Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

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Yes, I'm planning to attend....and yes it would be nice to  have a few fiddlers there.  Wes?

Indeed I'm hoping to. I'm not sure at this point if I'll be able to be there the whole time, but Im going to try.

I seem to recall that these early banjoists (Sweeney, etc.) liked to claim that they were the "only banjoist" and so forth.  They would also protect their banjos and even keep them locked up till show time so that they could not be copied.  Seems that it would be contrary to publish a blueprint of their banjos on the covers of sheet music.  

But speaking of sheet music covers… everyone get out your copy of Carlin's book The Birth of the Banjo and turn to page 31.  There you will find one of the above wood cuts--with a small difference.

Take out your looking glasses and examine the banjo neck where it passes the left arm.

Friends, that look like a fifth peg.

Joel, that is a blemish on the lithographic pull, signified by the interruption of the black line of the third string right below it. For those wishing to see a clear copy that you can blow up on the PDF version and really see what is going on click on this link. 


But while we all have our copies of Carlin out, we can read on page 145 that Sweeny is not documented as hiding his instrument until he was in England from 1842-1845, and these covers are from 1840. And by then he seems to have already settled on the 5 string as we know it complete with thumb string.

But here is another gourd banjo with no thumb string. This one was found and drawn by Benjamin Latrobe in Congo Square, New Orleans in 1819.

Oh, and by the way, Latrobe was no casual artist but is known as the "Father of American Architecture" and designed the United States Capital building.

I don't remember all the details, but I'm pretty sure that there is historic documentation of an exact transcription of Joel Sweeney's method of playing "Grapevine Twist," which he said he learned when he was young, from a slave.  The only point is that it uses the fifth string a lot and is hard to imagine playing without a drone string.  Since Joel Sweeney is widely seen as adding the base string, not the drone string, to the banjo, I really don't exactly understand what this discussion is about. 

Mark, I copied the Latrobe writings and have a few questions.  First, can you correct what I have transcribed?

"32) a stringed instrument which no doubt was imported from Africa.  On the top of the finger board was a rude figure of a Man in a sitting posture, & two pegs behind him to which the strings were fastened.  The body was a Calabash.  It was played upon by a very little old man, apparently 80 or 90 years old.  The women squalled(?) out a burthen(?) to the playing, at intervals, consisting of two notes, as the Negroes working in our cities respond to the Song of their leader.  Most of the circles contained the faint(?) sort of dancers.  One was"

1) What are the words after which I have added "(?)"

2) Do you have access to an additional page as his description was evidently cut short, in mid-sentence.

3) He mentions two pegs but shows three strings.  Any insights there?

4) He indicates that it is a gourd instrument (calabash), but it looks like the top may not be a skin or....is that not a hole which is drawn as a circle?

I think "the women squatted out a further to the playing"

I think "contained the same sort of dancers"-  look at the "s" in the words "consisting", and "sitting"...same long tall ornamental letter s.

I think squalled is the correct word here. 


It seems that burthen is a form of burden:

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