The Mandolin in Irish Music in the beginning: Andy Irvine and Sweeney’s Men 

Fretted stringed instruments were slowly introduced to traditional Irish music throughout the 20th century, the banjo in the 1920’s and the guitar in the 1930’s.  The mandolin, and about the same time the bouzouki, were introduced in the 1960’s, when traditional folk music of the British Isles became popular.  Irish fiddle tunes were easily adaptable to the mandolin as both instruments were tuned and strung the same.
Andy Irvine was one of the first musicians to incorporate the mandolin in traditional Irish music.  Born in 1942 in London, England to an Irish mother and Scottish father, Irvine was at first a child actor on stage, films and television (he had a scene in “Room at the Top” that was left on the cutting room floor).  At 16, he began studying classical guitar (he had a guitar given to him by Peter Sellers, with whom he worked on stage), then became interested in skiffle music and the music of Woody Guthrie.  Guthrie was still alive then, though barely, as he was in the hospital incapacitated by Hodgkin’s disease.  Irvine’s devotion to Guthrie’s music led him to adopt the instruments Guthrie played, including guitar, harmonica, and mandolin.
In 1966, Irvine teamed with Johnny Moynihan (who played Greek bouzouki) and Joe Dolan to form Sweeney’s Men.  The name was taken from the character of King Sweeney in Flann O’Brien’s comic novel “At Swim Two Birds.”  Sweeney, an anti-religious pagan, is cursed for “throwing a pushy cleric’s bell into the water.”  Sweeney’s Men initially toured with Irish showbands, and released a single with “Old Maid in the Garret” on the A side.  Joe Dolan left the group in 1967 to go to Israel to take part in the Six Day War, “arriving there on the seventh day.”  Dolan was replaced by Terry Woods, who played twelve-string guitar.  Their first eponymous album was released in 1968.  The album was all traditional music, including “Willy O’Winsbury,” “Reynard the Fox,” “The House Carpenter,” and “Tom Dooley,” the latter with all the explicit references the Kingston Trio left out in their version.  Irvine left Sweeney’s Men after the first album to go travelling with his girlfriend to the Balkans.  Sweeney’s Men, with just Moynihan and Woods, released a second album, this one featuring some original material by Woods along with traditional tunes.  Sweeney’s Men shortly after that disbanded.
Irvine continued to perform both as a soloist and with bands such as Planxty, the Silly Sisters (June Tabor and Maddy Prior), Patrick Street, Mozaik, and as a duo with Paul Brady.  In 2012 (as part of his 70th birthday concert tour) and 2015, Irvine reunited with Sweeney’s Men.  Irvine is currently booked through June 2017 to play Ireland and parts of Europe.
Sources:
http://www.andyirvine.com
O’Toole, Leagues (2006).  “The Humours of Planxty.”  Ireland:  Hodder Headline
Dundalk Institute of Technology, “The role of the mandolin in Irish traditional music.”  www.dkit.ie

The Springfield Mandolin Orchestra is always looking for new members.  If you play mandolin, or any other instrument in the mandolin family, and can read music, you are welcome to join.  Please visit the Web site http://mandolinorchestra.org for more information.
The Springfield Mandolin Orchestra is a 501(c) 3 non-profit dedicated to providing educational performances and events throughout the Metro Springfield area.

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C.W. Hutchins of Springfield, MA: Contractor for the Merrill Aluminum Mandolin 


What is the benefit of a stringed instrument made of aluminum?  It’s more durable than wood certainly (and saves trees!)  A mandolin bowl can contain as much as 64 strips of wood, stress-bent per custom of traditional mandolin making.  An aluminum bowl can be cast in one piece, saving time in manufacturing, and no doubt cost.  Aluminum was the late 19th century’s “wonder material” in industry.  First discovered in 1820, aluminum was considered rare and extremely expensive to extract from ore.  An American patent for a cheap method of extracting aluminum was granted in 1886.  That same year, instrument maker turned entrepreneur Neil Merrill began experimenting with making stringed instruments from aluminum.  His instruments were actually hybrid wood and aluminum, the necks and tops made of spruce wood, the bodies aluminum, and were welded together rather than glued.

