Yale’s first Banjo Club, by Marshall Bartholomew

“Music at Yale took an unexpected turn in the spring of 1884. The Glee Club, ever a generous brother to the physically rugged but financially ragged University Crew, staged a minstrel show on behalf of the Yale Navy. The event was put on at Carll’s Opera House and, along with the established minstrel routine of interlocuter, endmen, singers and clog-dancers, a local professional banjoist, Clifford G. Austin, was invited to participate as a special attraction. Austin chose eight of his best banjo and guitar pupils from the College, did the single-string and filigree work himself, and the curtain rose on Yale’s first Banjo Club.

-Photograph of the Yale University Glee Club 1884, courtesy of the Internet Archive, “A history of the class of eighty-four, Yale College, 1880-1914,” by Yale University, Class of ’84, Leonard Mayhew Daggett, 1914

The success of this experiment was sensational. A minstrel show, sponsored by the Crew, with singing by the Glee Club, proved just the ideal occasion on which to demonstrate the virtues of banjo and guitar in orchestral fashion. A brilliant new star, destined to adorn the college firmament for years to come, was born that night. When college opened in September the Yale Banjo Club had elected officers, engaged Austin as its coach and began to occupy space in the Yale Banner with a list of charter members consisting of five banjoists and three guitarists. Thus, like a mushroom on a spring morning, sprouted the first Banjo Club in any American college—a questionable honor for Yale in the opinion of the more sober-minded music lovers who regarded the vogue of banjo clubs as Exhibit A of musical nonsense. The Popularity of the banjo spread like a prairie fire. Harvard banjo enthusiasts organized the following year and before the end of the 19th century similar groups had become typical adjuncts of academic musical entertainment throughout the nation.”
-Excerpt courtesy of Folderol, Newsletter of the Yale Glee Club Associates, “Note 2: Banjos and Mandolins,” by Marshall Bartholomew ’07, Summer 2010. (Top) Image courtesy of the Yale Library, “The Yale Banner, Vol. 43,” 1884

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