The Birth of the Banjo

Joel Walker Sweeney and Early Minstrelsy

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About the Book

Joel Walker Sweeney was, in essence, the Elvis Presley of the 1840s. A professional banjo player, Sweeney introduced mainstream America to a music (and musical instrument) which had its roots in the transplanted black culture of the southern slave. Sweeney, an Irish-American born midway between Richmond and Lynchburg, Virginia, sampled African American music at a young age. He then added more traditional southern sounds to the music he heard, in essence creating a new musical form. The only avenue available to a professional banjo player was that of traveling minstrelsy shows and it was this route which Sweeney used to bring his music to the attention of the public.
Beginning with the banjo’s introduction to America and Great Britain, the book examines early banjo music and covers the evolution of American minstrelsy (i.e., black face) and the opportunities it provided for artists such as Sweeney. Correcting previous fallacies and misconceptions (such as Sweeney’s supposed development of the five-string banjo), the work discusses Sweeney’s roots, his music and his contribution to the physical development of the instrument. An appendix contains a performance chronology. The work is also indexed.

About the Author(s)

Musician and writer Bob Carlin is the author of String Bands in the North Carolina Piedmont (2004). His articles have been published in Journal of Country Music and Bluegrass Unlimited. He lives in Lexington, North Carolina.

Bibliographic Details

Bob Carlin
Format: softcover (7 x 10)
Pages: 203
Bibliographic Info: 39 photos, appendix, notes, bibliography, index
Copyright Date: 2007
pISBN: 978-0-7864-2874-8
Imprint: McFarland

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments      v

Preface      1

1. African American Roots      3

2. The Origins of Black Face Minstrelsy      6

3. The Birth of a Banjoist      19

4. On the Road in Great Britain      34

5. Back in the United States: Touring with a Minstrel Band and Final Days      46

6. The Virginia Minstrels and the Dawn of the Minstrel Show      55

7. Ethiopian Serenaders: British Minstrelsy After Sweeney      76

8. The Banjo in Australia      84

9. Minstrel Touring in the American South      89

10. P.T. Barnum’s Black Face Adventures      102

11. Sweeney’s Repertoire      109

12. Joel Walker Sweeney and the “Invention” of the 5-String Banjo      127

13. Sweeney’s Influence      138

14. Sam Sweeney: War Years with J.E.B. Stuart      152

Appendix: A Sweeney Performance Chronology      163

Chapter Notes      167

Selected Bibliography      185

Index      191

Book Reviews & Awards

“recommended”—Choice; “an important addition…Carlin presents his research and insights clearly, and tells the story of Sweeney and his role straighforwardly. Abundantly illustrated, handsomely designed, and very readable as well as scrupulously researched…invaluable”—Old-Time Herald; “recommend[ed]”—In The Groove Magazine; “well-researched…scrupulously notated…information is invaluable”—Bluegrass Unlimited; “carefully researched…indepth…a must-read…compelling”—Banjo Newsletter; “painstaking research…abundantly illustrated…the author is to be congratulated for his efforts to recover stories that are not readily accessible to scholars and twenty-first-century fans of the music”—The Journal of Southern History; “exhaustive…extensive research…a necessary addition…remarkable”—Sing Out!