Striking a chord 

Tracing the improbable roots of the Montana Mandolin Society

Mandolins make most of us think of mountain music, not madrigals—bluegrass nights and open-air socials, not parlor music societies and tea recitals, to say nothing of Egyptian evenings and proto-hoedowns in the Fertile Crescent of Mesopotamia. But the instrument in an earlier form enjoyed a long and distinguished history before even arriving in this country. Mandolins can play mountain music, it’s true. But not just music from our mountains—they’ve played mountain music from Mount Ararat to the Italian Dolomites.

Some of the earliest cave paintings in France show people playing stringed instruments. Well, one-stringed instruments, but who’s counting? The introduction of stringed instruments and bows for playing them represented a quantum leap forward in Stone Age jam techno-logy (i.e., no more just banging one piece of wood against another piece of wood!) and cleared the path for the development of all chordophonic instruments—that is, the ones that produce sound from the vibration of strings—to follow.

The modern mandolin is a close relative of the lute, its prototype the earliest and most sophisticated forms of stringed instrument to emerge in the Near East between 4,000 and 5,000 years ago. Before the advent of fretted fingerboards and agreed-upon tunings, many early lute-like chordophones were fretless, and the player ad- justed the tone by moving the bow up and down the strings while pressing the strings to the neck of the instrument in different places. Those same early lute players also figured out how to produce a range of different sounds using not only bows, but fingers for plucking individual notes and plectra to produce sharper sounds with pieces of wood and even quills cut from eagle feathers.

Musicologists today can relive the sound of those ancient evenings by listening to the oud, a folk lute that gets its name from the Arabic word for wood, which is still played in Egypt and parts of Eurasia in the same form it has been for perhaps 1,500 years. Smaller versions of the oud, with four to six pairs of gut or silk strings and pear-shaped bodies, found their way around the Mediterranean and into Europe with maritime trade and returning crusaders, as well through the Moorish conquest of Spain that began in the eighth century. The Italians called the oud il luto, and a scaled-down version of the oud became the mandola. A smaller version of that instrument was called the mandolina.

The mandolina arrived stateside, along with waves of Italian immigrants, in the second half of the 1800s. Exotic instruments seem to have been very popular in the United States at the time—a trend that apparently began in the 1850s—with various societies devoted to the appreciation of the mandolin as well as the zither, the ukulele and similar stringed novelties. By the 1890s, it seems, the enthusiasm for stringed instruments on college campuses in the eastern and southern parts of this country was such that student clubs sprouted up like mushrooms and companies like Montgomery Ward were doing land office business in mandolin mail order. A company called Lyon & Healy boasted that, at any given time, there were more than 10,000 mandolins in various stages of completion at the company factory.

The first mandolins to reach American shores had one noticeable difference from the instrument played by the majority of mandolin enthusiasts today: Most of them retained the rounded, “bowl-backed” half-pear design of their Italian forebears, and for that were, and still are, popularly called “taterbugs.” Actually, though, these “Neapolitan-style” mandolins represent just one of perhaps a dozen different styles of mandolin that have evolved in various locations around Europe and, later, in the United States from a common lute origin. Designations like Neapolitan, Portuguese, Milanese, French, A-style, F-style and so forth all reflect regional differences in size, shape and overall design.

A-style (the letter originally stood for “Artist”) is the name commonly given to flat-backed, teardrop-shaped mandolins of the American style made since the early 1900s. The A-series was created by American instrument builder Orville Gibson, who was granted a patent for a new design in 1898 to replace the Neapolitan bowl-backed version that was the most popular at the time. To Gibson, in fact, should go the credit for coining the once-disparaging, now-affectionate nickname “taterbug” for the Neapolitan-style mandolin. Early advertisements for his flat-backed, arch-topped design compared the Neapolitan’s zaftig body to that of the Colorado potato beetle. The trim new look of Gibson’s A-series, together with his lifelong flair for ornamentation and improving on his original innovation, made flat-backed mandolins in the Gibson style the instrument of choice for stylistic innovators like Bill Monroe.

As the “Father of Bluegrass,” Monroe (1911–1996) brought the mandolin to the fore as a melodic instrument by fusing the styles of two important early mentors—his Uncle Pen, a country fiddle player, and a blues musician named Arnold Schultz—with two-part vocal harmonies. Where most mandolin players at the time (the late ‘20s and early ‘30s) made the best of a secondary rhythmic role in early country bands, Monroe reinvigorated the instrument by picking out lighting-fast cascades of plucked notes. As radio entered more American homes, so did Bill Monroe—much to the surprise of other mandolin players, who had never heard anything like Monroe’s before.

Monroe’s influence and lifetime involvement (he was musically active into his 80s) have made him a patron saint to professionals and keen amateurs alike. Many of them, it’s safe to say, know little of the instrument’s more staid history as a parlor instrument in earlier American music societies or, later, of its featured position in the mandolin orchestras of the period 1890–1923. With the mandolin’s popularity waning by the time Monroe began playing on the radio, you might also say he gave it a new lease on life.

It was even something of a happy accident that director Dennis White of the Montana Mandolin Society came across a rare group photo of an enthusiasts’ club that had existed in Bozeman almost 100 years earlier. White’s discovery of a 1902 photo of the Bozeman Mandolin and Guitar Club, a group made up of Bozeman ranchers, businessmen and college students, led to the formation of the Montana Mandolin Society in 1999. The group now performs more than 25 concerts every year, including a recent centennial re-creation concert of mandolin virtuoso Samuel Siegel’s influential 1902 visit to Bozeman. The MMS has performed at the Kennedy Center (on the recommendation of two Montana senators), and has even been invited to play Japanese dates this August: the 13th annual Kanto Mandolin Festival in Tokyo and the Kumamoto Sister City Celebration.

The group’s first CD, As Far As I Can See, gives a taste of what audiences can expect from this Saturday’s concert. In fact, parts of it probably give a pretty good indication of what a 1902 mandolin concert at the turn of last century might have sounded like. “Minuett from Die Hausmusikstunde” is a Mozart composition, one of many short pieces written to be played as evening entertainment by friends and family, and a very appropriate choice. Mozart probably didn’t see mandolin societies coming, but the convivial arrangement is probably just what he had in mind when he wrote the piece. Lovely.

“The Butterfly” is a traditional slip-jig played in mesmerizing and circular 9/8 time. “Tuscany” is one of many memorable tunes contributed by director White, a warm evocation of “balmy Italian evenings, good wine, warm bread, and conversations between friends” from a 1999 trip to that region of Italy. Beyond its marking a spiritual return to the country where the mandolin embarked on its adventures in the New World, it’s also worth keeping in mind that a piece like “Tuscany” is indebted to the Arab world for more than just the instrument it’s played on. The distinctly Italian sound of the melody is also a time-tempered permutation of the Arabic scales that came to Europe with the oud.

Other pieces, like “Evolution Rag,” sound as cozily vintage as the idea of the mandolin orchestras in which they were played. Not that it’s all white spats and straw boaters, though: The unusual inclusion of the second of French composer Erik Satie’s dissonant Gymnopédies hints at an eccentric impressionism that predated even the first Bozeman-based mandolin society. Satie (1866–1925), whose minimalist scores were peppered with odd cues like “Here comes the lantern” and “Open your head,” more so than either Mozart or Monroe would probably have been intrigued by the delightful improbability of the Montana Mandolin Society.

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