Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

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Comment by Ian Bell on June 5, 2011 at 12:39pm
What part of the country does this painting represent?
Comment by Rob Morrison on June 5, 2011 at 11:55pm


The original painting , "The Banjo Man," is hung in the Valentine Historical Museum in Richmond, VA.  It was painted in either 1815 0r 1813--I have found varying accounts.  In either case Mr. Sweeney would have been far too young to have invented the banjo depicted in it. I would guess the painting is probably from the South due to the early date and the fact that it's being played by an African American gentleman.  There is a close-up picture of the banjo archived in Banjo Hangout in a discussion about hanging ribbons from banjos (the banjo is beribboned), from July ,2010. From the close-up picture it appears  the banjo does have a circular wooden rim, there is a drone string, and the instrument has at least four and possibly five strings.  The painting is in need of repair  so the details are not as crisp as they might be.--Rob Morrison.

Comment by Ian Bell on June 6, 2011 at 7:36am

It sure looks like an instrument that we could probably all pick up and get a tune out of without too much difficulty.


Comment by Rob Morrison on June 6, 2011 at 10:33am


I found more info on "The Banjo Man."  The artist was an Englishman born in 1780 who died in 1854.  He moved to Richmond VA and established himself in 1812 as a "portrait painter in oil."  His most famous painting is "The Sword Swallower" which now hangs in the Valentine Museum in Richmond along with "The Banjo Man."  In 1816 he estalished the Virginia Museum in Richmond.  He spent the rest of his career in Virginia.  So I thinks it's fairly certain the scene depicted, given the time frame, took place in Virginia and probably in or near Richmond.--Rob Morrison

Comment by Tim Twiss on June 6, 2011 at 11:27am
1815....it just seems to be so much earlier than is usually mentioned. But hey, there it is.
Comment by Mark Weems on June 7, 2011 at 9:15pm
The history books are often proved wrong, boys and girls, particularly in a  new area of study such as ours.  Joe Ayers has a book coming out really soon which may shed some light on such things.
Comment by Tim Twiss on June 8, 2011 at 8:40am
Mark, how can you prop the door open like that and leave us hanging?
Comment by razyn on June 9, 2011 at 9:23pm

The guy's name was Sy Gilliat -- he had been a slave to Lord Botetourt in Williamsburg and a well known fiddle player, who played for the (British colonial) governor's balls and so on.  (No rude jokes about that, I mean dances that he hosted.)  There is some question whether the banjo man is the fiddler or his son, if he had a son; anyway there was a Sy Gilliat in Richmond later, who I believe was a free person of color in a census before the Civil War.  But I don't believe that later Sy would have been this old in 1813.

There is some documentation of the painting in Iconography of Music in African=American Culture, 1770s-1920s, by Eileen Southern and Josephine Wright.

Comment by Strumelia on August 22, 2013 at 8:35pm

Hmm...I look at that painting and I think that could easily be a large gourd banjo.  Thornburg makes some big gourd banjers like that. Lots of gourd banjos look just like that when viewed mostly from the front.

What makes you all so positive it's a hoop banjo?

Comment by Tim Twiss on August 22, 2013 at 8:36pm

The little boy is pointing right at it, and he is obviously say "Hoop...Hoop".


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