Instruments and Instrumentalists in
The Girl’s Own Paper

Part One: The Banjo

Although not a music journal, The Girl’s Own Paper (TGOP), published in London by the Religious Tract Society beginning on 3 January 1880, clearly considered music a worthy topic, which readers encountered in music scores, fiction, nonfiction, poetry, illustrations and replies to musical correspondents. Music in The Girl’s Own Paper: An Annotated Catalogue, 1880 – 1910 lists the many musical references found in the magazine.

During TGOP’s first decade, ‘how to’ primers on playing musical instruments appeared, from singing a song in Volume 1 to playing the zither in Volume 10. Piano, violin, organ, harmonium, harp, guitar, concertina, mandolin, banjo and xylophone rounded out the list. Of all the primers, only those for singing, pianoforte and violin appeared more than once, suggesting that these were the preferred forms of music making to which TGOP readers should or did aspire. This blog and the next focus on two very different instruments the banjo and the organ to show how TGOP chose to educate and entertain its readers about them.

That readers were interested in the banjo is evident in the magazine’s replies to correspondents’ questions about the instrument. Before the primer on how to play the banjo appeared in 1889, three correspondents had asked about the instrument, though their actual questions were not printed. The magazine’s editor told Maria Orford, who likely was choosing between the banjo and the mandolin, that the latter would be more suitable, because the banjo ‘is scarcely a nice instrument for a girl’. [Volume 6] * W.F.C. received a more neutral reply – she could apply at any music shop for banjo music. [Volume 6] Dinah, whose means were limited, hoped to find a banjo for ten shillings; the editor hoped a music shop might could help her. [Volume 8]

Just because the primer ‘How to Play the Banjo’ by Frank Mott Harrison appeared in Volume 10 does not mean that TGOP gave its stamp of approval to the instrument. To Harrison the instrument was essentially for amusement rather than serious playing, with limited music of a calibre higher than ‘marches, breakdowns, and jigs’. [p. 134] He did not discourage young women from taking up the banjo, however, if their tastes matched the repertoire available for the instrument. The magazine’s editor, however, did. For him, it was a matter of the banjo’s suitability.

When in 1892 correspondent Grateful Reader sought the editor’s advice about choosing an instrument among the banjo, guitar, concertina and organ-accordion, she was told, ‘Neither the banjo nor the guitar is by any means suitable for leading sacred music at a mission meeting. You might as well play the bones like a Christy Minstrel! A concertina or organ-accordion would be very suitable for such a purpose, and more easily learnt.’ [Volume 13] By 1895, however, the editor had rethought the instrument’s suitability and simply advised Helen of Troy, ‘We see no reason why you should not learn the banjo, provided your mother approves.’ [Volume 17]

Over the years, several correspondents – Martha, Madcap, Flora, Edythe, A.A.C., Would-Be Musician, Kerry – asked questions about the banjo and its music. The instrument’s popularity among readers was reflected in the illustration ‘The Banjo Enthusiast’ printed on the Answers to Correspondents page of 20 February 1892, shown below. [Volume 13] It must have taken some moxie for correspondent Wee-One from British Guinea to make her unknown request in 1894. The editor replied: ‘We have not got any kind of banjo, nor can we give you a practical demonstration of what you want to know; so you had better go to a shop for musical instruments and see for yourself. We are sorry we cannot assist you.’ [Volume 15] Nor could the editor assist correspondent Snowdrop a few weekly issues later, whose questions about prices of instruments, including the banjo, and costs for lessons could not be answered in the magazine. He advised her, ‘You should attend to your spelling, which is of more consequence than accomplishments.’ [Volume 15]

‘A Banjo Enthusiast’,The Girl’s Own Paper Vol. 13, p. 336 (Lutterworth Press)

The banjo makes occasional cameo appearances in TGOP fiction. In ‘Nobody’s Holiday; or, An August and September Spent in Good Company’, in the 1889 extra summer issue Rosemary, Hester Grey hears a ‘pandemonium of discords’ in the music making of lodgers, one of whom is learning to play the banjo. [Volume 10, pp. 42–4] Camilla Blake, in ‘A Chameleon’ by Alice Macdonald, finds the piano ‘awfully slow’, drops it and takes up the banjo instead. [Volume 13, p. 247] In ‘Our Café Chantant’ by M.F.T. in the Extra Summer Part of 1901, Rose Amberly agrees to sing and play the banjo for a variety entertainment organized to assist Silas Burns whose cottage burned down. [Volume 22]

In Sarah Doudney’s 1902 ‘Silent Strings’, the banjo player is a young man. When their father dies, the four Wilmer siblings have to split up the family. Brother Drew’s solution to raise their spirits is to sing a tune with a rousing chorus, which he accompanies on his banjo. After this last song, however, Drew leaves the banjo behind. The instrument’s silent strings are a metaphor for the silent strings in many lives that are, as sister Kate muses, ‘full of music that has never been called out of them’. [Volume 23, pp. 30–31]

Like Drew, who left his banjo behind when he left his siblings, after ‘Silent Strings’ appeared, TGOP left the banjo behind. Content about the organ and organists, which was more conspicuous in the magazine, had a longer life and is the subject of the next blog.

* Complete citations may be found in Judith Barger, Music in The Girl’s Own Paper: An Annotated Catalogue, 1880 – 1910 (Routledge, 2017).


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