Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

Opinions from CW Reenactors on "On-the-March" Banjo Weather Protection

First, I would like to express my very good impression of this group, which I just joined. George Wunderlich's extremely well-informed and helpful response to my query about the details of the William Sidney Mount "The Banjo Player" banjo was quick and most generous.

I have another, perhaps more exotic query. I know that a number of you are either "mainstream" or "hard-core/progressive" CW reenactors and will be able to weigh-in on the topic. I am looking for guidance on the types of banjo weather protection that would be plausible from an authenticity perspective that an infantryman might use.

My thinking is that a wooden case would not be common, especially for a field-built tackhead or nicer instrument brought from home, owing to the weight of the case. Also, it is about as difficult to build a nice coffin case for a larger instrument like a guitar or banjo as building the instrument itself. I know this, as my lutherie builds period-appropriate cases for various instruments from the late 18th C to late 19th C time period. For instance, we make a leather saddle-bag case like the one that Thomas Jefferson used for his pochette (pocket fiddle-4/4 lenght but only 3" wide) and are building our first batch of wooden coffin cases for fiddles and guitars.

My research has led me to these preliminary conclusions:
  1. There is no such thing as a standard CW period soft case for banjo, fiddle or guitar.
  2. Oilcloth is essential for the outer shell
That's about it as far as research goes. My thinking is that a craftsman making a soft banjo, fiddle or guitar case would take the following approach (this is where I really need opinions from reenactors):

A 2-part soft case consisting of...
  1. Inner rectangular flannel or blanketing fabric bag with a tie string, just large enough for the instrument.
  2. An outer torpedo-shaped bag (like some modern gig bags) of heavy duck, buttoned at the wide end. The whole bag saturated with linseed oil and dried.
  3. Leather attachment ties as appropriate to attached the case to a haversack.
Thanks in advance for opinions and/or guidance.

Don

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On the subject of linseed oil- raw linseed oil will take forever to dry, if it ever does. You want boiled linseed oil. It's still available through most home repair/hardware stores. It's highly falmable, so be careful where you use it. right next to the wood stove is probably not a good idea.
Sweeney , at least as far as the picture would indicate, was in the good graces of a high ranking officer. Space may have been provided in the Generals wagon for Sweeney's banjo. The common artillery man may have had a possibility of such space, but if a company of soldiers all wanteds to have their excess bagage carried, it wasn't going to happen. Music was reported in enough diaries & letters to have obviously been a part of the war, but how often is anunanswered question. Still, even in Vietnam we tried to find & make music. I borrowed a guitar from an artillery man on a fire base once. He kept it with him all the time. But he was stationary. As an infantry soldier, I left mine in the company rear area, and only had visitation rights a couple of times the whole tour of duty. We had adrummer who used steel helmets,canteen cups and cleaning rods. "Let that boy boogie woogie. It's in him, and it's got to get out."
Cases- I suspect the soldiers wrapped such items as they wished to protect in their shelter half. Or possibly a piece of tarp. Panther Primitives is selling oilskin tarp material by the yard. This doesn't answer for protection from shock, but with a blanket inside the oilskin it may do the job. As for larger items, such as banjos, some may have been constructed when in camp for the winter, and left behind in the spring when they resumed campaining. The idea of a civilian personna makes a bit more sense,as they could have a number of reasons to use a wagon. And could have had enough control over it's contents to bring an instrument along. I've toyed with it myself, although my reenacting is fur trade era. Still, I don't know of any acounts of a banjo being taken west by fur trappers, or even by the traders who came out with the supply caravans. Fiddles are mentioned on ocasion, but I don't know of a banjo. The evidense of Sweeney, and maybe others during the Civil War makes a better case for a banjo.
Not to send everyone out to buy a new'jo, but what about a removable neck? I've seen at least one airplane related post on Banjo Hangout about taking the banjo apart to make a travel sized package.
I realize my Vietnam era experiences are not period correct, but for a soldier far from home & family, poorly paid, underfed with tooth-dulling hardtack, etc, a little music goes a long way towards attitude adjustment. Since 1971, up to the present, my old CO still talks of me playing "Gospel Ship". He doesn't seem to recall some of my less-discrete shenanigans, but he recalls music. I don't think that part of a soldiers life has changed since war began. When I get my gourd banjo made, it will go to Rendezvous with me. I may be getting some garb to do a bit of Civil War (civilian) stuff as well.
Paul
I neglected to mention the boiled part of purified linseed oil, which is always boiled. So-called purified linseed oil is procured in art-supply stores and used for several purposes, hardening canvas AND as a medium for mixing pigments. Thanks for pointing out the key point about boiled linseed oil. In addition to never hardening, raw oil will also go rancid, making for a pretty stinky case, eh!

