Five string banjo pickers in the US, especially here in my home state of Virginia, typically know a little something about Joel Sweeney of Appomattox. He was an early popularizer of the banjo in the pre-Civil War south, often using the blackface stage personna now reviled as inappropriate and uncouth.
That aside, his embrace of the banjo on the stage did much to relieve its reputation as only a slave instrument, and helped white southern audiences of the time accept it as proper in polite society. Sweeney always insisted that he had been taught to play by descendants of African slaves, and performed in the 1830s and ’40s in the then-popular minstrel style.
Before his passing in 1860, he had become a premier entertainer, appearing before large audiences in major northern cities like New York, and in England where the blackface minstrel show genre had become quite fashionable. Traveling with his family, Sweeney toured to sold out venues across the country.
Of particular note to modern banjoists is Sweeney’s reputation for having been responsible for the addition of the shorter 5th string to the instrument. This innovation is crucial to the two most common contemporary styles, three finger picking, and old time, or clawhammer, banjo.
Some doubt exists among historians regarding the accuracy of this claim, as examples of similarly outfitted instruments prior to Sweeney’s time have been discovered. Still, his importance to the survival and evolution of the banjo remains in wide circulation.
The state of Virginia placed an historical marker on Route 24 near Appomattox in 1997 in honor of Sweeney as a “Popularizer Of The Banjo.” It does not credit him with adding the 5th string, but states that…
Nearby is buried Joel Walker Sweeney (ca. 1810-1860), the musician who redesigned this African instrument into the modern five-string banjo that is known today. Although slaves apparently added the fifth string to what had been a four-string instrument, Sweeney popularized the new form on the minstrel circuit. He toured with his two brothers, Sam and Dick, in minstrel shows from 1831 until his death in 1860. During the Civil War, Sam Sweeney served as Maj. Gen. J. E. B. Stuart’s personal banjo picker until Sweeney’s death in the winter of 1863-1864.
An earlier marker erected in 1972 had shown him as “developer of the five-string banjo,” corrected by the current sign now found near his grave site. Countless banjo players have made a detour to Appomattox in the course of their travels to have their picture taken next to these markers.
A cabin said to have been used by the Sweeney family is located within the boundaries of the Appomattox Court House National Historical Park, and a group calling themselves the Appomattox 1865 Foundation are currently raising funds to restore the cabin and maintain it for visitors to the park.
Their plan is to complete the restoration with volunteers, employing the same sort of construction methods that would have been used in the early 19th century. Upon completion, they plan to display a number of exhibits in the cabin to ensure that Joel Sweeney’s importance in the banjo world remains a part of the historical narrative of the time.
The Foundation has estimated that $66,000 will be required to tackle this work, and have launched a GoFundMe page to allow for online contributions.
If only the banjo pickers who have taken those pictures would make a small donation, their should reach their goal in no time!
Find more details and make a donation of your own online.