Merrill formed The Aluminum Musical Instrument Company in 1894, first located in Philadelphia, PA, then moving to New York City.  It sold mandolins, guitars, banjos, and zithers made of aluminum.  Although not a New England-based mandolin company, Merrill contracted the bodies for mandolins and guitars from the Hutchins Manufacturing Company of Springfield, MA.

The Hutchins Manufacturing Company was formed in 1896.  Ten years before forming the company, Charles W. Hutchins, born in Greenfield, MA in 1860, made band instruments from aluminum, plus other non-musical items.  Hutchins was granted a Canadian patent in 1897 for an aluminum mandolin, and a U.S. patent for an aluminum tailpiece and guard.  

It was believed that Merrill, whose name graced the instruments sold from the Aluminum Musical Instrument Company, did not have his own factory but contracted manufacturing to others.  While Hutchins provided the bodies, the necks and heads were provided by the Barrows Music Company of Saginaw, MI, and Erland Anderberg of Mount Vernon, NY.  Merrill ran into trouble over non-payment of contract work.  He was first sued by Barrows in 1896, for non-payment on an 1895 contract to put heads and necks on 500 instruments.  In 1898, Anderberg entered attachment proceedings against the Aluminum Musical Company for similar complaints.  The Aluminum Musical Instrument Company was sold at auction that year to pay off debts.  Two years later, in 1900 a travelling piano salesman named Neil Merrill was sought by authorities for falsely advertising used pianos he was selling as new.  It is uncertain if it was the same Neil Merrill of aluminum instrument fame.

In 1903, Hutchins Manufacturing Company merged with the Fletcher Aluminum Company as the Fletcher Novelty Aluminum Company for making specialty signs and advertising.  Hutchins was officially dissolved as a company in 1907.  Charles Hutchins died in Springfield in 1926.

Sources:

http://www.horn-u-copia.net

http://www.mugwumps.com (extract from an unpublished book, “Encyclopedia of American Instrument Makers” by Michael I. Holmes, copyright 1997)

http://www.oddfrets.com

http://www.kaybassrepait.com
The Springfield Mandolin Orchestra is always looking for new members.  If you play mandolin, or any other instrument in the mandolin family, and can read music, you are welcome to join.  Please visit the Web site http://mandolinorchestra.org for more information.

The Springfield Mandolin Orchestra is a 501(c) 3 non-profit dedicated to providing educational performances and events throughout the Metro Springfield area.

Rigel Mandolins 

Photo credit: http://www.jazzmando.com

It is the Vermont maple that makes the Rigel mandolin what it is.  Not just the material, but the building technique developed by Cambridge, Vermont-born Pete Langdell.  A woodshop machinist by day and bluegrass musician by night, Langdell patented a method of carving the back and sides of an instrument out of a large hunk of Vermont maple.  The traditional form of mandolin making has been the bending and stressing of wood to create the sides of the instrument, and piecing those with the backs, fronts, and necks.  This often left the instrument, over time, cracked and brittle.  Langdell’s carving method not only saved time in assembly, but also created a tone that is brilliant and a strength guaranteed to last.  Chris Thiele and Jimmy Gaudreau of the Country Gentlemen are among the well-known players of Rigel mandolins.

