An early, southern, folk banjo?

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Jan 10, 2007, 11:35:14 AM1/10/07
to Minstrel Banjo
In recent weeks I have started one thread about the "lambda"
configuration of pegs, that was pretty successful in eliciting
commentary; and another about "Monkey Simon" that so far has elicited
none, discounting the usual obligatory rant. Today I am posting a 1971
photo of an old banjo (38 1/2" long, 14 1/2" head diameter, with the
lambda peg pattern) from Middle Tennessee. In the "Files" area it is
currently labeled <scan_711010747_1.jpg>

Who knows, maybe it will ring a bell for one of you Confederate
soldiers. I recently told its present caretaker that most other
surviving examples, as early as this one appears to be, are "fancier,
more obviously commercial in origin, clearly associated with the
blackface minstrelsy tradition, and from much farther north." As
always, I welcome disagreement from anyone who knows better. Or

I'd like to say in advance that I don't believe everything I've seen in
print about "inventions," real or imagined, of banjo head tensioning
devices, fifth pegs, etc. as found (later) in museum captions, patent
applications and so forth. So please don't open with a patronizing
assurance that this instrument incorporates something invented in the
1840s by a drum maker in Baltimore. See Gura & Bollman (1999), p. 60,
note 81. I accept that as a possible, but not an inevitable,
influence. (The wheelbarrow was patented in about 1979, but is
considerably older.) But if the bracket hardware or tailpiece (or
whatever) clearly points to a known Boston foundry (or whatever), fine
-- tell me about it.

Daniel Partner

Jan 10, 2007, 11:44:52 AM1/10/07
Rayzn -- Did you personally see this wonderful instrument? I'm struck by the
elegant curve from the fifth peg to the heel. Also, I wonder if the apparent
soiling at the bottom of the neck might indicate a player's right hand
position. -- Daniel


Jan 10, 2007, 1:09:54 PM1/10/07
to Minstrel Banjo
I saw it several times in 1969-71; not lately. But I have brand new
digital photos of it (details, etc.) which I shall post, eventually, if
it raises enough of a stir here.

Various people at the recent "Wunderfest" groused about Greg Adams'
Yankee uniform, etc. But I haven't heard a corresponding lack of
sympathy for the almost unanimous acceptance of Yankee-made, commercial
examples as the standard of excellence for this quintessentially
southern folk instrument. Besides the fairly skimpy inventory of
known, surviving banjos, the photo evidence also skews toward the
north, the cities, and the prosperous (compared with the broader
demographic of who was fighting, or for that matter, playing banjo).
It just seems to me the step from Akonting to Ashborn is way too long a
step; and among the many steplets in between, I'd suggest something
like this one (among others) as perhaps more authentic, for many
Confederate (rural, southern) units.

Message has been deleted
Message has been deleted


Jan 10, 2007, 2:45:14 PM1/10/07
to Minstrel Banjo
On Jan 10, 10:44 am, "Daniel Partner" <> wrote:
"...I wonder if the apparent soiling at the bottom of the neck might

indicate a player's right hand position."

Dan P. -

If other views of this banjo are posted, we can find out if that
apparent soiling at the bottom of the neck is really instead just a
shadow, as the plane of the fretboard sinks to meet the pot under the
tension hoop - a construction style which has precedent.

I also want to reassure Razyn that Sweeney, who is widely accepted as
the person who (if nothing else) consolidated the 5-course / hoop pot
construction as a standard format for the instrument was himself a
Southerner, as so directly on your "steplet." In any event that
format, represented again by the instrument here, was the
most-established format for both Minstrel / Northern-made banjos as it
was for Woodworker / Southern-made banjos by the time the Civil War
started. Both Yankee and Reb soldiers wandered the South and had
access to banjos made anywhere in the U.S., either before or during the

war. Given that I would say it's impossible to decree what's
appropriate for a particular soldier to have played, or for that matter
that they played in the technique of the tutors.

BTW, on this banjo you will observe how the peg pattern, regardless of
any other explanation offered, once again merely keeps the strings in
alignment to the nut slots. A practicality, in my view, and a default
for anyone making a banjo unless they were inspired to do otherwise.

I also want to mention the second row of holes on the tailpiece, which
were I suppose either to allow a tying-off knot through hole sets, or
perhaps an attempt at some point to shift the strings over a bit to
compensate for the oblong distortion of the pot over time.

- Dan'l

P.S. Rayzn - It's clear you did not understand or appreciate my reply
to your Simon post. So as a gesture I removed it and the resource
attached to it. The topic was a stretch for this group anyway. Please,
though, in the future try to avoid airing insults in view of this

Carl Anderton

Jan 10, 2007, 5:04:21 PM1/10/07
to Minstrel Banjo

> P.S. Rayzn - It's clear you did not understand or appreciate my reply
> to your Simon post. So as a gesture I removed it and the resource
> attached to it. The topic was a stretch for this group anyway. Please,
> though, in the future try to avoid airing insults in view of this
> group.

Just when you think you've seen "Dan'l" at his pompous, most fatuous
worst...he tops himself with gem like this.

It's a shame this board must be plagued with jackass like him. So I'm
outta here. It saddens me not to post here, 'cause that's what "Dan'l"
wants, to have it be all about him. But so be it. See ya.