Thanks much.

Don

Paul Certo said:
On the subject of linseed oil- raw linseed oil will take forever to dry, if it ever does. You want boiled linseed oil. It's still available through most home repair/hardware stores. It's highly falmable, so be careful where you use it. right next to the wood stove is probably not a good idea.
Sweeney , at least as far as the picture would indicate, was in the good graces of a high ranking officer. Space may have been provided in the Generals wagon for Sweeney's banjo. The common artillery man may have had a possibility of such space, but if a company of soldiers all wanteds to have their excess bagage carried, it wasn't going to happen. Music was reported in enough diaries & letters to have obviously been a part of the war, but how often is anunanswered question. Still, even in Vietnam we tried to find & make music. I borrowed a guitar from an artillery man on a fire base once. He kept it with him all the time. But he was stationary. As an infantry soldier, I left mine in the company rear area, and only had visitation rights a couple of times the whole tour of duty. We had adrummer who used steel helmets,canteen cups and cleaning rods. "Let that boy boogie woogie. It's in him, and it's got to get out."
Cases- I suspect the soldiers wrapped such items as they wished to protect in their shelter half. Or possibly a piece of tarp. Panther Primitives is selling oilskin tarp material by the yard. This doesn't answer for protection from shock, but with a blanket inside the oilskin it may do the job. As for larger items, such as banjos, some may have been constructed when in camp for the winter, and left behind in the spring when they resumed campaining. The idea of a civilian personna makes a bit more sense,as they could have a number of reasons to use a wagon. And could have had enough control over it's contents to bring an instrument along. I've toyed with it myself, although my reenacting is fur trade era. Still, I don't know of any acounts of a banjo being taken west by fur trappers, or even by the traders who came out with the supply caravans. Fiddles are mentioned on ocasion, but I don't know of a banjo. The evidense of Sweeney, and maybe others during the Civil War makes a better case for a banjo.
Not to send everyone out to buy a new'jo, but what about a removable neck? I've seen at least one airplane related post on Banjo Hangout about taking the banjo apart to make a travel sized package.
I realize my Vietnam era experiences are not period correct, but for a soldier far from home & family, poorly paid, underfed with tooth-dulling hardtack, etc, a little music goes a long way towards attitude adjustment. Since 1971, up to the present, my old CO still talks of me playing "Gospel Ship". He doesn't seem to recall some of my less-discrete shenanigans, but he recalls music. I don't think that part of a soldiers life has changed since war began. When I get my gourd banjo made, it will go to Rendezvous with me. I may be getting some garb to do a bit of Civil War (civilian) stuff as well.
Paul
Paul Certo said:
On the subject of linseed oil- raw linseed oil will take forever to dry, if it ever does. You want boiled linseed oil. It's still available through most home repair/hardware stores. It's highly falmable, so be careful where you use it. right next to the wood stove is probably not a good idea.

I just saw this thread -- but it's not so old, so I'll comment anyhow. Boiled linseed oil heats up a lot as it dries; I've had it spontaneously combust on me, once, and once was enough. Luckily, I was at home and smelled it -- tossed the flaming wastebasket out a second story bathroom window. (This was in about 1965 -- before ubiquitous home smoke alarms -- and I've been a lot more careful about ventilating any such oily waste, in the intervening 45 years.)

Anyway, I just mention it, because you're talking about experiments with linseed oil drying on canvas.
That scares me, and I thought I was fearless! I believe either Panther Primitives or Crazy Crow Trading Post carries a period authentic oil cloth as a yard good. Canvas treated with oil. Rather than treatint your own, you can buy it ready to cut & sew. If you use cotton thread, it should seal the stitches like it does on our period tentage.
Paul
In the Richmond Dispatch for January 29th, 1863, appeared a short article about Sam Sweeney which mentions using oilcloth as a cover:

Are your readers aware that Gen. Stuart carries with him
wherever he goes, in all his circuits and raids, a brother of
Joe Sweeney, the famous banjo player? Such is the fact.
Sweeney is also a banjoist, and Stuart calls him his band.
He carries his banjo behind his saddle, wrapped up in a
piece of oil cloth, and whenever the cavalry stop, even to
water their horses the band strikes up on the banjo and picks
a merry air. The performance of the banjo band in
Pennsylvania drove several Dutch farmers raving distracted,
for Sweeney swore that his banjo strings were made out of
the viscera of their departed relatives and friends!

