Past Treasure of the Month – August 2010
The Rosenberg Library Museum displayed a bowl-backed Neapolitan mandolin that originally belonged to Miss Marie Marburger as the August Treasure of the Month. Mandolins have been popularized by traditional folk music, ragtime melodies, and bluegrass. Given to the Library by Ms. Lise Darst in 1983, this mandolin was played in one of Galveston’s mandolin orchestras during the 1920s. Mandolin orchestras, popular groups for mandolin enthusiasts during the instrument’s heyday of the early 20th century, sprung up in university and cosmopolitan cities of the United States and have enjoyed great popularity in the South.
A mandolin is a musical instrument which is plucked or strummed and belongs to the lute family of instruments. It is typically constructed with a hollow wooden body, flat fretted fingerboard, floating bridge, tailpiece to which the strings are attached, and a mechanical tuning machine to accommodate either four or six pairs of metal strings. Because of its smaller size and higher pitch, the mandolin uses paired strings (as opposed to guitars which only require single strings) to provide a fuller and more continuous sound. Neapolitan mandolins evolved in Naples, Italy from the mandore, a soprano lute, in the early seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They are informally called “tater bugs” in the U.S. because of their resemblance to the potato bug.
Mandolins enjoyed great popularity in Europe in the 1850s, in vogue with exotic instruments like zithers and ukuleles, but their greatest popularity emerged as Italian immigrants arrived on the east coast in the late 1800s. By 1897, Chicago-based Montgomery Ward’s catalog boasted its “phenomenal growth in mandolin trade,” while another Chicago manufacturer, Lyon and Healy, proclaimed, “At any time you can find in our factory upwards of 10,000 mandolins in various stages of construction.” Mandolin orchestras formed at schools and colleges, and mandolin ensembles toured the vaudeville circuit. Shop girls who couldn’t afford mandolins were often said to carry mandolin cases around town to give the impression they were Society Ladies trained in music.
In Galveston, mandolin orchestras first emerged in the late 1800s. Professor Tilbery of Paris placed ads in the Galveston Daily News seeking students for his Mandolin Band. The Young Ladies Mandolin Club formed in the early 1900s while the B. G. G. Mandolin Club met at the YMCA. Devour’s Mandolin Orchestra was Galveston’s largest mandolin orchestra in the 1920s. Radio station WFAA even hosted weekly recordings of The Mandolin Club in 1927.
After World War I, popularity of the mandolin waned as ragtime and jazz grabbed the attention of American audiences. The instrument remained popular in Italian communities, but it wasn’t until the emergence of bluegrass after World War II that the mandolin was revived. Today, mandolins are still prominent instruments in the bluegrass sound, including the growing newgrass movement with notable artists such as Nickel Creek and Leon Russell of ZZ Top. The mandolin has also been adopted by all forms of rock music since the 1960s. Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones performed mandolin on many of Led Zeppelin’s songs; David Grisman of the Grateful Dead played mandolin on two of the band’s most popular songs, “Friend of the Devil” and “Ripple,” making mandolin a favorite of later jam bands like Phish, The String Cheese Incident, and the Dave Matthews Band. Jethro Tull, Rod Stewart, Yes, and The Band were all fans of the mandolin’s sound. Most recently, today’s bands like The White Stripes, R.E.M., The Black Crowes, Muse, Flogging Molly, and even Green Day are all frequent fans of this treasured instrument.