Jan 10, 2007, 9:26:43 PM1/10/07
to Minstrel Banjo
It seems I can say or do nothing that does not anger Carl - I can't
agree with him, I certainly can't disagree, I should be polite, but if
I'm polite I'm insincere, I must say what of mine is opinion, yet my
opinion is sh_t, I must provide sources, but my sources are sh_t, I
shouldn't post to begin with, but if I do I can't retract, I can
compliment but I can't compliment him, I have tried to keep the
personality stuff stay away from group view and asked him to do the
same, yet it's pretty much ok for him to be rude, inconsiderate,
belligerent, and superior. He has the gall to suggest I troll for
sympathy, yet he who actively recruits against views other than his.
He has literally claimed to own group consensus.

>From the start, two years ago, had I known that the options were either
to agree with him on nearly everything, at which point I'd get a
nickname and a few yuks, or to disagree and be literally steamrolled, I
might have handled this differently.

I won't roll for him, but neither will I allow this matter to distract
the group. In spite of all Carl is an interesting contributor and
quite a talent, so if he will consider staying in I promise not to
comment here again unless asked.

- Dan Wykes


Jan 11, 2007, 1:59:00 AM1/11/07
to Minstrel Banjo
I'm trying to open a window or three on early banjos, here -- a la Mr.
Smithson (of the Smithsonian Institution), who was broadly interested
in "the increase and diffusion of knowledge." It is unpleasant to have
every such window turned into an entry port for yet another completely
irrelevant flaming session between guys who are talking about each
other, not about banjo history.

One relevant comment stands out, amongst the chaff: the one about
Sweeney's having been southern. That's true, as far as it goes; but
Appomattox is about 500 miles closer to Baltimore (and other northern
centers of commercial banjo manufacture) than is Nashville. In the
part of The South where I live, just across the river from DC, I'm
about 50 miles from Baltimore, and 700 miles from Nashville. So: what
I said (qualified with "suggest," "perhaps," "among others," and

If you are recreating a TYPICAL Confederate soldier, from such a place
as Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South
Carolina, or Tennessee -- it MAY be that your local banjo making
tradition had more in common with this fairly early Tennessee example
than with some others (southern or not), from several hundred to about
a thousand miles farther northeast. It also MAY be that you've never
seen a minstrel show, or a self instructor -- but have yet seen and
heard the banjo all your life. Played, back in the day, mostly by
black guys.

And I did btw cite a Sweeney instrument -- not in this thread, but in
the one about the lambda peg configuration. (Which was prefatory to
this one.) I note that Dan'l has just posted another lambda example in
the Files area, if he doesn't yank it. And in the well known Brady
photo of a black player aboard the USS Hunchback, circa 1865, his
instrument has the lambda pattern. You have to blow it way up, to
tell; the version in Ring the Banjar! (p. 12) is too small. Try

Anyway, I'd really like to participate in a discussion of this
PARTICULAR, way early, real southern, kinda folky banjo from Tennessee.


Jan 11, 2007, 9:47:23 AM1/11/07
to Minstrel Banjo
Rayzn - Fair enough.

Your wanting to make a separate history for the 5-string banjo seems
reasonable, but your "way early, real Southern, kinda folky banjo from
Tennessee" was I believe nonetheless built after the pattern
established earlier by Sweeney and others of his vintage and
association. The relative size of the neck to the pot, the number of
hooks and brackets, the tailpiece, the tuning pegs, the way the 5th peg
is installed, the metal tensioning band were not a case of parallel
evolution, but an instrument built in the style of the times, and not
all that early. Tennessee is upper South, and was not particularly
isolated. It was traversed for commerce by rail and coach lines, with
Circus and Minstrel shows on board.

If you were a very rural Southern person and had somehow missed a
Circus or Minstrel show - which did travel all over the South, even
during the War - the "way early, real Southern, kinda folky banjo" you
would have seen would have been a guord banjo, not that I accept that
anywhere South was so isolated as not to have seen a Sweeney pattern
banjo like yours here.

There are people expert in this area viewing this thread whom I hope
can set us both straight.

btw your prior posts are nowhere near near pure as the driven snow in
regards off-topic flaming comments. It was Carl Anderton who introduced
the post here that had nothing to do with early banjo, it was you who
chose to chime with it, and I merely defended myself. That's the extent
of it.

You noticed the similarity of your banjo to the African-American photo
I placed. For purpose this discussion I have also placed a photo of
some Confederate soldiers with a scroll-head factory type banjo, not
that I disagree a more folky banjo is more appropriate for a
Confederate impression.

- Dan'l

- Dan'l


Jan 11, 2007, 10:01:36 AM1/11/07
to Minstrel Banjo
Is there any indication that it was actually made in the south or any
particular place? It seems to me it could be from most anywhere.


Jan 11, 2007, 11:05:48 AM1/11/07
to Minstrel Banjo

On Jan 11, 10:01 am, "Chumley" <> wrote:
> Is there any indication that it was actually made in the south or any
> particular place? It seems to me it could be from most anywhere.

