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Fairbanks, A(lbert) C(onant)

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Fairbanks, A(lbert) C(onant)

(b Sterling, MA, 5 Sept 1852; d Watertown, MA, 10 Oct 1919). American banjo maker. Although best known today as a maker of excellently made and elaborately decorated banjos, he was a skilled craftsman and successful entrepreneur whose business interests later included bicycles and a paint manufacturing company. He moved to Boston in 1868 and in 1880 began making banjos at Court Street in partnership with William A. Cole, a well-known banjo teacher. About 1887 further premises were obtained at 178 Tremont Street, Boston, and by 1888 Fairbanks was joined by David L. Day, who was listed as manager in 1889. From about 1891 to 1893 the firm, operating only from Tremont Street, was known as A.C. Fairbanks Co. The firm moved to 27 Beach Street, Boston, in 1894, when Fairbanks sold his interest to Cummings and Dodge. It stayed at Beach Street until the move about 1901 to 786 Washington Street, Boston. After the acquisition of the firm by the Vega Co. in 1904 David L. Day became sales and general manager of the Vega Co., and from about 1922 was a partner and vice-president in the Bacon Banjo Co. of Groton, Connecticut. The Fairbanks name continued to be used on Vega instruments until the early 1920s. Vega Co. was acquired by the Martin firm in 1970.

In 1887 and 1890 Fairbanks secured two US patents (nos.360005 and 443510) for improvements in banjo construction. The 1890 patent was important as the basis for the ‘Electric’ style rim, which was incorporated into the still-popular ‘Whyte Laydie’ style after the A.C. Fairbanks Co. was acquired by the Vega Co. in 1904. The ‘Electric’ rim consisted of a heavy scalloped metal support for a solid metal ‘tone ring’ over which the head was stretched, and its commercial success was an important step in the development of the banjo. Fairbanks promoted his banjos through events such as ‘Fairbanks and Coles’ Fifth Annual Banjo Contest’, the subject of a diatribe in his competitor S.S. Stewart’s Banjo and Guitar Journal for April and May 1888.


E. Kaufman: ‘The Fairbanks and Vega Companies’, Mugwumps Instrument Herald, vi/2 (1978)

J. Bollman: ‘The Banjo Makers of Boston’, Ring the Banjar!, ed. R.L. Webb (Cambridge, MA, 1984), 36–54


Fairbanks, J.

See Clarke, Henry Leland.

Fairchild, Blair

(b Belmont, MA, 23 June 1877; d Paris, 23 April 1933). American composer. He studied music at Harvard University under J.K. Paine and Walter Spalding. After graduating he went to Italy, studying piano with Buonamici in Florence. He did not immediately embark on a professional career, however, but went into business and then served in the American embassies in Turkey and Persia (1901–3); many of his orchestral and vocal works reflect his interest in the music of the Near East. By 1905 he had settled in Paris to renew musical studies with Widor and others. He remained there until his death, though he often stayed in New York and travelled in the Orient. During World War I he represented the American Friends of Musicians in France. In 1921 his ballet-pantomime Dame Libellule became the first work by an American composer to be presented at the Paris Opéra. Influenced by Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky, Fairchild’s music is characterized by the attractive use of counterpoint, as in the String Quartet (1911), and a persistent fondness for the whole-tone scale, with its resultant augmented harmonies, as in A Baghdad Lover.


(selective list)

Orch: East and West, tone poem, op.17, 1908; Légende, op.31, vn, orch, c1912; Tamineh, sketch after a Persian legend, 1913; Zál, sym. poem after a Persian legend (1915); Shah Féridoûn, sym. poem after a Persian legend, op.39, 1915; Dame Libellule (ballet-pantomime, 1, G. Lemierre), op.44 (1919); Etude symphonique, op.45, vn, orch, 1922; Rhapsodie, vn, orch/pf (1924)

Chbr: 2 Novelettes, str qt, op.10, c1907; 3 Pieces, op.11, vc, pf, c1907; 3 Pieces, op.12, cl, pf, c1907; Sonata, op.16, vn, pf, c1908; Str Qnt, op.20, c1909; Rhapsody, str, pf, c1909; Str Qt, op.27, 1911; Pf Trio, op.24 (1912); Chbr Conc., op.26, vn, pf, str qt, opt. db (1912); 2 Duos, op.32, vn, vc (1912); 6 Esquisses, vn, pf, c1913; Sonata [no.2], op.43, vn, pf (1919); pf pieces

Vocal: 12 Persian folksongs (1904); A Baghdad Lover (C.H. Towne), 9 songs, op.25, B, pf (1911); 2 Bible Lyrics, op.29, S, chorus, orch, 1911; 6 Psalms, op.33, solo vv, chorus (1913); 5 Greek Sea Prayers, op.35 (1913); Les amours de Hafiz (trans. P. de Stoecklin), 7 songs, op.38 (1914); Les quatrains d’Al-Ghazali (trans. J. Lahor), 8 songs, op.40 (1915); Stornelli toscani (Tuscan folk poems), 5 sets, opp.5, 14, 23, 28, 30

MSS in US-NYpm

Principal publishers: Augener, Novello, Demets, Durand, Ricordi (Paris), Schott, G. Schirmer, H.W. Gray, C.W. Thompson


DAB (J.T. Howard)

W.T. Upton: ‘Our Musical Expatriates’, MQ, xiv (1928), 143–54

W.T. Upton: Art-Song in America (New York, 1930), 169–76


Fairfax, Robert.

