Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

This may be someplace on the site already and I just could not find it.  But, during the Civil War time frame what banjo's where up here, or taken to war with the Michigan regiments?   All the searches on goggle I have tied... did not turn up much for me...  Also was there any Banjo makers during the time in Michigan?  What did they use to make there banjos?  Was Oak, maple, walnut, Pine...What was the main materials used to build them with?   

I was thinking of emailing George Wunderlich,  But, from what I have read, he has moved on to other endevers... 

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I have been interested in knowing to what degree banjos were prevalent in Michigan in the mid-19th c.

I guess the answer to your question, Jeff, might help answer my broader question.

I've researched one unit pretty well with no direct reference, and that id the 4th Michigan.

Knowing that one of F. Converse's first gigs was in Detroit, and that Emmett stopped in Farmington for a Minstrel show could provide a jumping off point for digging.

Thanks Tim...  I going to get with a friend of mine...  He has a his Masters degree in Civil War History... He is a world of knowledge... I will get with him and see what he can offer up...  Tim can you email me the info you have and I will pass this on to him...?  Maybe this will help keep the search going.  

Dan'l funny you posted this....  I was on the phone with my friend who has a Master Degree in Civil War history.  His studies where more alone the lines of Battle plans and Engineers... BUT, took on this with a sparkel in his eye. He has hit the books... He is thinking alone the same lines as you... Maybe some local farmer made one or loved ones shipped on down.  Its funny as well that most all you have said in your posting.... makes me think my phone call was a 3 way call... ( Where you eves dropping in? ) LOL!  I hope or the next few weeks or so I/we can have a answer to this.

Another thought... what about Dulcimer or accordion (aka ??? Cantinas?? like Terry Bells son plays)  How prevalent was something like this in the camps ? 

Actually there is not any evidence that harmonicas were imported in large numbers into the US in time for them to become PEC in the ACW.  The popularity of harmonicas really ramped up in the late 1870s and peaking in the 1920-1930s, then late 1940s and on.  Very little reliable documentation of harmonica manufacturing exists.  

On key point in history that made the harmonica a real instrument (and not just a toy or pocket novelty as it was thought of) was the Musician's Union strikes.  The harmonica players were not "musicians" thus not allowed in to the Union so they began to get gigs during the strike.

A lot has to to with Germany's amazing ability to distort the truth. That's right, Hohner has been successful in erasing the records of their competition and rewriting history (part of that was the romance of harmonicas in the ACW).  The Hohner Co, having access to metal workers, equipment, and lots of brass, was a natural for the Nazi party to want them to make casings to aid in their crazy attempt to take over the world.

 Hohner fell right in and began to create the harmonica history that we know today.  Most of the harmonica reedplates that have been found at battle sights can be documented to harmonica patterns made after the war.

Dan'l, do you have any documented evidence (not post war) that has harmonicas (Richter) commonly in the pockets of soldiers?  How about what they looked like, including the complete cover-plates intact?

Clearly the harmonica was very popular in the late 1880s and esp the late 1890s. Catalogs (both department stores like Monkey wards and S&R and also music jobbers) were full of models and not just Hohner.  In fact Hohner was not a major player until they used political power to help them force all of their competition out of business. As a side note, the guy who started making those little round chromatic pitch pipes in the US may have taken advantage of Hohner and started up a harmonica factory just to have Hohner buy him out to finance one in the US.

There is a huge amount of work that needs to be done on the harmonica and I've been following a guy named David Payne that sells harmonicas who is doing that work.  I think that the most important part of his research so far is his info on the lack of harmonicas in the ACW.


Dan'l said:

A productive channel might be to pull the Michigan regimental histories and follow which campaigns a particular unit was on.  It's more likely that extra stuff like banjos were obtained well after muster-in and ship-out. There wasn't any space allotted to new recruits from Dearborn to carry anything beyond the gear they could carry in hand. Officers maybe could, so that's another thing to research, musical Mich officers.

     Someone might ship a banjo obtained in Michigan to their loved one in the field knowing they were staged in winter camp long enough to recieve such a parcel - but more likely a soldier obtained a banjo from sources available to them in a long term camp. That would be mail order or maybe an occasional sutler (banjos from Northeast U.S. factories), or a carpenter-made or self-made banjo of local sourcing (a mid or Southern State).

    To keep in mind, as much as reenactors carry banjos on "campaign" today, it has never been shown to be common in the actual units on the march at the time, if that's important to you.  Harmonicas lots of evidence, some fiddles, but banjos rarely, and of those how many banjos made in Michigan were likely?