The Nashville area family that owns it has owned it since 1866, or
perhaps a few years earlier (not later). They know where they got it
(from an adjacent farm), and that it was considered at the time to have
been made there; however, the owners of that farm were prosperous and
widely traveled. I have tried to raise questions here that might (or
might not) be answerable from the physical evidence, before getting
into the provenance stuff -- in part to see if anybody comes up with
something clearly contradictory to the local origin story.

For instance, the double row of holes (mentioned by Dan'l) on the
tailpiece: does that shout "Boucher," or some other name, to somebody?
I think the holes in the unused row are smaller, and the intention was
to start the string there (with a knot to keep it from pulling through
the hole); then under, and back out through the next and larger hole
(the only one in use, as photographed). Could also be done backward;
it would be harder to tie the knot, but you could start with it already
tied ("ball end").

And I've already had a colloquy on the lambda peg layout. It was
pretty common, pretty early -- but nobody has yet pinned it to a date,
region, ethnic group, or maker.

To me, the asymmetry and relative roughness of the neck, peghead, and
peg carving (which will be more evident if I post detail shots) hint
more at a local craftsman than at anything like a distant, urban
factory. But the craftsman knew what he was doing, and it was done
within a tradition. Sweeney is also in that broad tradition -- as are
the makers of any number of "minstrel" banjos that survive, or that
were photographed. I for one doubt that Sweeney in any meaningful
sense originated, or stands at he head of, that tradition. I have no
problem with this being a "post-Sweeney" instrument; I just question
whether that cuts any ice. Post hoc, ergo propter hoc, is a weak
argument. There are strong arguments; I'd be happy to see one.


Jan 11, 2007, 12:05:41 PM1/11/07
to Minstrel Banjo
On Jan 11, 10:05 am, "razyn" <> wrote:

"...To me, the asymmetry and relative roughness of the neck, peghead,

peg carving (which will be more evident if I post detail shots) hint
more at a local craftsman than at anything like a distant, urban
factory. But the craftsman knew what he was doing, and it was done
within a tradition. Sweeney is also in that broad tradition -- as are

the makers of any number of "minstrel" banjos that survive..."

Rayzn -

My thoughts exactly. I'd like George's take on it.

On Sweeney, if he wasn't one of the first to establish the 5-string,
hoop pot, hook and nut, stretcher band etc. construction, he at least
by accounts took extroadinary measures to keep the details of his
particular instrument secret as he travelled, which would not have been
necessary if that construction pattern had been in use commonly.

On that earlier Dan P. question - do you know if the fingerboard slopes
down below the band, causing a shadow in the photo that Dan P. saw as
soiling? Or is it in fact flat right up to the pot, and actually
soiled, an indication of where the player was hitting the strings?

One last thing - if the vellum was replaced, is this banjo playable?
Tim just posed some Converse material itchin' to sound once again on de
ol Cremona.

- Dan'l


Jan 11, 2007, 10:07:17 PM1/11/07
to Minstrel Banjo
I've posted six new pictures, provided for me Tuesday by Marsha Mullin,
Chief Curator and Director of Museum Services at The Hermitage (Home of
Pres. Andrew Jackson). I have renamed the older photo "HTB1971" (for
Hermitage Tennessee Banjo), and the new ones are numbered from one
through six. I think these photos, especially the closeup details, may
answer some of the questions that have been asked, and may bring up

Incidentally, the first photo was taken by Robert Corrigan for a museum
catalog, "Made in Tennessee: an Exhibition of Early Arts and Crafts,"
Sept. 15- Oct. 31, 1971, at the Tennessee Fine Arts Center at Cheekwood
(Nashville). That exhibition was timed to coincide with publication of
the special Tennessee issue of The Magazine Antiques (Sept. 1971), to
which I have recently referred in the "Monkey Simon" thread. (I am
still calling that a "thread," somewhat optimistically, as the only
response has been withdrawn -- so it is a one-string fiddle at
present.) I wrote the music article in that magazine, and was a lender
to the Cheekwood exhibition (as well as assistant to Ellen Beasley in
taking photos and writing captions for its catalog). So I had much to
do with getting this banjo before the public eye, and in print, 35
years ago. It has been brought to my notice that another view of it
was published by Joe Wilson in "Rachel and the Eighth of January,"
Bluegrass Unlimited (May 1988), p. 65. Ironically, I was Joe's
Associate Director at NCTA for a couple of years, 1981-82; but to the
best of my knowledge, we had no occasion to discuss the old banjo at
The Hermitage.

Daniel Partner

Jan 12, 2007, 10:29:28 AM1/12/07
I for one am glad you brought this banjo to our attention. I have no
expertise in the matters you're discussing here, so cannot contribute.
However, I do appreciate your observations and would like to hear from some
of the collectors, scholars, and banjo builders on the list.

Daniel Partner

Jan 12, 2007, 11:33:09 AM1/12/07
Those are fantastic pictures, rayzn. Thanks!

> I've posted six new pictures, provided for me Tuesday by Marsha Mullin,


Jan 16, 2007, 12:55:27 PM1/16/07
to Minstrel Banjo
Paqrdon my ignorance, but how do I veiw these photos?


Jan 16, 2007, 2:21:16 PM1/16/07
Go to the google groups beta site:
The images are at the bottom where it says "files". Choose the view all link to see all of them.