Langdell first started instrument building (in this case rebuilding) at the age of five, when he took a ukulele his uncle gave him and restrung it as a mandolin.  In high school, he took woodshop machinery classes and got a job working at a machine shop.  His skills as a machinist aided him in his fascination with building stringed instruments.  After graduating high school, Langdell tried to balance his day job and being a touring musician with bluegrass bands.  The need to make a steady living won out, so he stopped touring professionally and remained with the machine shop.  He continued to keep his hand in music by experimenting with mandolin building and playing occasional local gigs.  By the late 1980’s, Langdell developed his first prototype of the Rigel mandolin (the name taken from a star in the Orion constellation) and brought it to bluegrass festivals to demonstrate.  Langdell began building his mandolins on a regular basis in 1990, out of a garage workshop next to his home in Jeffersonville, Vermont, working part time at the machine shop.  He received assistance from his wife Margo in marketing his mandolins, building a Web site in 1995.  By 1997, when demand for Rigel mandolins grew, Langdell formed a partnership with Peter Mix.  Rigel Instruments became incorporated in 1999, and they moved their facilities to a larger shop in Hyde Park, Vermont, with a staff of five employees.

Photo credit: http://www.jazzmando.com 

Not only did Rigel turn out its own uniquely designed mandolins, mandolas, guitars, and basses, they produced custom works inspired by classic instruments of the past.  The Vega cylinder-back mandolin and mandola are among the custom designs, since Vega discontinued the cylinder-backs in 1925.  Will Melton, of the Springfield Mandolin Orchestra, plays a custom Rigel cylinder-back mandola that he purchased from the previous owner who commissioned it.  Langdell also repaired and restored vintage instruments in his shop.
The strength, beauty, and desirability of a Rigel instrument pretty much became the downfall of Rigel as a corporation.  Producing well over 200 instruments a year, the economy in the early 2000’s made it impossible to purchase high-end musical instruments, and demand for them slowed.  The incorporated status dissolved in 2006, and Langdell went back to being a one-man shop, making custom instruments with the Rigel name and repairing/restoring instruments.  The demise of Rigel was heartbreaking for mandolinists, not to mention Langdell.  After three years, though, Rigel was revived when Langdell licensed the name to Gold Tone to produce the standard lines of Rigel mandolins.

Sources:

Pete Langdell bio
http://www.mandolincafe.com
http://www.rigelinstruments.com
http://www.vermontguides.com, May 2002
http://www.emando.com

The Vega Instrument Company – Creators of the Cylinder-back Mandolin 

Photo credit: http://www.sprucetreemusic.com

The Vega Instrument Company was established in Boston in 1881 by brothers Julius and Carl Nelson, with John Pahn and John Swenson. They previously worked for guitar maker Pehr Anderberg, who made guitars for local instrument companies such as John C. Haynes. The Nelsons bought out the other associates at Anderberg, establishing Vega as a cooperative. The company primarily made guitars and mandolins, the latter of the Neapolitan bowl-back variety.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Vega went on a merger roll, buying A.C. Fairbanks Banjos in 1904, and Thompson and Odell in 1905. They continued to produce banjos under the name A.C. Fairbanks by Vega, then as Vega. Vega also ventured into brass instruments and purchased Standard Band Instrument Company in 1909.

In 1913, Vega took a creative turn in the production of mandolins. It introduced a “compromise” between the bowl-back and the Gibson-introduced flat-backs – the cylinder-back mandolin. The cylinder also applied to the other mandolin family instruments, and there was a limited number of cylinder-backed guitars produced. David L. Day, chief acoustical designer with Anderberg turned general manager at Vega, developed the cylinder and had it patented in 1913. The cylinder was found to increase the internal volume of the instrument. After the decline of mandolin production in the 1920’s, Vega focused on producing high-quality arch top guitars in the 1930’s.

Photo credit: http://www.musicemporeum.com

By the 1940’s and 1950’s, the overall quality of Vega instruments declined. It’s most notable instrument at the time was the long-necked banjo, which Pete Seeger played, as we as other musicians of the 1960’s folk revival. C.F. Martin purchased Vega in the 1970’s to capitalize on the popularity of its banjos. Martin licensed the Vega name to various American and international instrument makers, until Deering Banjos bought up the Vega name in 1989. To this day, Deering produces a line of Vega banjos.

