50 STATES OF FOLK: The Mandolin’s Ellis Island Journey to the All-American Sound
Photo by Hans Kelerhuis via Pixabay
Nowadays, the mandolin is inexorably linked in the American popular consciousness to roots music. It’s so deeply tied to the genre, it’s even the butt of a joke about pandering to stereotypes in country music.
But it wasn’t always this way. The mandolin was an immigrant whose wonderful and unique talents eventually adapted to fit its new environment, leading to something altogether original and completely American.
The Mandolin Comes to America
Despite being a descendant of some of the earliest musical instruments in human history, the mandolin came to America a little late in the game. Unlike the fiddle and the banjo, which came over with the earliest European immigrants and stolen African slave populations in the early 1600s, the mandolin and its relatives made their entry to American life in the mid-1800s with the first wave of substantial immigration from eastern and southern Europe. This was a time of prosperity in the States, leading to the creation of a leisured middle class in urban areas. Members of this class — now suffering from an abundance of free time — took it upon themselves to explore the curiosities that first-generation immigrants brought with them from Europe and beyond, including the Neapolitan bowlback mandolin.
The bowlback mandolin isn’t exactly a convenient instrument. It’s quiet, so it doesn’t play well with other instruments or ambient noise. It’s bulky, making it hard to ship and awkward to play. But it has a unique sound that people at the time appreciated. So while it didn’t spread far beyond parlor parties in the Upper East Side, it still had begun to dig roots into the American popular sound, with mandolin being among the first instruments to be recorded on Edison cylinders in the 1890s.
But everything changed when The Spanish Students came to town. This 20-piece bandurria ensemble originally took off in Europe, then traveled to the States to play to wildly enthusiastic crowds in urban centers like Boston and Manhattan. Now, the bandurria may look like a mandolin, but in actuality it exists on a separate evolutionary branch in the lute family — native to Spain rather than Italy, it brandishes 6 pairs of strings tuned in fourths compared to the mandolin’s 4 pairs tuned to fifths.
The Spanish Students’ success led to many spin-off groups who imitated their style. Italian immigrants in New York saw their opportunity and took it. No one knew what a bandurria was, but hell, no one really knew what a mandolin was, either. A new wave of knock-off “Spanish Students,” mostly composed of Italian immigrants, began performing in the same musical style and dress as the genuine Spanish Students, but playing on their Neapolitan bowlback mandolins instead. As these groups began touring throughout the States, interest continued to grow in mandolins and this new format of student performing groups. Combined, this led to the mandolin craze of the early 1900s — resulting in hundreds of mandolin orchestras on college campuses and in cities across the US.
Mail-Order Catalogs and the Democratization of a Craze
As the mandolin orchestra craze came into its own, so too did demand for mandolins. Increased demand for this Italian novelty led stores to include them in their mail-order catalogs, which led to even more demand. Not only did these catalogs spread awareness and interest in the mandolin, as the instrument became accessible to people in remote communities who wouldn’t otherwise have seen or heard of a mandolin, but the mail-order trend also led to one important change to the design of the mandolin: cutting off the bowl back. Where the original Neapolitan mandolins were bulky and awkward to both ship and play, the new flat-back mandolins were not. Making the mandolin sit flush in a box for shipping made them that much easier for beginners to pick up and play.
And this is where Orville H. Gibson makes his entrance.
The Grass is Blue
Born in 1856, Orville Gibson grew up in upstate New York, about an hour south of Montreal. He would later settle in Kalamazoo, Michigan, in 1890. It was there that he would go on to tinker in instrument making, which would eventually lead him to file his first and only patent in 1896. His invention? The archtop mandolin.
If you’re reading this from the United States, the archtop mandolin is probably what you’d think of as simply “the mandolin.” Gibson’s theory was that the Neapolitan-style bowlback mandolins did not have “that degree of sensitive resonance and vibratory action necessary to produce the power and quality of tone” that he thought a mandolin could. His design, rather, was inspired by the carved and arched bodies of violins. The result was something entirely new. According to Paul Sparks in his book The Classical Mandolin, these mandolins had “larger resonating chambers, longer fingerboards, and used considerably more wood in their construction than their contemporaries, all of which created a deeper, more guitar-like tone, with a punchy, powerful attack, but with fewer high harmonics and less brilliance”. This initial patented design was later fine-tuned by several young men who worked at the Gibson company, most particularly Lloyd Loar, who incorporated many features of violin construction to eventually create the F5 “Master Model” Gibson mandolin. The F5 is now widely considered to be the gold standard of American mandolin design.
In fact, it was this punchy sound that would bring the mandolin back from its decline. As World War I kicked into full gear, the popularity of frivolous ventures like parlor music and mandolin orchestras began to wane. The mandolin, nearly ubiquitous in the United States for two decades, seemed poised to fade into obscurity were it not for two things: the popularization of the radio and Bill Monroe.
Like many old-time and brother duos at the time, the Monroe Brothers featured a mandolin in concert with a guitar, accompanying sweet vocal melodies. But what made Bill Monroe’s style different than most was that he wasn’t using the mandolin in the relaxed, sweet tremolo style popularized by the Italian-inspired instructional handbooks so often included in mail-order mandolin cases. Rather, he would play intricate and fast streams of notes, bringing a power and urgency to songs that had previously been heard only in the context of barn dances and friendly porch picks. Combined with his signature “chop” rhythmic style, Monroe created something magnetic and new. It was music designed for listening, meant to be played on the radio, not to be danced to.
Today, the mandolin holds an esteemed place in country music, particularly bluegrass. Bill Monroe’s “chop” rhythm is the backbone upon which the entire genre of bluegrass rests. Many new evolutions have come into their own since then, with modern pickers playing even more intricate and rapid riffs than Monroe could have ever dreamed of. Nowadays, the world’s most famous (and arguably best) mandolin player, Chris Thile, has made a passion project out of hopping between and combining bluegrass-style mandolin with classical techniques and phrasing, bringing the whole evolution from Renaissance lute to Appalachian mountain music full circle.
He makes his home in Brooklyn, New York.
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For a sampling of the wide range of mandolin music out there, throughout history and in the modern era, check out this month’s 50 States of Folk playlist!