Jan 16, 2007, 2:48:13 PM1/16/07
to Minstrel Banjo
Thanks Jeff, I was not viewing this in beta and therefore I had no
"files" list at the bottom, when I switched I found it!

These are very cool photos. I have several questions,

2) WHERE DID IT COME FROM? (originally, and how do we know this)

It is an important banjo for study but much more needs to be known
before any comment can be made.



Jan 16, 2007, 5:23:33 PM1/16/07
to Minstrel Banjo

On Jan 16, 2:48 pm, "George" <> wrote:


It is at The Hermitage, a little NE of Nashville TN, and normally is on
display in a glass case. I don't know in what room. It does not
belong to the museum but has been on loan there since, I believe, 1930.

> 2) WHERE DID IT COME FROM? (originally, and how do we know this)

>From The Hermitage. See below.


The adopted son of Andrew Jackson, Andrew Jr., inherited the home,
plantation and property when the President died in 1844. Andrew Jr.
lived there (and on other property of his in Mississippi) until his
death -- heavily in debt -- in April, 1865. There was a liquidation
sale (public auction) of the contents of the mansion in 1866. The
Christian Hofstetter family, owning an adjacent large farm, purchased
some of the President's furniture and other items at this sale. The
Ladies' Hermitage Association was formed about twenty years later --
patterned after the recently incorporated Mount Vernon Ladies'
Association of the Union -- to preserve the Jackson home as a shrine.
That association still operates the house as a museum. Their records
of the 1866 auction are not exhaustive, but they do not show that the
banjo was sold then. It is therefore probable that the Hofstetters
already had it before Andrew Jr. died.

In the late 1960s I was acquainted with Mrs. Oscar Hofstetter, Jr.,
wife of the great-grandson of Christian Hofstetter. Their impression
was that it had been Pres. Andrew Jackson's instrument; but they had no
documentation of that, and since he died in 1844, there has been
widespread doubt that this was the case. One of the reasons I posted
so much detail about Monkey Simon was to document the fact that Jackson
and many of his peers in the upper levels of Tennessee society were
well acquainted with a black banjo player (from Africa) at least as
early as 1806, long before the minstrel shows, Sweeney, etc. Whether
that has anything to do with this instrument, I cannot say, and do not
assert. But I was told so, in the 1960s, by the family who owned it
(and still do). It also seems fairly unlikely that the Hofstetters in
the 1860s would have wanted an old banjo that had belonged either to
Andrew Jr. (who owed them, and many other people, money) or to one of
the plantation slaves. (That story has also been proposed. There is
local tradition of a slave at the Hermitage who played fiddle at the
Jacksons' parties, but not of a banjo player.)

With respect to the chain of ownership of the banjo, I have a note from
Mrs. Hofstetter postmarked Dec. 13, 1969, which reads in part:

About the banjo -- Mr. Hofstetter, Sr. [her father-in-law] said his
grandmother (Christian Hofstetter's wife) either obtained it in payment
of a debt or bought it at the auction of Andrew Jackson, Jr.'s effects
(1866). At her death, his aunt Miss Emma Hofstetter had the banjo and
he thought it was supposed to have been willed to his first cousin,
James. However, when the Ladies' Hermitage Assn. began their
restoration, she loaned it, among other items, to them. Her sister,
Miss Bettie Hofstetter, also presented some effects.
Mr. Hofstetter, Sr. suggested you might call his first cousin James'
son -- also named James -- and he might have some information about it.
He lives at 3209 Freno Drive in Donelson -- James Hofstetter.
I would think the Ladies' Hermitage Assn. would have some sort of
record concerning its authenticity before they accepted it. Hope all
this helps and thanks again.
Virginia Hofstetter
Dec. 12th


Jan 17, 2007, 9:48:53 AM1/17/07
to Minstrel Banjo

Thanks for the information... This is certainly an important banjo and
deserves attention.

Here is my $.02 for what it is worth.

I would date this banjo from 1848-1858. There are multple reasons for
my dating.

1) The cast hardware inside the pot is designed specifically for this
purpose. It is similar to hardware I have seen in St. Louis dated 1863
but more refined. Earlier nown banjo seem to use non-specific hardware
modified for use on a banjo. These include wing nuts, crude "L"
brackets, clock weight adjustment nuts, barrel nuts and carriage top

2) The neck shape mimics other known minstrel banjos of this period. I
am not saying that this banjo did not lead to those banjos, I do not
have enough information to make such a statement. But, there certaily
is a similarity The peg head and neck are very similar to other
dateable instruments from photographs. The neck is very similar to the
D. Jacobs banjos (c 1855-1860) from the fifth peg down although the
hardware and hoop design and size are vastly different.

3) The style of hooks and nuts is seen on other banjos found in the
South. This style of hardware can be readily seen on a western
Virginia banjo that turned up a few years ago. That banjo clearly
copied a Boucher style neck very closely but the body and hardware were
entirely unique. It likely placed that banjo in the post 1845 period
and with very similar hardware that MAY help date this banjo

4) The overall dimensions mimic a Kentucky banjo that dates to about
1858. That banjo came from far western KY and has similar depth in the
hoop area.

