I've been thinking about this line of investigation for years...but haven't had a chance to hit the local library until now (since I'm officially retired).
Our Library has a "Heritage Room" on the 3rd floor that maintains all the local print resources, micro-film/fische of newspapers (1820's-), documentation, etc.
My initial visit got me pawing thru boxes of index cards someone had compiled for early trade advertisements and theatrical notices. Not a lot there prior to the 1870s. Huntsville had an "Opera House" in this period and I found one notice for the "Spring City Minstrels" (undated but the printing style matches the period papers). This was a local minstrel group. However, they may be notable in that they were a "genuine negro troupe"...no mention of the banjo.
I found a Glee Club program from 1874 but the music is typical opera, piano, classical stuff.
Yesterday I started scanning the newspapers. Huntsville was a tiny place in the 1870s, population is listed at 4,907...the newspaper then was hardly worth wrapping fish in...just 3-4 pages. There is a music store but their ads only list pianos. I found the only mention of sheet music was in an ad for the local candy store.
However, I did find two minstrel shows paid visits to town. Jan 14 1872 we had "Clannon & Young's" Minstrels"...with no specific program. I didn't find another listing till 1880 for "Duprez & Benedict's Minstrels" but they do mention a previous 1878 engagement...and list an "Eccentric Pleasing Banjoist". Anybody know who played banjo in these troupes? I found Duprez & Benedict's listed online...but no mention of their banjoist.
I eventually switched to another paper (how can a town of 5,000 support two newspapers? Actually, there were three! One is the "The Huntsville Demcrat", one is "The Huntsville Republican" and then there is "The Huntsville Independent". Completely crazy.
The Independent had the most ads, which are typically crazy...and remind me of modern email spam. Every problem has a curative elixir, pill or treatment. Cocaine pills, morphine elixirs...and posted right next to ads which will cure you of the addiction to the same.
Still, I found an interesting ad in the Jan 7, 1875 Independent: "Jesse French Music, 83 Church St, Nashville, Tennessee." the listing contains a list of available instruments including Guitars, Violins, Accordions and Banjos.
So, while I have a lot more research to do, this toe-dip into local stuff has born banjo-fruit for the 1870s. For the next visit I will drop back a decade and see what gives. The population was only around 3,000 in the 1860s...and I don't expect much prior to that. Still, it deserves a look. At least I might find an early Minstrel Show listing.
No doubt, Tim. I had done some really surface scratching about 10 yrs ago...finding nothing at all. I didn't really have the time. I knew this was a fairly important hub for Alabama in the 19th Cent., it had been a temporary state-capital in 1819 and the county was one of the largest cotton producers in the South. There had been a folk-tradition of banjo playing in nearby Sand Mountain from at least the 1890s but I wanted to see if I could trace the early banjo's footprints here in town.
I gotta get the primary research done soon. We're moving to SC in January.
I can't help you with Alabama. You mentioned Nashville. I do have ads for Frank Converse's school and lessons in Memphis, 1855.
Yes, I'd like to see a copy. There were a few ads in the local papers for pianos from a company based in Memphis...no banjos though. Pianos were very popular, of course. I found some early ads for Knabe pianos...one of which sits in my living room, scheduled to be reduced to a pile of c.1895 "tone-wood" soon.