Mandolins before Bill Monroe
Aspen Times Weekly
My favorite family heirloom is a bowl-back mandolin made by Lyon and Healy of Chicago. Its graceful curves and decorations inlaid in alternating wood strips sat atop my mother’s piano all through my childhood. Mother never played it. The piano was her instrument. It belonged to her uncle, Bill Sheehan, a member of the Aspen High School Mandolin Club of the early 1900s. By the time I was 10, the mandolin was relegated to the back of a closet. Two decades later, ownership passed to me, only to repeat cycles of unplayed display and storage.
Aspen’s current mandolin aficionados have their favorites: Sam Bush, David Grisman and Chris Thile. They revitalized the instrument’s popularity by employing it in various genres of music. Most would recognize a mandolin’s crisp upper-octave play in bluegrass music. No reputable bluegrass band has entertained without a “mando” player since Bill Monroe’s musicianship the late 1940s. Monroe’s musical background met an improved instrument. Applying a top-curved violin-style body, the Gibson Company created the F-hole mandolin, known as the F5, the mandolin in its final iteration.
A couple of generations before Bill Monroe, the mandolin entered a brief period of popularity, one that took Aspen by storm. From around 1905 through 1910 everyone wanted to play the mandolin, especially teens that learned to play in the Aspen High School Mandolin Club.
Two local stores carried the instrument, McKee Jewelers and the Cooper Book and Stationery Company. Cooper’s also sold sheet music. Before radio, when widespread use of Victrolas was just being introduced, popular tunes spread through sheet music. Tunes played mostly by amateurs entertained social gatherings in parlors, churches and assembly halls.
Mandolins of 1910 dominated teen music as guitars do today. If the offerings of McKee’s or Cooper’s didn’t satisfy, then you could mail-order one from Sears. Manufacturers like Lyon and Healy and the Martin Company perfected models that were affordable for middle class families.
College glee clubs often featured accompaniment from mandolins. A glee club from Colorado University performed often in Aspen. Several “older” Aspen musicians mastered the instrument and played at community musical events, usually in combination with piano and violin. The high school club was the most popular. There was also an eighth-grade club and one at St. Mary’s School. The high school club played often at the Wheeler and was featured in the 1908 Memorial Day Program of the Presbyterian Church. They even performed at the Methodist Church’s Anti-Cigarette League event. The eighth grade club performed for Arbor Day in 1906. A mandolin quartet performed at a Baptist church to raise money to buy an organ.
There was more to the popularity of the mandolin than the fun that the fad attracted with such a strange-looking instrument. The mandolin enabled amateurs to enjoy the rhythms of another fad of that decade – ragtime.
I may not coax live tunes from my bowl-back mandolin, but it echoes with legends of post-World War I teenage merriment as I dust the musical heirloom.
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