Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

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Comment by Bell Banjos on August 22, 2013 at 11:09pm


Comment by Joel Hooks on November 30, 2013 at 7:16am

Comment by Joel Hooks on November 30, 2013 at 10:56pm

I made my point.

Comment by Bob Sayers on December 1, 2013 at 3:17am

While one can never be certain about this things, it's still my opinion that Sweeney and one of the Bouchers (there were two) "invented" the modern wood frame banjo--i.e., a banjo with a wooden hoop for a body.  I have found no sheet music cover, drawing, painting (despite the one in question), or newspaper description prior to 1840 or 1841 that shows or describes a wood frame banjo.  If you examine the several sheet music images of Sweeney in Bob Carlin's book, he appears to be playing a a gourd banjo up to that date and a wood frame banjo thereafter. Moreover, according to Carlin's performance chronology, Sweeney was performing in Baltimore in May and June of 1841 (which would have placed him in proximity to the Bouchers around that time) and did not perform again in that city until 1854.  That may jibe with a series of 1849 newspaper ads in which E. Wilhelm Boucher, Sr. of Baltimore claims that he was the "first" to manufacture banjos and tambourines.   Moreover, performance advertisements in the early 1850s are beginning to claim that Sweeney "invented" the banjo.   

I'm going to go a step further and say that the wood frame banjo evolved from the tambourine and not a drum shell.  I speculated before that early tambourines were all tack-heads like the earliest wood frame banjos.   Well, I may have been wrong.   Recently, three important tintypes of two African-American minstrel performers surfaced on eBay.  (Sadly, I hesitated because of the asking prices and didn't get them.)  One man is playing a minstrel banjo and the other a tambourine.  The latter tambourine looks exactly like the body of an early minstrel banjo with metal bracket tighteners.  

Coming back to the painting at the Valentine Museum:  I think that the artist (who obvious wasn't very conversant in things banjo) painted a gourd banjo that just happens to look like a wood frame banjo.  Until another image or description of a wood frame banjo appears between 1813/14 and 1840, I'll stand by my contention that the "big bang" that produced the modern banjo occurred in Baltimore in 1840/41.   


Comment by James Pentecost on December 1, 2013 at 10:09am

Bob, I just posted photos of a fairly early tambourine that I purchased from an antiques dealer in Hagerstown, Maryland.  It is 15" in diameter, ash or oak hoop, tin jingles, adjustable tension. Unfortunately there is no provenance.

Comment by Bob Sayers on December 1, 2013 at 10:48am

Thanks for posting the tambourine photos, James.  It'll be interesting to see more early tambos.  

Meanwhile, here are links to the three eBay tintypes, if anyone is interested.   I've posted the listing numbers below. 








Comment by Mark Weems on December 1, 2013 at 10:17pm

Bob, Both Bob Carlin and Pete Ross have told me that they stood in front of this painting at the Valentine and still could not tell if it was a gourd or a frame.  I've actually researched Warell a little. His name was James Warrell, an Englishman, who had moved to the Richmond, Va area. By 1812 he was offering his services to the local gentry just west of town 'as a Portrait Painter in Oil.' That would put him within 40 miles of Sweeny's (who was two years old at that time) birthplace in Appomattox Courthouse. Among Warrell's canvases was the Sena Soma, or the Sword Swallower, now at the Valentine Museum. In 1814 he designed Peter Francisco's Gallant Action . . . in Amelia County, Virginia, later engraved by D.Edwin. In 1816 Warrell, with Richard Lorton, a Petersburg artist, aided in establishing in Richmond a museum of art and natural science known as the Virginia Museum. Cheers.

Comment by Bob Sayers on December 1, 2013 at 11:30pm

Hi Mark,

I guess the question for me is "who would have made a wood frame banjo in 1814?"  I don't think there were many white banjoists before Sweeney--at least I haven't identified many.  Perhaps an enslaved African in Virginia created a wood frame banjo that early.  I wouldn't rule that out, especially since the documentary and visual evidence is still so scarce.  What does exist, though, in the way of pre-1840 engravings, paintings, etc. of black banjoists pretty much suggests that gourd banjos were the norm.  

I'm certainly willing to keep and open mind, and wouldn't be crushed if someone turns up new evidence to refute my current claims about Sweeney and the Bouchers.  I'm still digging into old newspapers myself.  So maybe some new and exciting bit of information will turn up!  That's the fun of early banjo research.          

Comment by Mark Weems on December 2, 2013 at 12:34am

I don't think it is a frame banjo. If they were known in that area that early, I think Sweeny would have been playing one earlier on. 

Comment by Strumelia on December 2, 2013 at 12:51pm

My two cents- I too think the banjo in this painting is a gourd banjo.  Have we yet discussed the fact that it looks like it has no wide peghead either?  just ending in the tapered neck stick right at the top near where he's fretting.  ....dare I say...I almost wonder if it even had pegs, or maybe the strings were just tied on like one sees here on akontings?  (ok now I'll duck and run) lolol...


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