Pottinger, the business manager, hoped that the Gennett record of the banjo orchestra and the Glee Club would earn the groups money or fame, he was mistaken. The records, which sold for a dollar each, did not sell well. Whether it was because the price was too high or a lack of interest in banjo music, the musicians were left with an oversupply of their records. Boda recalled that the members of the group had to take “records in lieu of a cash distribution” for their efforts. And this seems to have been the Gennett company policy. As the chronicler of the Gennett company has written:

“No recording artist ever got rich from the releases selected by the Gennett staff. ….Occasionally, Gennett provided its recording artists with a stack of personal discs to be used for promotional purposes. One must remember that most entertainers in the 1920s viewed their record releases as vehicles for promoting their live shows, not as primary sources for income.”

But while the Banjo Orchestra experiment at being recording artists did not work too well, the ensemble continued to play regularly to live audiences.

Banjos on their Knees

In the 1925-26 academic year, the banjo orchestra gave some 22 concerts. In 1927, despite the bus driver suffering from food poisoning, they performed at Findlay, and Fostoria in northwest Ohio, Latrobe, Pennsylvania and New Philadelphia in eastern Ohio. In 1928, they played Akron, Canton, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Washington, D.C., where they met Vice-President Charles Dawes. 1929 brought appearances at Barberton, Ashland and Mansfield. The Tan and Cardinal traced their every move, and the group continued radio concerts. In that year, the banjo orchestra “is said to be the best balanced and arranged company the club has had for some years.” Another 1929 report exclaimed that “This Years Banjo-Orchestra Is Best It Has Ever Been,” and noted that more diversity of instruments were added providing “tone quality and balance.”

But shortly after Otterbein students returned to class in the fall of 1929, the world changed. The stock market crash in October of that year had many social, economic, and political ramifications, from which Otterbein was, at first, insulated. Otterbein students, drawn from high-income families, probably did not feel the pinch of the Depression until later than others did.

The economic unease may have been the reason the banjo orchestra received no mentions in the Tan and Cardinal until 1932. Which is not to say there was no orchestra; pictures of a well-dressed banjo orchestra appeared in every Sibyl yearbook during the 1930s. The Glee Club had a busy schedule in 1931, and the banjo orchestra, now with eighteen performers, toured with the Glee Club to Pennsylvania and West Virginia in 1932. But by 1933, plans for a trip to Dover and Cambridge, Ohio had to be cancelled because of poor ticket sales.

But by 1935, the banjo orchestra was still in action. “Hopes for the banjo-mandolin orchestra are exceedingly high due to the return of nearly all of the orchestra’s personnel.” But clouds were on the horizon. There was no coverage in the Tan and Cardinal of the Glee Club or the Banjo Orchestra at all during the 1935-36 academic year. In 1937, the Tan and Cardinal admitted that the “number of banjos has decreased since last year,” but it seems to have been business as usual until 1940, with the banjo orchestra touring each year with the Glee Club.

In 1940, an oddly worded paragraph in the Sibyl did not sound very hopeful for the banjo orchestra to live into its third decade:

Their specialty this year was a number with which they tried to flatter
their audiences, “The Donkey Serenade.” They played other numbers
too, the names of which I can’t think of just now. Their music sounds a little
different from that of the String Choir….their music tends more toward the
staccato. I guess I had better quit talking about them lest I say something
that isn’t true.

Was this a weak attempt at yearbook humor, or did it actually reflect the general student opinion of the banjo orchestra? Whatever the reason, this paragraph may have served as a farewell to the banjo orchestra. The Tan and Cardinal, perhaps in an effort to hide any negative news regarding the college, made no mention of the end of the banjo orchestra. The Westerville Public Opinion, did mark its passing, although with little explanation:

For the first time since 1922, there will be no banjo orchestra. Solo and
specialty groups are replacing this portion of the program.

Of course we are left with the question why? It may have been the unsettled international situation, with war looming in less than a year. It may have been a shakeup in Otterbein’s music faculty. While Arthur Spessard continued for several years, department retirements and a reorganization in 1941 may have changed priorities. It is also possible that changing tastes in music had something to do with the banjo orchestra’s demise. Radio, a newfangled invention when the banjo club was formed, was pervasive by the end of the 1930s, and provided easily available choices to music listeners. America was more urban, as well, and the banjo orchestra may have seemed a part of a more rural, and therefore backward, past.

The Westerville Public Opinion, in 1922, had heralded the formation of the banjo orchestra in the following word: “The Banjo-Mandolin Club is unique in college glee club organizations and always brings forth its share of praise as an interesting musical novelty.” As we have seen, the Otterbein Banjo Orchestra was not unique, and was in fact a bit old-fashioned when it appeared. But during two decades, the ensemble played for enthusiastic groups both at home and on the road. They were heard on the radio and made a record. In doing so, they carried the Otterbein tradition of music to new audiences and via different mediums. To that degree, they were successful.

And what happened to the phonograph record? This interesting, early piece of Otterbein College’s musical heritage exists as a single, broken copy.  Readers of this essay will recall that the record was not a success financially.  Harold Boda, who has been quoted above, left his banjo-mandolin to the archives, but only one copy of the recording is held by the Otterbein Archives. The record was Gennett Records #20101, side B., Banjo Orchestra of Otterbein College, whole number 12210-A, Song Title: “Spooks.”If any reader has another copy, please contact Stephen Grinch, Otterbein Archivist, 614-882-0015 or at

(Material for this article was obtained from programs and other ephemera kept in the Otterbein College Archives, and from relevant issues of the Tan & Cardinal, the Westerville Public Opinion, and the Sibyl yearbook. Information on the background of the banjo mandolin came from Karen Linn, That Half-Barbaric Twang: The Banjo in American Popular Culture (Urbana: University or Illinois Press, 1991). On the Gennet Record story, see Rick Kennedy, Jelly Roll, Bix, and Hoagy: Gennet Studios and the Birth of Recorded Jazz (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994) and Little Labels – Big Sound: Small Record Companies and the Rise of American Music (Same author and publisher, 1999).