George C. Dobson

  • Writing a biography of George Clifton Dobson is complicated by the fact that George Clifton Dobson, banjo player, teacher, and manufacturer, had a nephew named George Clifton Dobson, who was also a banjo player, teacher, and manufacturer [1]. Thus this biographical sketch may contain errors as a result of inadvertent conflation of the uncle and the nephew. 
  • Hamilton's collection includes three books by the elder George Clifton Dobson, about whom this biography is written [2]. A fourth book, however, is co-written by "Henry C. Dobson and G. Clifton Dobson," and here G. Clifton Dobson is probably the son of Henry C. Dobson, judging by the illustrated portraits on the cover [3].
  • George Clifton Dobson (1842-1890) was born in Williamsburg, Brooklyn [4], the third of what would be five Dobson brothers (oldest to youngest: Henry Clay, Charles Edgar, George Clifton, Frank Prescott, and Edward Clarenson). Together they would have an immense impact on the banjo world of the later nineteenth century. George became a famous banjo player and teacher, as well as a manufacturer of banjos. A puff piece in his "Victor" Banjo Manual claims, "To [George] more than to any other individual...is due the wide-spread popularity of the banjo in all circles of society" [5].
  • George and his brothers attended minstrel shows as children [6], which perhaps explains why "the banjo was the instrument to which [George's] attention was first attracted in a marked degree" [7].
  • In 1863 and 1868, George and his brother Charles ran a banjo-making firm called Dobson Brothers [8].
  • On December 5, 1864, George and his brothers Henry and Charles gave the first banjo concert to be held in New York City [9].
  • George was definitely teaching banjo in New York City by 1860 [10], though in 1864 he claimed he'd been teaching since 1858 [11] and in 1866 claimed he had been teaching since 1853 [12]. He taught in Philadelphia after teaching in New York [13], but then moved to Boston in 1870 [14].
  • One of George Dobson's pupils was Lotta Crabtree [15], a famous comedian and actress.  She popularized the banjo with New Yorkers, especially society women, via roles such as the Marchioness in John Brougham's Little Nell and the Marchioness, a musical and theatrical adaptation of Charles Dickens's novel The Old Curiosity Shop [16].
  • George also taught William A. Cole [17], who later partnered with Albert C. Fairbanks to form a famous banjo manufacturing firm [18].
  • S. S. Stewart, a big name in late nineteenth-century manufacturing who was a staunch supporter of the banjo and its "elevation," may have been yet another famous pupil of Dobson's, starting in 1872 at Philadelphia [19]. Two other sources claim that Dobson stayed in Boston after 1870 [20], though it is of course entirely possible that the claim is not strictly literal. George himself, however, did state that he "had no business connections with any other entertainment, and should not be confounded with other persons bearing the same name" [21].
  • Whatever Stewart's relationship to (this) George Dobson, Stewart loathed the simplified method that Dobson advocated in his book Geo. C. Dobson's Simplified Method and Thorough School for the Banjo, Two Books in One, first published in 1874. Stewart often vilified the simple method in his Banjo & Guitar Journal, ranting in one issue, "The so-called 'simple method' is a sham and always was. When you attempt to apply such rubbish to the principles of music you get into the quicksands of ignorance and will stay there forever. Wherever you find a 'simple method' player, you find an ignorant gawk, incapable of playing anything correctly, and incapable of making any advancement" [22].
  • Though Dobson sold lines of banjos under his name, Albert Baur accused Dobson (as well as Frank Converse) of having these banjos manufactured by J. H. Buckbee [23], operator of a large factory in New York City [24].
  • In 1888, banjoist P. C. Shortis cited George Dobson as a well-known solo banjoist, one who played "every style of music on the banjo" [25].

     [1] Nancy Groce, Musical Instrument Makers of New York: A Directory of Eighteenth- and Nineteeth-Century Urban Craftsmen, Annotated Reference Tools in Music, no. 4 (Stuyvesant, NY: Pendragon, 1991), 42-43.

     [2] George C. Dobson, Geo. C. Dobson's Simplified Method and Thorough School for the Banjo, Two Books in One, new and revised ed. (Boston: Ditson, c1874 [1879?]); George C. Dobson, Geo. C. Dobson's World's Banjo Guide (Boston: White-Smith, 1890); George C. Dobson, George C. Dobson's "Victor" Banjo Manual: Containing the Principles of Music, Examples, Studies, Gamuts, Diagrams and Cuts Illustrating the Positions, together with All of the Author's Original Compositions (Boston: White, Smith, 1887).