See Fayrfax, Robert.

Fairfield Hall.

Arts complex including a concert hall, in Croydon, Surrey; see London, §VII, 3.

Fairground organ [fair organ, showground organ, band organ; Dut. draaiorgel; Ger. Kermisorgel].

A mechanical organ used to provide music for merry-go-rounds and in amusement parks, circuses and skating rinks in Europe and the USA. The instrument originated in Europe as an outdoor version of the Orchestrion, voiced to sound above the hurly-burly of the fairground. Initially it was put near the entrance in order to attract attention. It was usually built in an elaborately carved and colourfully painted case which sometimes incorporated moving figures in its façade. All but the very largest instruments were designed to be portable. With the coming of bioscope (moving picture) theatres, the organ sometimes became the front of the show-tent, its façade incorporating entry and exit doors.

The earliest fairground organs, those of the late 1870s, were of the Barrel organ type. By about 1880 such instruments were being produced in sizes containing several hundred pipes and a variety of percussion effects; these large models were powered by steam or water engines and later by electric motors. Major builders of barrel-operated organs included Gavioli of Paris, Wilhelm Bruder of Waldkirch, Limonaire of Paris, and Eugene DeKleist of North Tonawanda, New York. In 1892 Gavioli developed a new mechanism for playing organs in which a series of perforated cardboard sheets were hinged together to form a continuous strip. As this was drawn across the keyframe by rubber-covered rollers, the music was read by a row of small metal keys which extended through the perforations and caused the appropriate pipe to speak via a responsive pneumatic mechanism. Other keys operated percussion effects or could turn ranks of pipes on and off. Barrel organ manufacture declined after 1900, and the cheaper and more versatile ‘book music’ system came to be used extensively by European builders such as Gasparini, Limonaire and Marenghi (all in Paris), Hooghuys (Geraadsbergen, Belgium), Mortier (Antwerp), Wrede (Hanover), Ruth, Bruder (both Waldkirch), Wellershaus (Mülheim an der Ruhr) and Frati (Berlin).

Shortly after 1900 the German organ-building business of Gebrüder Bruder adopted the perforated paper-roll playing action for their fairground organs. As with the player piano, the musical programme was arranged as a series of perforations in a roll of paper that was passed over a tracker bar (initially of wood but later of brass) containing a single row of openings along its length. When a hole in the tracker bar was uncovered by a perforation passing over it, air was sucked into the hole and thus triggered a pneumatic mechanism to sound a note or operate an organ function. This system was later taken up in America by the Rudolph Wurlitzer Manufacturing Co. of North Tonawanda, which was the manufacturing agent for many European musical instruments and eventually had its own factories. Most instruments made in the USA employing this system used vacuum (negative pressure) to read the rolls; European organs used positive pressure, but in Europe the paper-roll system was never widely adopted for organs, and Gebrüder Bruder remained the principle manufacturer of this system. As with book music, the choice of tunes available on rolls was unlimited; selections ranged from classical pieces to the popular songs of the day.

The pipework in fairground organs consisted of both flue and reed pipes voiced on 203 to 304 mm of water-gauge pressure. Pipes were usually made of wood, but in the earlier organs the reed pipes had polished brass resonators arranged symmetrically in the façade. Organs ranged in compass from 35 to 112 notes. The pipework was divided into bass, accompaniment, melody and counter-melody sections. On a small organ a typical distribution of notes in each section might be 5, 9, 14 and 13; on a large instrument it could be 21, 16, 21 and 38. Only in very large instruments were these sections chromatic. Certain notes of the scale were omitted in smaller organs in order to keep the physical size of the instrument to a minimum; this permitted them to be played only in certain keys, precluding the correct performance of many pieces; arrangers would often modify the music to fit a given organ scale.

Of similar design to the fairground organ was the European dance organ, designed to provide music with a strongly accentuated rhythm and a wide variety of percussion effects. Since these instruments were for indoor use in the dance-hall, they were voiced more softly and on lower wind pressure than the fairground organ; they used either books or rolls and, not needing to be portable, were produced in immense sizes. The Dutch street organ (known in Amsterdam as ‘pierement’), a smaller but similar type of instrument, also used book music, but was turned by hand. It had a selection of cleverly voiced pipes which gave it a particularly sweet and lyrical tone. An important maker of these was Carl Frei of Breda.

The economic conditions of the 1930s caused the failure of most fairground organ companies, though a small number of craftsmen still build instruments and restore original organs. A rich postwar revival has resulted in the building of a number of new instruments.

For illustration see Mechanical instrument, fig.8.


R. de Waard: Van speeldoos tot pierement (Haarlem, 1964; Eng. trans., 1967)

F. Wieffering: Glorieuze orgeldagen (Utrecht, 1965)

E.V. Cockayne: The Fairground Organ: its Music, Mechanism and History (Newton Abbot, 1970)

R. de Waard: Het draaiorgel (Alkmaar, 1971/R)

Q.D. Bowers: Encyclopedia of Automatic Musical Instruments (New York, 1972)

A.W.J.G. Ord-Hume: Barrel Organ (London, 1978)

A.A. Reblitz and Q.D. Bowers: Treasures of Mechanical Music (New York, 1981)

H. Jüttemann: Waldkircher Dreh- und Jahrmarkt-Orgeln (Waldkirch, 1993)


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