   Also more productive would be to research musical stores in Grand Rapids or Detroit that supplied banjos generally, if not so likely to soldiers.  There might be an ad in a period newspaper that shows a banjo quite unlike a Northeast U.S. factory banjo, which you could extrapolate came from a local source.

   Dan'l

So the story of southern black folks picking up harmonicas off the ground left by soldiers, thus inventing blues music is Hohnerology, eh? Well, it was a cute little tale and it made sense. Ya, how about concertinas?

That is what it's called THANKS Terry... All I could think of was squeeze box.... LOL 
And that bring on a total different song from my rock and roll days... 

Terry Bell / Bell & Son Banjos said:

So the story of southern black folks picking up harmonicas off the ground left by soldiers, thus inventing blues music is Hohnerology, eh? Well, it was a cute little tale and it made sense. Ya, how about concertinas?

This the reply from my friend with the degree... So the search begins! 

Jeff, lemme see if I can do a little digging.  I'm looking through my personal sources now, but not much there so far.  My studies focused on political, strategic, and social aspects against the military backdrop.  Music was not a focus.  I'll see what references I can find that might direct us to other sources.  In the mean time, searching the database at Michigan's State Historical Library might be an interesting and useful exercise, which again, could open some other avenues for further inquiry.
Here is a link to the library's various repositories, which are many:
http://www.michigan.gov/mde/0,4615,7-140-54504_50206---,00.html
Another repository of primary source material is Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan. They have the state's largest collection of Michigan soldiers' and family correspodence, diaries, and journals.  I have an index of these materials that was compiled by Ida Brown; I'll review it for any references that might prove useful.  In the mean time, here is a link to Bentley:
http://bentley.umich.edu/ 
BEWARE: Both of these repositories are rich but daunting; I spent hundreds of hours in both of them during my MA studies, even AFTER narrowing my topical searches online.  These are NOT for the faint of heart or casual observers.  It involves running down many leads that often go nowhere, but at least you have a narrowly defined scope of inquiry, which always helps to disqualify dead leads early in the process.

Jeff Fauver said:
That is what it's called THANKS Terry... All I could think of was squeeze box.... LOL  And that bring on a total different song from my rock and roll days... 

Terry Bell / Bell & Son Banjos said:

So the story of southern black folks picking up harmonicas off the ground left by soldiers, thus inventing blues music is Hohnerology, eh? Well, it was a cute little tale and it made sense. Ya, how about concertinas?

There were harmonicas found on battlefields, and harmonicas in the haversacks of soldiers.  I have seen entirely too much evidence to discount the use/playing of harmonica in camp.  I don't know how many of them there were, but they did exist, and were in use by soldiers.

But where did that information come from?  Where are those harmonicas?  There were lots of picnics and reunions on those fields, is it possible that they are post war?  I hear and read this history all the time, but it is never backed up with ads, newspapers, journal entrys and so forth. 


As for the story of the blues and the harmonica,  blues style harmonica destroys them and sells lots more.  Hohner may have not invented that story, but they made sure that everyone knew it.  It is a good story, but what backs It up?

John Masciale said:

There were harmonicas found on battlefields, and harmonicas in the haversacks of soldiers.  I have seen entirely too much evidence to discount the use/playing of harmonica in camp.  I don't know how many of them there were, but they did exist, and were in use by soldiers.

Hi Jeff,

I have never encountered any historical evidence of Appalachian dulcimers being used in Civil war encampments.  The earliest surviving documented American mountain dulcimer is dated 1832 from southwestern Virginia.  I can imagine it would have been a somewhat awkward and fragile thing to lug around undamaged- far easier to pack whistles, harmonicas, fiddles.  Even banjos are at least sturdy compared to a lap dulcimer.  Due to their delicate structure, dulcimers also succumb to cracking in bad weather.

To further muddy the waters, some early written accounts mentioning 'dulcimer' actually referred to hammered dulcimers, which were more common in the North in the 1800's than Appalachian dulcimers. Sometimes it is impossible to know whether an old reference was about a hammered or a lap dulcimer (two completely different instruments which share the same name), since no further details are given. 

And yet, mountain dulcimers are used in CW re-enactments with some regularity, apparently simply because the instrument did exist at the time.  I would think it would have been unlikely for a soldier to carry one around for long without it getting badly damaged.

Jeff Fauver said:

Another thought... what about Dulcimer or accordion (aka ??? Cantinas?? like Terry Bells son plays)  How prevalent was something like this in the camps ? 

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