Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

These are my great grand parents. They performed in the late 1880's and 1890's with Keith's and Barlow Bros. Minstrel Shows mainly in New England.

Views: 220

Comment by Bell Banjos on February 1, 2014 at 10:19pm

These stories and photos are wonderful.

Comment by Strumelia on February 2, 2014 at 3:45pm

Yes, wonderful!

Comment by Jonathan Cook on February 2, 2014 at 4:47pm


Comment by Joel Hooks on February 2, 2014 at 5:28pm

Hi Jonathan, these are fascinating photos!  Thank you for sharing.  I particularly like this one.  I have long had a theory that folks were doing "throw back" shows.  Sort of old time minstrel shows in the 1880s. 

I love that Fred is corked and holding a large "tub" banjo while Nellie is dressed as the lady that she likely was playing a modern banjo.  This scenario makes for all sort of hilarity.

It would be really neat if you could find a banjo that resembles his in this photo and use it to tell his story.

Drinking was a problem with a lot of minstrels.  Many of the top players like Lew Brimmer drank themselves to death.  Your Great Grandfather was in common company.

These guys were also notorious for blowing through money.  Big pay meant diamond stickpins and hand made boots with nothing left over.

Do you have any more ephemera from him?  We can help track down music if you have any titles that he played.

Comment by Jonathan Cook on February 2, 2014 at 11:57pm

Thanks Joel, I'm glad you enjoyed them.  All I have of Fred and Nellie are these photographs, a cassette tape interview with my grandmother, as well as 9 handwritten pages that my grandmother wrote down about her childhood and life in vaudeville.  This is where I got most of my info on the Markhams. In regard to blowing through money, my grandmother told me that they lived like homeless people half the time, often sleeping on benches, etc. She herself had to drop out of school in the seventh grade to go to work to help support the family (She made potholders and other items that she sewed by hand and then peddled them in the street). Unfortunately,  I have no idea what songs they performed. I could only speculate.  

Comment by Galen Wilkes on April 12, 2014 at 1:19pm

This is great stuff, Jonathan.  You could put together a program as Joel says, or at least publish a bio & history on them.  That's terrific you actually have some documentation via personal papers & an interview.  It's pretty rare that that happens.

Comment by Jonathan Cook on April 13, 2014 at 12:58pm

Thanks Galen. I have corresponded with Jim Bollman who has quite a collection of minstrel memorabilia.  When he first saw the above image he knew who they were, which shocked me! He has another photo of the Markham's that I've never seen. His image not only has my great grandparents, but my grandmother as well.  He has invited me to pay a visit and see his Markham photo as well as his collection. I'm really looking forward to it!

Comment by Galen Wilkes on April 14, 2014 at 12:44am

 I love his book.  Im envious that you will be visiting him!  That is amazing he knew who they were.  Im very impressed.  I loved reading about James Ashborn in his book; I made a trip out to Torrington when I was back in CT to see what history may still exist.  Ive done the same for other regional banjoists back there as well, there are many.  Also bought a 19th C. cabinet card of 2 banjoists in New London, and solved the mystery to who they were.  I love being detective too. 

Comment by Strumelia on April 14, 2014 at 9:40am

Are those the kinds of flipper shoes that enabled the wearer to rock up onto the tips for comic effect?   They don't seem to be just simple clownish large shoes, but seem to have the rocking purpose to their odd shape with the straight cut toe thing?

I sometimes ponder about how all that awful black cork makeup must have gotten all over the costumes worn by the blackface minstrels, and it surely must have gotten on their banjos as well, particularly I suppose on the banjo skin.  Has anyone heard of old original banjos that exhibited actual black cork/makeup residue?

Comment by Strumelia on April 14, 2014 at 9:41am

Fred's banjo appears to have a fretboard overlay....or else (and way less likely) a hugely loooong scoop.


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