I do agree that there is too much attention paid to manufactured banjos
of known makers. But there are other Sotuhern banjos out there from
this period. Several reside in collections in Florida, western Va and
St. Louis. They are vital to understanding construction and local
traditions. I would likely date this banjo earlier if not for the fact
that it has so many features seen on other banjos of the period. Unlike
the Diuguid banjo from Lexington Va which shares very little with set
traditions of commercial banjo building this one share many features.

I am open to differning points of veiw and would love to debate them so
that better understanding may come from this.



Jan 19, 2007, 8:58:52 AM1/19/07
to Minstrel Banjo

I thought I was replying to this, yesterday -- even got the message
I had successfully posted -- but it hasn't ever appeared. I'm trying
again. If someday the other one materializes (and they say pretty
much the same thing), I'll eventually notice that, and will delete one.

On Jan 17, 9:48 am, "George" <> wrote:

> I would date this banjo from 1848-1858.

That's okay by me, if true. But I don't think any of the evidence you
cite justifies slicing the pie that thin. Part of my interest is in
to determine whether the banjo did belong, or might have belonged, to
former Pres. Andrew Jackson, who died in 1844. That would make
more sense, to me, and only requires acceptance that the instrument
might be four years earlier than George guesses. I'm not going to say
that my guess is as good as his -- I'm cranky, but not stupid -- but I
am going to quibble, a bit.

> 1) The cast hardware inside the pot is designed specifically for this
> purpose.

I almost believe this, but don't concede that that fact, per se, dates
the thing. If it is illustrated in a dated catalog (later than 1844)
St. Louis or something, fine; say so, and show us the picture. Failing

that, I'd just mention that a person in early 19th century Nashville
wanted a brass casting could have it done locally. Henry Eichbaum
was casting (and engraving) brass sundials there; there were also
various gunsmiths and silversmiths who could have done it. It is also
conceivable (I can conceive it, but I don't particularly believe it)
this handy hardware already existed for some other purpose (harness,
luggage, cookware, weaponry, etc.), and we just haven't spotted it; or
that it was actually made for banjo or drum tensioning, but available
earlier than we yet know (or Boucher knew, for that matter). I do not
claim any of this as fact, only assert its possibility.

> 2) The neck shape mimics other known minstrel banjos of this period.

One of two places where you say "mimics," but mean "resembles." At
least you qualify it, this time. But the factual part -- that it
something else -- does not give us any date-specific information. If
actually did mimic the other one, then it's later, and that would be
persuasive. We don't have that information.

> 3) The style of hooks and nuts is seen on other banjos found in the
> South.

I sort of like this one, because of where they are seen. But I don't
any reason to believe it begins in 1848 (or at any specific time),
imitates Boucher, etc.

> 4) The overall dimensions mimic a Kentucky banjo that dates to about
> 1858. That banjo came from far western KY and has similar depth in the
> hoop area.

There you go again with "mimic," when you mean "resemble." I suspect,
as you also appear to, that there may be a more southwestern profile
reflected here. I have a more primitive, but in some ways similar (and

almost certainly later) banjo from central Kentucky (Hodgenville is
I found it, and it wasn't from too far away). Maybe I'll post pictures
sometime. But you haven't posted pictures, e.g. of the Kentucky and SW

Virginia banjos you mention, to support your argument; and I don't want

just to clutter the FILES area of this forum. It may all belong in the
base" you and Greg are working on. But that, so far, isn't a venue for

discussion, advocacy, iconoclasm, etc.

> I am open to differing points of view

Well, I have one. My original version of this seems to have vanished
yesterday morning into cyberspace; I'll try to say it again.

It would be easy enough to accept the viewpoint of those sons of
Massachusetts, Gura and Bollman, e.g. on p. 43 of the excellent
America's Instrument: "By the 1850s more makers had appeared in
New York City, the center of the nation's musical life." But we are
about banjos, already for a century or more a part of southern folk
with which New York (and some other places that share its fascination
with commerce) had little contact and less influence. We are not
dealing with gesunkenes Kulturgut; this came from Africa, and moved
from slaves to free people, black to white people, southern to northern

people -- before 1848, before Sweeney and Boucher, before Yankees
started imitating (for comic effect, of course, but mainly for money)
of us who had for a long, long time been familiar with the "half
twang," etc.

I don't think Andrew Jackson sat around in his dotage playing a banjo.
do think -- no, I know (and have already posted, on the "Monkey Simon"
thread) -- that he was aware of the banjo, and acquainted with a
black player thereof, for some forty years before he died. To me, it
more credible that the Hofstetter family wanted this instrument, and
it (for 140 years and counting), if -- like other things they kept --
it had
once been the President's.

People give things to politicians. We have presidential libraries
days, in which that sort of thing is displayed. I don't know, but I
that this instrument, made locally in a long standing regional
was given, shortly before his death (say, 1843), to the elderly local

(We don't have a daguerreotype of Monkey Simon; but I have cited the
fact that this old banjo picker was still an active jockey in high
races, in Nashville, in 1843.)

My hypothesis may be wrong, but it makes sense. If the banjo dates
from 1850 or so, it's wrong, and I'm OK with that. But I'd like to see

something closer to proof, before conceding a (slightly) later date,
requiring a provenance that makes less sense.


