What’s Better Than a Banjo?, circa 1925

A banjo PLUS whatever that thing is:


These are Lee’s Owls, a popular dance band at Rice functions in the 1920s and I’m guessing that’s some kind of Chinese lute in front of the banjo player.

Bonus: Spotted recently in the new band hall.


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16 Responses to What’s Better Than a Banjo?, circa 1925

  1. Bill Peebles, Hanszen '70 says:

    The lute nearly died out in England during World War II because many soldiers misunderstood the standing orders to shoot looters.

  2. C Kelly says:

    In my humble opinion, any early jazz band that includes a banjo and a tuba or sousaphone is the cat’s meow. Here’s a favorite band, Bennie Moten’s Kansas City Orchestra:

  3. C Kelly says:

    Sorry to load up on these old band, but here’s another favorite, The Ted Weems Orchestra:

  4. Ron Sass says:

    The instrument in front of the banjo player is called a Ruan. It is a traditional Chinese plucked lute. It dates back about 2,000 years but is still manufactured and played. You can buy one for about $200. I like the sound of the banjo better though.

  5. marmer01 says:

    The tuba is a helicon. Smaller than a sousaphone with an upward pointing bell. The “lute” is a _ruan_, which is a traditional Chinese instrument. I suspect that the technique was similar enough to the banjo that the player could play a song or two if an exotic effect was called for. “Exotic” songs and themes, with Oriental, Indian, Arabian, or South Sea Island references were extremely popular in the 1920s. Usually with lyrics that are laughable by today’s cultural standards. The trumpet looks pretty big. Wonder if it’s a late-19th-century F trumpet? There appears to be some other small wind instrument on the floor between the sax player and the banjo player — maybe a tin whistle?

  6. Keith Cooper says:

    Four string as opposed to the five-string banjo.
    (Think strummed dixieland music as opposed to Earl Scruggs and “Foggy Mountain Breakdown”).

  7. Jeff Ross says:

    Any idea who the musicians are in Lee’s Owls?

    • Melissa Kean says:

      No, but it might be possible to figure it out . . .

    • almadenmike says:

      An article on the first page of the Sept. 18, 1930, Thresher (https://scholarship.rice.edu/bitstream/handle/1911/65291/thr19300918.pdf?sequence=1) gives this roster of Lee’s Owls players:

      Briggs Manuel, saxophone and clarinet player;
      Pat Quinn, drummer and singer;
      Joe Eagle, saxophonist and clarinetist;
      Sam Farquhar, saxophone and clarinet player;
      Ken Sanders, bass horn blower;
      W. C. Dunlap, cornetist;
      Charley Marshall, trombonist, and
      Richard Shannon, saxophonist and clarinetist.

      Three of these fellows — Manuel, Dunlap and Shannon — played with the group at the 1951 Homecoming, which was shown in the Feb. 8, 2016, blog post here: https://ricehistorycorner.com/2016/02/08/battle-of-the-bands-1951/

    • almadenmike says:

      (I submitted this earlier, but don’t see it posted. Please delete if it’s a duplicate)

      An article on page 3 of the oct. 2, 1925, Thresher (https://scholarship.rice.edu/bitstream/handle/1911/65140/thr19251002.pdf?sequence=1) announces the creation of Lee’s Owls, including their roster of players. (I’ve altered the roster format to make the players easier to see.)

      > > >
      They call themselves Lee’s Owls, they are all Rice students, and they all know a red hot tune when they play one. Nine musically distraught young men tooting their conglomerated horns in contortionate harmony, the orchestra is a worthy addition to the organizations of the campus.

      Lee Chatham is manager and director, and in addition, slides a trombone over the musical scale; Joe Jarrett disports a modern tuba in a thoroughly modern manner; Ed Austin tickles the strings of a banjo into melodious vibration; Buda Boyles tears up the tympanic membrane with his saxophonic creations; Sam Bennett provides a low background of bass notes; Tucker Abrams warbles shrilly from the safety of his clarinet; J. I. Campbell wrecks the traps, cymbals, and the listener’s temper; while Jack Grey dances nimbly over the keys of his piano.

      … Lee’s Owls have supplanted Eddie’s Syncopators at the Rice Saturday night dances, given in the Autry House or in the Commons. Now, with the recent announcement by the Students Association of their permission to hold the dance in the Commons every third Saturday night, Chatham and his orchestra bid fair to dance-music their way into history.
      < < <

  8. marmer01 says:

    I wish I had a time machine. I would go back to 1925 and slap whoever wrote that article.

  9. Kevin Coffey says:

    I am pretty certain that this photo is NOT Lee’s Owls. That certainly is not Lee Chatham on trombone. There are several early photos of the group, in yearbooks and elsewhere (here is a photo of the band from a 1926 Valentine’s Dance https://scholarship.rice.edu/handle/1911/71448 ) and the personnel remained fairly consistent, with some non-Rice ringers and a few guys leaving upon graduation. The above photo appears to be from earlier than 1925 and I wonder if it might depict Eddie’s Syncopators, who are mentioned as predecessors of Lee’s Owls in the 1925 article quoted above (the article above misidentifies Joe Jarrett as a tuba player — he played trumpet).

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