The story of music in Cornwall is an important part of its heritage

Goonhavern Banjo Band

The Goonhavern Banjo Band provided a complete variety show with comedy, magic acts, Cornish readings, and juggling acts in addition to their signature banjo sound. - Credit: Archant

The Cornish were formally recognised as a national minority by the U.K. Government in 2014. This was an acknowledgement of Cornwall’s distinct cultural identity and set it alongside of Wales and Scotland as one of the Celtic Nations of Britain. 

The Cornish language is the flagship of our identity but there are many other strands of history and culture that contribute. The story of music in Cornwall is an important part of our heritage and it involves much more than the brass bands, choirs and traditional music normally associated with the Duchy. The Cornish National Music Archive was set up in 2020 to capture and retell this heritage and over the coming months we will explore some of their stories in this column.

John Dowling

John Dowling - Credit: Kirstin Prisk Photography 2014

Our first port of call is the enigmatic “Goonhavern Banjo Band”. Like many folk instruments the banjo has its origins in Africa, in this case a stringed instrument with a skin stretched over an empty gourd to form a resonator. In nineteenth century America it evolved to become the banjo as we know it today together with a family of variations from the 4 string ukulele banjo of George Formby to the five string bluegrass banjo and the Irish tenor banjo featured by the Dubliners. Cornish communities in America ensured that enthusiasm for the banjo travelled to families back home in Cornwall the early 20th century and we find it picked up by Cornish Guize Dancers especially for step dancing. Between the wars Fred Eplett of Goonhavern caught the banjo bug and with help from fellow enthusiasts the Goonhavern Banjo Band was formed.

As well as featuring the five string “G” banjo the band utilised a range of different banjos to emulate the instruments of a string orchestra. There were bass and cello banjos at one end of the range and banjolins at the other which were tuned like mandolins and took on the musical niche of the violin. Somewhere in the middle was the delightfully named “banjar” a six-string banjo tuned like a guitar. The bands repertoire centred on banjo arrangements of popular songs of the time augmented by classic banjo compositions like “Celtic Morn” and the “Banshee”.

Research by Tony Mansell of the Cornish National Music Archive reveals that the Goonhavern Banjo Band actually provided a complete variety show with comedy, magic acts, Cornish readings, and juggling acts in addition to their signature banjo sound. After the War the renowned Billy Moyle took over the musical directorship of the band. He was a brass bandsman who had begun his musical career in Camborne Band and went on to engage in musical roles which varied from playing piano for silent movies and leading his own dance band as well as qualifying as a music teacher. He brought a level of professionalism and performance to the Banjo Band and they attracted a large following during their heyday in the 1950s.

The world of the Goonhavern Banjo Band was one where local Cornish talent drew crowds to village halls and chapels. Tony’s research regales us with stories of the band travelling around Cornwall courtesy of Newquay Motor Company’s coaches, of narrow lanes, remote venues and getting lost. On one occasion, having managed to lose themselves in Ruan Minor, a large well-lit building looked promising as the venue they were trying to find. When Fred Eplett jumped off the bus to investigate the only audience he found was 300 chickens.

During the 1960s the Banjo Band held their own against the tide of television which brought international performers into the living room, but the era of packed village halls and chapel concerts was drawing to a close. The band gave their last concert in 1972 having had at least two generations of musicians pass through their ranks. Folk memory of the band lived on however and this was by no means the end of the story.

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Cornwall’s Lowender Peran festival started its life in Perranzabuloe, the home territory of the Goonhavern Banjo Band. There was always an idea around that the festival should stage some form of revival or re-enactment. The covid 19 emergency meant that the planned festival for 2020 had to be postponed and a series of online events organised instead. Here was the opportunity Lowender Peran had been waiting for and an online project was set up to bring together musicians from around the world to form a virtual banjo band. The project was headed up by Penzance-based John Dowling, a professional banjo player and tutor who was the first European ever to win bluegrass banjo championships in the U.S.A. The outcome was a band of some thirty people coming together with different types of banjo to recreate the sound of the Goonhavern Banjo Band nearly 50 years after they last performed!

Visit cornishnationalmusicarchive.co.uk to watch the video and learn more about the Goonhavern Banjo Band.

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