Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

While doing research on my current train of thought I have come across several photos with the banjo held left handed and of course upside down. The many examples lead me to wonder if this is no artifact of the photo posing by the photographer , but rather an actual example of the way some people played the instrument. Any thoughts?

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The wet plate photographic process results in a mirror image; in order to make it look like the banjo was being held right-handed, subjects were often posed holding the banjo upside down and left handed.  If the images you're finding aren't reversed (That is, if the neck is pointing at the left side of the frame with the peg on the bottom) then I'm guessing that somebody has "helpfully" digitally flipped them.

(For example: here is a tintype I sat for a few years ago - on the left is the image as it came out of the camera.  Hand obscuring the fifth string peg on the bottom.  On the right is the image flipped to show how I was actually sitting in front of the camera, holding the banjo right handed.)

Ugh, sorry: in the image on the right I am holding the banjo left handed.  For complete disambiguation: note the wedding ring, which is on my left hand.


I get your point having owned a photo lab for a while and been photo assistant for the staff photographer for a TV station. The problem I have is the fact that the banjo is up side down whether the finished photo is printed left or right. Some left handed people play guitar left and inverted. The most famous example I can think of  was Libby Cotton. It's really irrelevant, but I'm just wondering if anyone has a reference

I think it's pretty well agreed that (1) if the photographic medium is a daguerreotype, an ambrotype, or a tintype and (2) the sitter looks to be playing in a right-handed manner, but the 5th string peg is pointing down, then (3) the photographer and sitter conspired in a bit of photographic artifice.  The reason being that those three photographic media produced a reversed image.  Therefore, if the sitter wanted to appear in the final image as though he/she was playing in a "natural" (that is, right-handed) manner, then he/she would have to hold the instrument in a left-handed manner with the 5th string peg pointing down.  

On the other hand, if the photographic medium is a carte-de-visite or other paper photograph (circa 1859 or later), then the image should appear exactly as photographed.  Therefore, if a banjoist in a CDV is holding his banjo with the 5th string peg pointing down, then he is most likely a left-handed musician playing a banjo made for a right-handed person.       

my thought exactly.

Like Dan'l, I thought it would be pretty unlikely to find a genuine picture of a lefty playing a right-handed banjo with the 5th-string peg pointing down.  But Elizabeth Cotten (mentioned above by Joseph Soreh) did it and here's the proof:


You have to click on the picture of Libba to see the 5th-string peg facing down.  The banjo looks like it might be Mike Seeger's (right-handed) Gibson RB-3.

Of course, Libba Cotten is most famous for playing a "right-handed" guitar upside down--and she did it beautifully.  

By the way, a lot of famous lefties (Paul McCartney anyone?) play guitar in left-handed fashion.  But they usually do it with a dedicated left-handed instrument, meaning that the interior bracing is reversed as are the string slots at the nut and bridge.   

I play left handed for the final strain of "Church Bell Chimes," otherwise I tend to use both hands. 

I believe you guys have defined the issue. First: people have and currently do play banjo upside down, second: the photos we all have seen verify this, and third: whether the old photos were a reflection of how the individuals portrayed actually played can never be proven. It is probable that some of the individuals pictured did play a standard configuration banjo with the neck in the right hand. It is also probable that the banjo pictured was a studio prop, and the person pictured didn't know the proper way to hold it. We'll never know the specifics of the individual photos in question, but as a general point the answer to the original inquiry is yes people did and do play "upside down and backward".

I am a little confused. The original question was "The many examples lead me to wonder if this is no artifact of the photo posing by the photographer , but rather an actual example of the way some people played the instrument." The 19th evidence is proof that a standard banjo configuration could be held with the neck in the right hand and the fifth peg would be down and a photograph could be taken... only this and no more. There is apparently no significant historical 19th  century evidence (I have been able to find in my research) that there were a significant number of backward and upside down players. Given the evidence of the pictures my statement that "It is probable that some of the individuals pictured did play a standard configuration banjo with the neck in the right hand" can be reduced to the status of  "possible" without negating all probability of that those photographed did play the instrument  as photographed. A "flopped" instrument does not appear any more correctly oriented than any other aberrant positioning. Clearly we have 20th century evidence a standard banjo can successfully played (Libby Cotton) with fretting in the right hand. As for no one wanting to endure  playing left handed, Libby herself said she played her brothers banjo because she could steal it when he was not home and learned to play it that way because that was the instrument she had. Is it inconceivable that situation happen only once? I think not. Whether this scenario occurred once or fifty times does not seem pertinent to the original question.  I believe 19th century photographic evidence and 20th century  hard data indicate that the act can be carried out successfully. The argument of whether it was carried out some places in America is a matter of the laws of probability. The question of some photographers having taken photos showing people holding banjos reversed is irrefutable. Addressing the original question with the evidence gatherable is not the construction a tangential theory. The point of the discussion I believe has been addressed and is probably finished based on the facts. At some point in these discussions the thoughts seem to degenerate to what is considered Pill-Pull and I believe we have reached it.

Thank You

Joseph Sorah

I hate to beat a dead horse, but will offer one final comment--which, I hesitate to add, is my opinion only.   I think it's all but certain, as Joseph Sorah proposes, that left-handed people down through the ages have picked up the family banjo or guitar or violin or whatever and tried to play it in a manner that they found most comfortable.   Some were ambidextrous enough to adjust to playing it in right-handed fashion.   More serious musicians may have commissioned, or otherwise purchased, a dedicated left-handed instrument.   And then there are those few like Libba Cotten who successfully adjusted to playing a "flipped" instrument, even if this meant devising their own idiosyncratic way of doing so.  

But I don't think that's the question here.  The question seems to arise from all of those daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, and tintypes showing banjoists playing "flipped" instruments--and not just banjoists although, with that danged 5th string peg, they had a bigger problem than guitarists, violinists, flautists, or flutinaists (is that a word?).  If you don't believe me, check out the Bollman and Gura book or, easier still, search for "banjo daguerreotype" under Google Images.   Now we know there were at least some left-handed banjos produced during the antebellum period, because the "Sweeney banjo" at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History is one of them.   But nearly all of the aforementioned photographic images tell us that antebellum musicians were consciously aware of the technical limitations of the prevailing photographic media, namely, that the final image would be backward.   And they indulged in a little bit of trickery to compensate.   With the introduction of paper photographs around 1859-60, this was no longer necessary.   Tintypes, however, continued to present the same old problem for several decades longer.      

Bob, I agree.  Being a left handed player, and choosing to use a left handed instrument has had some interesting consequences.  That is one of the reasons that I choose to play a copy of that Sweeney banjo,

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