Recording Studio: History of the Banjo continued…
Recording Studio: the Fifth String
Joel Walker Sweeney of The Sweeney Minstrels, born 1810, was often credited with the invention of the short fifth string. Scholars know that this is not the case. A painting entitled The Old Plantation painted between 1777 and 1800 shows a black gourd banjo player with a banjo having the fifth string peg half-way up the neck. If Sweeney did add a fifth string to the banjo it was probably the lowest string, or fourth string by today’s reckoning. This would parallel the development of the banjo elsewhere for example in England, where the tendency was to add more of the long strings with seven and ten strings being common. Sweeney was responsible for the spread of the banjo and probably contracted with a drum maker in Baltimore, William Boucher, to start producing banjos for public sales. These banjos are basically drums with necks attached. A number have survived and a couple of them are in the collections of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington. Other makers like Jacobs of New York or Morrell who moved his shop to San Francisco during the Gold Rush, helped to supply the growing demand for the instrument in the mid 1840s as the minstrel shows traveled Westward to entertain the gold diggers.
Recording Studio: Minstrel to Parlour
From the 1840s through the 1890s the Minstrel show was not the only place to see recording studio banjo players. There are records of urban Banjo contests and tournaments held at hotels, race tracks and bars, especially in New York to the enthusiastic cheering and clapping of sometimes inebriated crowds. Most of the contestants were white in the early contests but there are records of black players taking part in the post-civil war era. During this time (c. 1857) metal strings were invented. It seems they were cheaper than the normal professionally made gut strings and more long lasting then the home-made fiber or gut variety. Urban bar room players, minstrel show performers, slave performers, southern country players, all these performers were to come together during the Civil War (1860-1864). Regiments and Companies formed Minstrel groups and bands to entertain themselves during lulls in battle as did sailors aboard gunboats. The most famous of the Civil War banjoist was perhaps Samuel Sweeney, the younger brother of Joel Sweeney, who was an orderly of Jeb Stuart. Stuart apparently liked banjo music and when he wanted to relax he had Sweeney play for him. Sweeney also entertained Stuart’s entire regiment.