Arrival of the banjo in North America and Ireland

Shlomo Pestcoe is a banjo historian. In response to my request aabout arrival of the banjo in Ireland he responded with the following:


Shlomo Pestcoe
4 hours ago
Shlomo Pestcoe
  • Hi Bruce,

    The first documentation ever of the banjo (that is in its original form, the early gourd banjo) was in the circum-Caribbean in the late 17th century. 

    It doesn't seem to have made landfall in North America until the early 18th century. To the best of my research thus far, the first report of the early gourd banjo here is a front page story in the March 7, 1736 edition of The New-York Weekly Journal which describes blacks playing the 'Banger' at a holiday fair in a field a "little Way out [of] Town."

    As for its offspring and successor, the wood-rimmed 5-string banjo, the earliest evidence we have of it comes from illustrations on theatrical handbills and sheet music covers, mostly from New York City and Boston (c.1840-1843), which show the instrument. Most typical were depictions of a 5-string banjo with a sigmoid (s-shaped) peghead. This was characteristic of those used by Joel Walker 'Joe' Sweeney (1810-1860) of Virginia, who introduced and popularized the wood-rimmed 5-string banjo in the context of professional blackface performance. 

    (The sigmoid peghead would also be a feature on many of the banjos made by pioneering professional banjo maker William E. Boucher Jr. of Baltimore, active c. 1845- 1870.)

    Sweeney's first performance at the Royal Amphitheatre in Liverpool, England on February 28, 1842, marked the debut of the wood-rimmed 5-string banjo 'across the pond'.

    Sweeney didn't make it over to Ireland until April 1844. To the best of my knowledge, there's no evidence of the banjo in Ireland prior to that.

    Captain Francis O'Neill, in his seminal work on the history of trad Irish music, "Irish Minstrels and Musicians" (1913), mentions only one Irish banjo player, John Dunne, who performed with Uilleann piper Richard 'Dick' Stephenson, presumably in the1870s and/or 1880s (O'Neill 1913: 271-273).

    Here's the book's illustration of the two:

    That said, the banjo doesn't seem to have been totally accepted into trad Irish music until the 1920s and '30s when you first hear the 4-string tenor banjos and banjo-mandolins on 78 rpm recordings of the music. 

    From the 1930s on through the 1950s, the tenor banjo was the favorite partner to the diatonic button accordion in an instrumental duet to accompany dancing, especially in Donegal. 

    Hope this was helpful.

    Have a great weekend!



    The Irish Traditional Music Archive is a reference archive and resource centre for the traditional song, music and dance of Ireland.


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Comment by Bruce Evans on September 10, 2011 at 15:43

Shlomo has requested the following:


In your post of what I wrote, please include the following link to my blog article, "Banjo Beginnings, Part 1: Origins in The African Diaspora & West African Heritage:"

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