Jan 19, 2007, 11:10:52 AM1/19/07
to Minstrel Banjo
I appologize for my use of the word mimic. You are right, they

I have no proof that my date of theory is any more correct than yours.
I only have evidence that leads me to date the way I did. That said I
have several questions that bother me.

1) If this was typical of local tradition older than 1844, why is this
the only example known and why does it have characteritics similar to
those of other later dateable instruemnts?

2) It is so much more advanced than those banjos of say Virginia
(Diuguid and several others) New York and Baltimore for the year 1844.
Why then did this local tradition not influence early banjo design in
Memphis, St. Louis and Louisville which are all in close trading
proximity to Tenn? I agree that these casting could have been made at
any location where a gunsmith worked or a foundry existed. It just
seems that such an advanced design would have gained great notice due
to the practicality oof the design.

I am sorry that the banjos I mentioned are not yet in the data base.
Many banjos I have seen and worked on are not in the data base yet. It
takes over on hour to complete an entry in the data base and without
substantial funds this is all on Greg's shoulders and to a lesser
degree, mine. It will take another year or more to get all of the
banjos up alhtough the Duiguid is up now for reference. I am sorry that
this is taking so long, but it willtake much longer before it becomes
what we want it to be.

I conceed that you may be right. I am simple adding up the evidence
that I have at hand, at this time, and making a judgement call based on
that information. I am not willing to date any tension head banjo with
sophisticated hardware earlier than 1845 without evidence based on
actual data. If one ever come up, I will eat my words publically and
happily. I just can bring myself to do it at this time based on what I
think I know (to be honest and accurate). Everything about the design
and feel of this banjo is wrong to me for the period. But I hope I am
proven wrong.

Daniel Partner

Jan 19, 2007, 10:27:07 AM1/19/07
Razyn wrote:
> I thought I was replying to this, yesterday -- even got the message that I
had successfully posted -- but it hasn't ever appeared. I'm trying again.
If someday the other one materializes...I'll eventually notice that, and
will delete one.<

Sometime in the past few months, something changed at Google and their
system began to kick out posts and notify me that these are suspected spam.
This has happened less than a dozen times. These have been both spam and
actual posts from the group. I approve the latter and they're sent to the

At about the same time, my spam filter began to flag genuine posts as
suspect. There have only been a few of these. I don't know why this began to
happen. I've read that the amount of spam in the internet has increased
tremendously since summer. But, it seems to me that these posts bear no
resemblance to spam. So, from time to time I comb my spam list for wayward
posts to this list.

Rayzn, sorry to say, your message hasn't shown up either way.

For everyone in the group: If you post a message and it isn't delivered, let
me know at, I'll look for it, and if it's been filtered,
I'll post it.



Jan 19, 2007, 12:37:32 PM1/19/07
to Minstrel Banjo

D. Partner, could you restore the discussion subject -- or change it to
"early banjo at The Hermitage" or something? (in that this thread is
about that, and only your last message is about Lost Posts...)

George, I feel your pain, and will not continue to belabor the dating
of this banjo. I'll only reply to one of your points:

> 1) If this was typical of local tradition older than 1844, why is this
the only example known and why does it have characteritics similar to

those of other later dateable instruments?

I don't believe the tradition was all that local; don't think this is
the only early example; and strongly suspect that a number of early
southern (and western) examples are being routinely dated later than
they deserve, for reasons that look perverse, to anyone looking at them
from the south. As opposed to those who, so far, have gotten most of
the supposedly authoritative dating evidence in print.

But even if that's just paranoia on my part, the fact remains that
there were banjos around -- in the case of Nashville, for forty to
sixty-five or so years -- before all that minstrel show, sendup stuff
happened in New York the Center of Our World, in the mid-1840s and
thereafter. It is the latter that gets all the ink, and the former is
glossed over; and in my opinion that's bogus social history. If we
concede that the typical banjo of Tennessee, Kentucky, and places to
the south or west thereof, circa 1830, did not look quite like this one
at the Hermitage -- it still looked like something, existed, was widely
recognized, had a name in vernacular English... And I don't think it
would have looked anything like an akonting, that late. Maybe in the
Caribbean, but not in Tennessee.

I believe it was a fellow Tennessean, possibly Sam or Kirk McGee, who
came up with the expression "sometimes the truth is stranger than
publicity." (The late Chas. Wolfe used it for a title.) Anyhow, I
think one has to believe J.W. Sweeney's publicity -- and it helps to be
a Yankee, way down inside -- for this hundred (or more) year gap
between the imported akonting-family instrument and the "Sweeney style"
banjo to be filled with: a big ol' vacuum. Which may be vaguely
referred to as a primitive tackhead gourd banjo, or something; but that
isn't a continuum, and there had to be a continuum.

Daniel Partner

Jan 19, 2007, 2:24:04 PM1/19/07
Unfortunately, Google doesn't give us a tool to change a message from one
thread to another. I wasn't commenting on the subject "An early, sourthern,
folk banjo?" but was telling of the problem of lost posts. Thus the subject
of my message.