The Vega name continued to appear on mandolins up to the 1980’s, until Deering Banjos acquired it. The mandolins were mostly low-end instruments made in Japan. One such instrument that is currently listed on Reverb.com is a metallic-looking Gray burst A-style mandolin with an asking price of $145.  There are, however, many vintage Vega mandolins listed. The instruments  include at least four banjolins, a mandolin and lute mandolin with cylinder backs, and vintage bowl and flat backs. The cylinder backs have asking prices in the early $1,000’s. It is not known if any other instrument maker has made, or attempted to make, an instrument with this unique design feature since Vega discontinued them in 1925.

Sources:

Ayars, Christine Merrick. “Contributions to the Art of Music in America by the Music Industries of Boston, 1640 to 1936.” H.W. Wilson, 1937.

http://www.mugwumps.com

http://www.4stringbanjos.com

http://www.reverb.com

Thompson and Odell, Publisher and Instrument Manufacturers 

Photo credit: http://www.picclick.co.uk

Ira H. Odell started up a music publishing  company and music store, in partnership with Charles W. Thompson, sometime between 1872 and 1874 (different accounts vary), in Boston, Massachusetts. Ira’s son, future mandolin pioneer Herbert Forrest Odell, was an infant around the time of the business’ establishment. Thompson and Odell were originally in partnership with another man by the name of Woods, and their business was located at 121 Court Street. By the time they moved their business to 578 Washington Street, Woods had departed. They published tutorials and sheet music for piano, fretted instruments, brass band and orchestra.

Thompson and Odell began manufacturing instruments in 1888, beginning with mandolins and guitars, later adding banjos.  The Artist was the brand name of the fretted instruments. Their mandolins were the Neapolitan styled bowl back, later given the demeaning name of “tater bug” after the Gibson flat backs were introduced. The company was also the “ghost manufacturer” of J.F. Luscomb banjos. Charles Stromberg, a Swedish immigrant, was employed at Thompson and Odell and, a year after Thompson and Odell’s dissolution, started up his own line of banjos.

Thompson and Odell was incorporated in 1891, but a year later Odell left the business. The company gradually ceased publication, and around or prior to 1900 Carl Fischer bought up their catalog of publications. Thompson died in 1903, and about two years later the company filed for bankruptcy. Vega bought up the fretted instruments arm of the company in 1905 and carried on the Artist brand of instruments. That very year, H.F. Odell started his own music publishing company and his own trade journal, Crescendo, also bought up by Vega after his death. 
Sources:

Ayars, Christine Merrick. “Contributions to the Art of Music in America by the Music Industries of Boston, 1640 to 1936.” H.W. Wilson, 1937.

http://www.mugwumps.com

http://www.4stringbanjos.com

The Pizzitola Strummers; Keeping the Mandolin (and other fretted instruments) alive in the jazz era

​A November 1941 article in Etude magazine by George C. Krick (“The Future of Fretted Instruments”) declared that interest in the mandolin, banjo, and guitar was alive and well despite the popular belief that those instruments were “dead” and “on their way out.” Krick cited the many urban areas that had instructors of fretted instruments. These instructors included Albert Bellson, Chester W. Gould, and A.E. Patton. He also cited a Holyoke, MA-based teacher and musician, Joseph Pizzitola, who he praised as directing “one of the best mandolin orchestras we have been privileged to hear, and he deserves great credit for keeping the mandolin before the public.”(1)

For the greater part of the 20th century, Pizzitola ran his own music school on the second floor of 81 Suffolk Street in Holyoke, which was above the former Victory Theater. Pizzitola taught mandolin, banjo, guitar, and accordion. He employed other instructors, who included luthier Frank Lucchesi, accordionist Marian Kelly, and bandleader Bob Ezold. Pizzitola was a licensed agent/instructor for Gibson, and he served as president (years unspecified) of the American Guild of Banjoists, Mandolinists, and Guitarists (AGBMG). 

