Reference Entry

Sweeney, Joel [Joe] Walker

Robert B. Winans

in Oxford Music Online

Published in print December 2014 |
Published online February 2013 | e-ISBN: 9781561592630 | DOI:

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(b Appomattox, VA, c1810; d Appomattox, VA, Oct 29, 1860). American banjo maker, and performer. American banjo maker, and performer. As a boy, he learnt to play the banjo from slaves on his father’s farm near present-day Appomattox. He is reputed to have improved their African-derived instrument by fashioning a wooden hoop to replace the original gourd body, and, more importantly, by adding, sometime before 1840, a short, high-pitched fifth (or thumb) string to the original four. The long-held claim of his having thus ‘invented’ the five-string banjo has been challenged, primarily on the basis of iconographic evidence clearly showing that some slave banjos had short thumb strings before Sweeney was born. As slave banjos were undoubtedly variable in form, Sweeney’s lasting reputation should probably be based on his having popularized, among the white middle class, the particular form of the instrument he grew up with; he was certainly the first documented white banjo player. It is possible that he collaborated with William Boucher in designing a scroll-head banjo. In the 1830s he travelled widely in the South performing, in blackface, the music of his black mentors. He apparently taught a number of the early, influential minstrel banjo players, and in the 1840s he became a national celebrity performing with minstrel shows in northern cities and, briefly, in Great Britain....

Reference Entry.  258 words. 

Subjects: Music ; Romantic Music

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