HI, JOhn - thought you might be interested in this.

CHARLESTON MERCURY, January 16, 1863, p. 1, c. 2-3 Richmond, Tuesday, January 13. . . .Are your readers aware that Gen. J.E.B. Stuart carries with him wherever he goes, in all his circuits and raids, a brother of Joe Sweeney, the famous banjo player? Such is the fact. Sweeney is also a banjoist, and Stuart calls him his band. He carries his banjo behind his saddle, wrapped up in a piece of oil cloth, and whenever the cavalry stop, even to water their horses, the band strikes up on the banjo and picks a merry air. The performance of the banjo band in Pennsylvania drove several Dutch farmers raving distracted, for Sweeney swore that his banjo strings were made out of the viscera of their departed relatives and friends!

John Masciale said:

This is a good question. As a foot soldier on the march, I want things to be as light as possible. I would be tempted to carry a gourd banjo, since it is so much lighter than a hoop one. I have often thought that in Frank Vizetelly's camp picture, that the banjo Sam Sweeny is playing is a gourd, in spite of it being a war time drawing. Any other thoughts out there on that? Sweeny was Cavalry, so it would be easier for him to cart a banjo around with him.

http://www.nps.gov/archive/apco/sweeney2.htm

In any event, I would consider simply wrapping my banjo in a gum blanket or oil cloth. The weight of a case would be something that I would not want to deal with, unless I could put the instrument on a wagon of some sort.

I like it, and you can change your outfit from time to time. That's an avenue I'm sure I will go down eventually. Still new to reenacting.



Carl Anderton said:

Another solution is to join the growing ranks of civilian reenactors. The benefits include more time to play the ol' cremona, and less time spent guarding the firewood; no two am picket duty; and more time spent with charming female living historians.

Regarding linseed oil.  I've used published 19th century recepies to waterproof canvas for an oilskin coat - boiled linseed oil from the hardware store works quite well.  It is important to dry the fabric in a well-ventilated space, ideally out doors.  Some recepies call to add finely powdered soot to bulk out the oil & fill the pores more effectively - which means you're using thin black oil paint.

I could certainly see a soldier on the march wrapping his instrument in his blanket and groundsheet - best use of weight he's already packing and materials at hand.  Or if there is a spare groundsheet available I could also see him making a bag specifically for the purpose.    Just the point of view of a sometime 19th C civilian re-enactor.  During my brief time as a (modern) soldier I found the pennywhistle to be the ideal instrument - small ones fit into ammo pouches and weigh almost nothing -

Hi Dan'l - Thought about it a little more, and agree that the soldier would have opted for loading his banjo onto one of the supply wagons whenever possible -



Dan'l said:

Steven - As a reenactor, I have gear made in the way you describe. Such items were Army issue: haversacks and some ground cloths or ponchos. It would also be good weather protection for a banjo, and within the scope of a homemade or shop-made item at the time.

       Regarding your idea on it's use however: "I could certainly see a soldier on the march wrapping his instrument in his blanket and groundsheet - best use of weight he's already packing..."     I would have to disagree.  An Infantry soldier on a march (of the lengths commonly required) would not be able to carry a banjo for long.  There is just too much battle and bivuac gear to carry already, the rifle especially.

        That's not to exclude banjos on the march, but more authentic scenario is that a soldier talks a wagon driver (often civilian contract) into carrying the banjo.  As an artillerist I explain my banjo as being tied on the forge wagon on the march. Sam Sweeney carried banjo on the march, but as general's staff and in the cavalry, on a horse.

I've spent time with wagons in the field for days at a time.  I don't agree at all.  All the bumps, ruts, ridges and hills in the road cause wooden boxes therein to bounce up and down like the pistons of an engine.  It's a place where unprotected items, such as banjos and violins, go to die.  Put them in boxes sufficient to sustain the pounding, and you've taken up a decent amount of room devoted to more important things for a regiment in the field such as ammunition, food, hay and tools.  Also keep in mind there were specific orders about carrying nonessential gear.  With that in mind, it's fair to say that during periods of active campaigning, the odds of seeing a guy in the ranks with a banjo are pretty slim.  I'm aware of the wagon rule because I wrote an extensive article about tents and wagons.  I'll submit the link if you're interested.

But let's not confuse reenacting with history.  Sometimes the two overlap.  Usually, they don't. 

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