     [3] Henry C. Dobson and G. Clifton Dobson, Dobson's Universal Banjo Instructor: Containing a Complete Elementary Course, and a Great Variety of Reels, Jigs, Hornpipes, Walk-Rounds, Waltzes, Polkas, Schottisches, Marches, and a Number of the Most Popular Songs of the Day (Boston: Oliver Ditson, 1882). Henry C. Dobson was born in 1832, and his brother George was born in 1842. The portraits on the front cover give the impression that their subjects have much more than ten years' difference. It is just as likely that father and son would collaborate on a book as brothers would. Indeed, father and son seem to have shared a teaching facility at some point, while the elder George Dobson was in Boston. See, for example, New York Herald, January 18, 1880, accessed June 12, 2011, America's Historical Newspapers, 4.

     [4] Groce, Musical Instrument Makers, 42.

     [5] The Folio, February 1886, quoted in George C. Dobson, "Sketch of George C. Dobson, the Author," George C. Dobson's "Victor" Banjo Manual: Containing the Principles of Music, Examples, Studies, Gamuts, Diagrams and Cuts Illustrating the Positions, together with All of the Author's Original Compositions (Boston: White, Smith, 1887), 2.

     [6] Philip F. Gura and James F. Bollman, America's Instrument: The Banjo in the Nineteenth Century (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999), 108.

     [7] The Folio, February 1886.

     [8] Groce, Musical Instrument Makers, 43. Groce notes that Dobson Brothers is not to be confused with Dobson & Brother, which in 1861 consisted of Charles and Franklin Dobson, and in 1865 of Charles & Henry Dobson (43).

     [9] New York Herald-Tribune, published as New York Daily Tribune, December 5, 1864, accessed June 9, 2011, America's Historical Newspapers, 5.

     [10] New York Herald, March 10, 1860, accessed June 7, 2011, America's Historical Newspapers, 11.

     [11] New York Herald, March 13, 1864, accessed June 9, 2011, America's Historical Newspapers, 7.

     [12] Public Ledger (Philadelphia, PA), July 30, 1866, accessed June 9, 2011, America's Historical Newspapers, 3.

     [13] Ibid.

     [14] The Folio, February 1886.

     [15] Ibid. A number of the Dobson brothers claimed Lotta as their pupil; it is difficult to tell whether she took lessons from multiple teachers or if some were stretching the truth.

     [16] Irene Forsyth Comer, "Lotta Crabtree and John Brougham: Collaborating Pioneers in the Development of American Musical Comedy," in Musical Theatre in America: Papers and Proceedings of the Conference on the Musical Theatre in America, edited by Glenn Loney, 99-110 (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1984), 99. Lotta in fact had a double role, playing both Little Nell and the Marchioness, though only the latter character played banjo, and it was the Marchioness role that Lotta became famous for. Comer, "Lotta Crabtree and John Brougham," 104-5.

     [17] Gura and Bollman, America's Instrument, 194

     [18] Two of their books are in Hamilton's collection: Albert C. Fairbanks, The Progressive International Banjo Instructor (Boston: Oliver Ditson, 1886); The First Ten Studies for the Banjo (Boston: Fairbanks and Cole, n.d. [1886?]).

     [19] Gura and Bollman, America's Instrument, 137-38.

     [20]   Sarah Meredith, "With a Banjo on Her Knee: Gender, Race, Class, and the American Classical Banjo Tradition, 1880-1915" (PhD diss., Florida State University School of Music, 2003), 128n66; The Folio, February 1886.

     [21] Meredith, "With a Banjo on Her Knee," 128n66. This statement may have been made as his nephew taught in New York City while he was in Boston. See, for example, an ad for George C. Dobson teaching banjo and guitar in New York, October 1872: New York Herald, October 11, 1872, accessed June 9, 2011, America's Historical Newspapers, 9. It is difficult to tell, however, without more information. Meredith cites [Dobson, George C.?], George C. Dobson: His Career as Concert Soloist, Author and Teacher (Boston: Alfred Mudge and Son, 1888). Said book is not readily available; it is at the Library of Congress but due to time and other limitations it could not be accessed for this project.

     [22] "Simpleton's Method," S. S. Stewart's Banjo and Guitar Journal 2, no. 9 (April-May, 1884): 2, accessed July 28, 2011, Sibley Music Library, http://hdl.handle.net/1802/2586.

     [23] Gura and Bollman, America's Instrument, 107.

     [24] Ibid., 103-5.

     [25] "A Talk with a Noted Banjo Player: The American Instrument on the Stage and in the Parlor," Evening News (San Jose, CA), January 7, 1888, accessed June 3, 2011, America's Historical Newspapers, 3.