Pizzitola formed a professional ensemble of his advanced students and named them the Pizzitola Strummers. The Strummers played concerts in the Pioneer Valley and beyond, including town halls and Masonic lodges. They appeared on Boston’s WBZ radio as far back as 1927 and 1928. Anywhere in the country where the radio signal could be picked up, the Pizzitola Strummers could be heard, as newspapers such as the Detroit Free Press and Reading (PA) Times listed long-distance radio station programming. The Strummers especially played the AGBMG conferences. For two years in a row (1930-31), the banjo-heavy ensemble won first prize for Best Banjo Group. (2)

By the 1940’s, the accordion was incorporated into the ensemble, therefore, they were renamed the Pizzitola Plectro-Accordion Symphony Orchestra. The orchestra continued to perform throughout the Valley and upstate New York.  They made their television debut in 1957 on the defunct Springfield Channel 55 with their own bi-weekly program. (3)  Pizzitola’s reputation as an accordion instructor superseded that as a stringed instrument instructor, as more accordions joined the orchestra.  Interest inPizz stringed instruments resumed in the 1960’s, and Bob Ezold was one of the instructors to go to for guitar, banjo, and mandolin.  New Orleans-based musician Spider Murphy, who grew up in Holyoke and later graduated from the Berklee School of Music, studied all three instruments under Pizzitola and Ezold, beginning in 1963 when he was six years old.  Spider’s father and three of his aunts took lessons with Pizzitola 40 years earlier. (4)

The Pizzitola Music Studio became incorporated in 1963, and it opened studios in Springfield and Northampton. The incorporated status was dissolved in 1978, sometime after Pizzitola’s death. Ezold, after Pizzitola’s death, kept the strummer tradition going by forming the Valley Strummers. The Strummers are still performing to this day under the direction of Ezold’s son, Bob Jr., and regularly perform at the Holyoke Senior Center. 

(1) Krick, George C. “The Future of Fretted Instruments.” Etude, November 1941.

(2) http://www.mandoisland.de

(3) Berkshire Eagle Tribune, January 30, 1957.

(4) http://www.spidermurphy.net

H.F. Odell, Boston Mandolin Pioneer 

Photo credit: http://www.mandoisland.de

Herbert Forrest Odell (1872-1926) was prodigious not only as a mandolinist and teacher, but also as a composer, arranger, and publisher. The son of Ira H. Odell,  musician, conductor, and instrument maker, H.F. Odell originally studied violin, piano, organ and voice. He discovered the mandolin in 1893, and two years later traveled to Paris to study with mandolin virtuoso Jean Pietrapertosa. (1) He returned to Boston to teach mandolin and play with the Boston Opera Company orchestra. He later formed the 60-piece Langham Orchestra, which was renamed the Odell Orchestra. (2)

Odell’s compositions include pieces for mandolin, guitar, banjo and mandolin orchestra, as well as ragtime piano songs and comic operas. (3)  Three of his orchestral compositions, “Laughing Eyes,” “Gallantry,” and “My Heart at Thy Sweet Voice,” appear on the Nashville Mandolin Ensemble’s 1998 recording, “All the Rage: Mandolin Ensemble Music from 1897-1924.” Odell also arranged other composers’ music for mandolin orchestra. He adapted Enrique Granados’ “12 Dances for Piano” for mandolin orchestra.

Odell began a music publishing company in 1905, which operated out of 165 Tremont Street in Boston, Massachusetts.  He also started a music trade journal, Crescendo, which was published from 1905 to 1925, when it was bought up by Vega.  His books include, “The Mandolin Orchestra” (1913), a guide for forming, managing, and playing in a mandolin orchestra, and the Odell Method for the Mandolin, Volume 1-4. The Odell method is still used to this day in Japan. (4)

Photo credit: http://www.musicaneo.com 

H.F. Odell, having never married, lived with his parents almost his entire life.  He was outlived by both of them when he died in a nursing facility in Brookline, Massachusetts in 1926. (5)

(1) Noonan, Jeffrey. “The Guitar in America: Victorian Era to Jazz Age.” Scarecrow Press, 2008.

(2) composers-classical-music.com

(3) Noonan 

(4) http://www.musicaneo.com

(5) composers-classical-music.com