Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

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Rob, you the Man !

Rob Morrison said:

I've not only played a banjo without  a thumb string, I've even had pants like that.

I'll add a photo that I acquired recently to the discussion.  The lady is holding a four-string "something."  The instrument has a triangular-shaped peghead (like some early minstrel banjos) and the "head" appears to have a hole in it (also like some early banjos).  I was tending to think that this might be some 19th-century theatrical prop, perhaps a simulation of an ancient "lute."  But now I'm not so sure.  Unfortunately, the image is contrasty in all the wrong places.  What think you?

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I'm having a hard time seeing the photo too clearly, Bob.

However, the Hans Sloane drawing published in the early 1700's shows no thumb string either.

Unfortunately, Mark, I think that scan is the best that I can do.  The photo (which is carte-de-visite size, but not a CDV) lacks contrast right where we'd like to see it:  along the body and neck of the instrument.  Still, I can make out at least four strings, but can't see how they're attached to the body.  The triangular, or wedge-shaped, peghead is interesting, because the pegs seem to be arranged three on one side and one on the other which also seems to be an early feature.   

Most of the 1840 sheet music of Sweeny show him playing a four long stringed instrument with no thumb string.

http://levysheetmusic.mse.jhu.edu/catalog?q=sweeny%27s+virginia+mel...

Now by 1841 he's made the complete move to and is beginning to popularize the 5 string. But in the 1840's there are many renderings of these four long stringed instruments with no thumb string both in America and in Britain. If there were only a few such renderings and the lithographic quality was poor and amatuerish, it would be easy to dismiss as a mistake of a careless artist. But that doesn't seem to be the case. I wonder if throughout the 1830's and 40's there were actually several different physical stylings of performance banjos.

Al, perhaps because some players, particularly those who jumped to the banjo from guitar or some other melodic instrument were playing melodically? Haven't we all seen guitar players who pick up a banjo and can play melodies on it but don't know how to use the thumb string? However, you can't play Briggs' arrangements without a thumb string - its arranged precisely to integrate the thumb string. Now we know Sweeny played with a thumb string. But he also appears to have played a four string melody banjo with no thumb string. Perhaps he played both rhythmically and in a more purely melodic way. These are the kind of things that keep me up at night!

Mark, my question was meant as rhetorical though in text form, it may not have appeared that way.

It was intended to indicate that you are probably correct.  After all, why else would a detailed rendering omit the thumb string unless it, indeed, didn't have one?

There's no thumb string, but there's also no shoestrings, or hooks or tacks on the banjo. His legs are at least 1/3 too long, his feet 50% too short, his right arm is longer than his left, which is grasping a neck with a peghead that doesn't make any kind of sense. The neck, never mind the scale, is approximately a yard long, making the scale length about 40 inches. The artist was using his license. The overall style of this illustration is something sleek, and an oddball peg in the neck doesn't fit.

Yes. The intent of the art is not realism.

Tim, I entertained that idea at one time as well. But when I explored B. W. Thayer's (the one who did the Sweeny sheet music covers for Henry Prentiss from which the first drawing above was also used for the cover of Alabama Joe) artistic credibility I quickly came upon his numerous works preserved in the Boston Athenaeum. Here is the link - http://cdm.bostonathenaeum.org/cdm/search/searchterm/B.W.Thayer

He was one of the top lithographers of his day.

Also, if we look at his clothes it matches the lyrics in some of his songs -

O my red strip’d shirt and red cravat                    

Oh hand me down my leghorn hat    

Most importantly, if we look at the cover to Sweeny's Jonny Boker, also done by Thayer, we can see "Wright's ole shop" with a sign that says "J. Wright". Now Wright's first name is never mentioned in the song and yet indeed his first name was John and yes, it was an actual building that existed until fairly recently. No one in Boston except Sweeny would have known that. So there must have been some kind of actual meeting between Sweeny and the artist Thayer.

                   

Al, I never took it to be anything but rhetorical. Hey, are you coming to the Early Banjo Gathering? It would be great to have several fiddles. Tim and I have also talked about doing some experiments with percussion there.

Al Smitley said:

Mark, my question was meant as rhetorical though in text form, it may not have appeared that way.

It was intended to indicate that you are probably correct.  After all, why else would a detailed rendering omit the thumb string unless it, indeed, didn't have one?

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