Anyway, Rayzn, I agree that your reply should go with the thread you
started -- "An early, sourthern, folk banjo?" This is very interesting.
Would you mind cutting your latest comments and pasting them as a reply to
George's latest post? Thanks -- DP

Daniel Partner

Jan 19, 2007, 2:28:05 PM1/19/07
Would you review for us what you feel we can learn from this banjo if indeed
it dates from before 1845? -- DP


Jan 19, 2007, 4:19:08 PM1/19/07
to Minstrel Banjo

Well, I'm not sure I have anything left to say. I suspect it's that
old (and could be a lot older, say 1825, for all the proof I've seen to
the contrary). It pretty clearly stands in a tradition. We are asked
to believe that this tradition sprang upon the world full-blown, like
Venus from the scallop shell, whenever Sweeney made his big Appomattox
invention, whatever that may have been. (I don't believe that.)

Then we are expected to believe that this born-again version of
something that had been resident, throughout the south, for as long as
the part of the south in question had been "settled" -- i.e. by the
non-native peoples, European and African -- almost overnight found its
true home (of all places, in the urban northeast); and from a handful
of factories there, won the hearts of the working class and swept the
country, on the wings of professional blackface minstrelsy, in less
than a decade. (I don't believe that, either.)

Then we are expected to date everything we find, elsewhere, on the
basis of this view of the history of the instrument. I think, maybe,
it's a house of cards. I think, maybe, some of the instruments in
1850s ambrotypes are 20-30 years old. I'm not dogmatic about it; just
would like to see these possibilities discussed, without some of those
preconceived data points, cultural colonialism, and that sort of thing.


Daniel Partner

Jan 22, 2007, 11:11:02 AM1/22/07
Thanks for all the information and thoughts about the banjo at the
Hermitage. Concerning the dating of the minstrel banjo in general:

Some time ago, Banjoist Peter Pardee alerted me to the painting titled "The
Banjo Man" by Virginian James Warrell (1780-1854). He first saw it in a book
called "The Music of Black Americans." The painting is located at the
Valentine House History Center in Richmond, Virginia and is dated from 1813.
The banjo in the painting has a frame pot; that is, the pot is made of a
wooden hoop. Peter said that a friend of his has viewed the painting and
confirms that there is a short fifth string on the instrument depicted
there. Apparently, all this predates Sweeney and Whitlock by some twenty

Is anyone in the group in or near Richmond who can take a look at this
painting for us? An image of it is found on page 20 of the catalog for the
"Birth of the Banjo" exhibit at the Katonah Museum of 2003. I have this
catalog and can confirm that the banjo has a tambourine-type pot. However,
it is impossible to see the string configuration in the picture. I've asked
Peter to send me a scan of the image of the painting which was sent to him
by the museum. If he does, I'll certainly post it.

Here is info on Katonah Museum's exhibit. They may still have catalogs
available. It is a good addition to one's banjo library:

Peter Pardee, by the way, is a prolific banjoist of many styles. He has a
nice website at



Jan 23, 2007, 5:47:30 AM1/23/07
to Minstrel Banjo
As you all know, the Banjo Sightings Database is a work-in-progress,
but we do have some basic information about Warrel's "The Banjo Man."
Go to
1815, The Banjo Man&2DID=38 to at least view the painting (let me know
if you have any trouble getting to it).

So much is not definitive about this instrument (as George and I will
be doing some further analysis on it). Some interesting points include
the angle at which the peghead slopes back from the rest of the body
and the multi-colored ribbons dangling at the end of the peghead. There
is also some type of protrusion half-way up the neck that we believe
qualifies as a chanterelle lobe (the technical name we use to define
the thumb string). In addition, at least four strings are visible on
the instrument. But what's possibly one of the most unusual points of
this painting is the attributed date, 1815, and the body type on this
banjo (what appears to be an undefined hoop construction). I was
talking to gourd banjo maker Pete Ross about this painting some time
ago and he noted that although it appears the body of the banjo is of
the hoop variety, the painting's date of 1815 seems unusually early for
this type of construction. I don't know if more has been learned of
this instrument since that time, but, nonetheless, it is certainly a
great painting. Any additional thoughts George?

Another great shot of this painting also shows up in Leo Mazow's,
"Picturing the Banjo" (page 100). A lot of us got to see this painting
when it was at the Corcoran here in DC for the opening. It did exhibit
a lot of surface cracking and some of the detail was difficult to
discern. Hope this is helpful.

> available. It is a good addition to one's banjo library:


Jan 23, 2007, 5:54:14 AM1/23/07
to Minstrel Banjo
P.S., The url for this sighting does have a space in it, so it appears
that you will have to highlight and copy the entire url and paste it.
The space prevents the entire url from being hyperlinked. Sorry.

Thank you,


Jan 23, 2007, 7:28:52 AM1/23/07
to Minstrel Banjo


Jan 23, 2007, 9:56:30 AM1/23/07
to Minstrel Banjo

The photos of the Warrell painting, on the data base, are thumbnails --
be sure to click and open them, because they are pretty high resolution
shots that can be much enlarged. In the larger format it gets easier
to agree with Greg and George, about the chanterelle lobe and the four
visible strings. One thing that makes the almost invisible "lobe" more
credible is the fact that one of the four strings ends at it.

I'm a little bemused by the comment, attributed to Pete Ross, that "the

painting's date of 1815 seems unusually early for this type of

construction." It may be unintentional, but the implication is that
one might prefer to question the date of the painting, rather than to
recognize its pretty unambiguous contradiction of at least part of the
(later) Sweeney hype.

Is there any authentic reason to call the instrument in the Warrell
painting a "minstrel" banjo? Looks more like a Transitional banjo, to
me. Too much of a hoop for any known African model, and not enough
strings for the (later) minstrel stage. Maybe it's a Farby Xalam.

I don't know why there would be ribbons on the peghead in 1815, but
I'll paste in links to a few photos of DeFord Bailey playing beribboned
banjos. (These are not ambrotypes; he was lefthanded and played with
the standard instrument, upside down.) The older photos are from Dec.
1966. Barry Murphy had repaired DeFord's old open-backed banjo, and
gave it back to him as a birthday or Christmas present -- the latter, I
believe. It had a ribbon because it was a gift; but he liked it, and
didn't remove it before playing a gig (second photo). I was present
for the gig, and I know the ribbons are still present, though they are
hard to see in that photo. In the last photo (in color), he had
another banjo (probably another gift), with a resonator; that one also
has a ribbon.


Daniel Partner

Jan 23, 2007, 9:47:39 AM1/23/07
I uploaded a black and white jpeg image of Warrell's "The Banjo Man" to the
files page of the Minstrel Banjo Google site --

Does anyone have the software to enlarge this image? If so, please do and
re-post it there. Thanks

Daniel Partner

Jan 23, 2007, 9:52:57 AM1/23/07
Oh, I see. I didn't know there were images on the banjo database. Those are
much more useful than the one I uploaded.

Daniel Partner

Jan 23, 2007, 10:14:38 AM1/23/07
Greg -- Can you recall from your research other early hoop constructed
banjos? Other than The Warrell painting, what is the earliest you know
of? -- DP


Jan 23, 2007, 11:54:16 AM1/23/07
I don't think he was questioning the date of the painting but it is a legitimate question to ask. Do we know how the date of the painting was established? Not all paintings are signed and dated.


Jan 23, 2007, 2:53:35 PM1/23/07
to Minstrel Banjo
I do not want to create any hard feeling here but I am begining to be
rubbed raw by Sweeney comments. None of the regular attendees at the
Banjo Gatheing put on by Jim Bollman, Peter Szego and Hank Shwartz are
under the the typical Sweeney mystique misconceptions. I can
certainly say this of Pete Ross. We try and see Sweeney for what he
was, not what he and others tryed to make him.

I think Pete was trying to say that it is simply as he states. As
painitns go, this is an early date for this type of banjo. Nothing
more or less. He is not disputing any date he simple states that
cpmpared to other known images of clearly gourd banjos, this one is
early and different. Please leave Sweeney out, he is not part of this
arguement. Most of us believe that there were frame banjos before
Sweeney, 5 strings before Sweeney and he did not "invent" much of
anything. Pete is simply putting his years of learning and observation
to good use to say that this painting and banjo are not in keeping with
other known images of this time. He is not questioning the date.

As far as calling this a minstrel banjo, I agree. it is an "early"
banjo. I think we need to look at all banjos from 1756 to 1865 as
early. Not all banjos of this era are minstrel related. Who called
this a minstrel banjo?


Daniel Partner

Jan 23, 2007, 3:18:27 PM1/23/07
George sez: " Most of us believe that there were frame banjos before

Sweeney, 5 strings before Sweeney and he did not "invent" much of

For sure. All those I know who play this style banjo understand this. One
doesn't have to read far in the literature to be disabused of the idea that
Sweeney had a hand in the instrument's physical development. But, he was at
the right place at the right time, that's for sure, unlike the unknown maker
of the Hermitage banjo or any number of musicians at the time the instrument
first dipped into the mainstream.


Jan 23, 2007, 4:35:13 PM1/23/07
to Minstrel Banjo

On Jan 23, 2:53 pm, "George" <> wrote:
> I do not want to create any hard feeling here but I am begining to be
> rubbed raw by Sweeney comments.

I believe it was Dan'l who brought him into the discussion, but your
series of points for dating the Hermitage instrument post-1848 didn't
disagree with what he said. In particular, your point one, about "why
is this the only example known?" to which I have replied: if several
other known examples were more objectively dated, it wouldn't be.

I'll hush about Sweeney, if it makes you less raw.

> Not all banjos of this era are minstrel related. Who called
> this a minstrel banjo?

Well, Dan Partner said:

> Concerning the dating of the minstrel banjo in general:
> Some time ago, Banjoist Peter Pardee alerted me to the painting titled "The
> Banjo Man" by Virginian James Warrell (1780-1854).

etc. That's what I was responding to, in that sentence.

I realize that's the name of this Google group, Minstrel Banjo; but I'm
interested in dissociation (if it can be done, and I'm not sure it can)
of the early folk instrument from the later mass cultural phenomenon
that made it more of an item of commerce -- at least in certain
circles, that had previously been banjo-deprived.


Daniel Partner

Jan 23, 2007, 5:43:14 PM1/23/07
I use the term minstrel banjo as a generic identifier of the banjo played in late antebellum-era performances by blackface minstrels. But, I'm willing to be corrected. I'm just here to learn and am glad that George has noted that not all banjos of that time were minstrel related. I'll be sure to pass that along.
I think this is a good discussion, by the way. -- DP
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