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Joel Sweeney

Joel Walker Sweeney (1810 – October 29, 1860), also known as Joe Sweeney, was a musician and early blackface minstrel performer. Born to a farming family in Buckingham County, Virginia, (now Appomattox) he claimed to have learned to play the banjo from local African-Americans and is the earliest documented white banjo player. In addition, he is the earliest known person to have played the banjo on stage. [1] Aside from his important role in popularizing the instrument, he has often been credited with advancing the physical development of the modern five-string banjo. Whereas the instrument's resonating chamber had formerly been constructed from a gourd (like the banjo's African ancestors and cousins), Sweeney popularized the use of a drum-like resonating chamber (legend has it that he adapted a cheese box for this purpose). [2] He has also been credited with adding the banjo's fifth string. In fact, there is no proof that Sweeney introduced either innovation. The high-pitched, thumb or drone string (the fifth on a modern banjo) can be seen on surviving 18th-century four-string banjos and in banjo illustrations that long pre-date Sweeney's heyday. [3]

Until the 1830s, the banjo was played solely by African Americans. A few musicians performed on stage in "the Louisiana Banjou style" by the middle of the decade, but the instrument used was the violin.[4] By 1839, Sweeney was performing in various blackface venues in New York. His earliest documented use of the banjo on stage was in April 1839. That same month, he performed alongside James Sanford at the Broadway Circus in New York with a blackface burlesque of The Dying Moor's Defence of His Flag called "Novel Duetts, Songs, &c". This was accompanied by a "Comic Morris Dance by the whole company".[5] According to Billy Whitlock of the Virginia Minstrels, Sweeney gave Whitlock a few banjo lessons around this time.

Sweeney's Virginia Melodies, 1847

By 1841, Sweeney was remaking the banjo into an instrument for the middle class. His advertisements boasted that he played with "scientific touches of perfection".[6] Another raved, "Only those who have heard Sweeny [sic] know what music there is in a banjo."[7] For the next few years, he was the benchmark against whom other banjo players were compared. After a performance by Dan Emmett at the Bowery Amphitheatre Circus, the New York Herald wrote, "Emmit's [sic] banjo playing is fully equal to Jo [sic] Sweeney's, and far ahead of any other now in the United States."[8] "Jenny Get Your Hoe Cake Done" and "Knock a Nigger Down" became two of Sweeney's signature tunes.

Sweeney saw success, and by early 1843, he had embarked on a European tour that would include stops in London and Edinburgh. In July 1843, Sweeney was playing during entr'actes at the Adelphi Theatre in Edinburgh, Scotland. Frank Brower of the Virginia Minstrels met him there and joined Sweeney's act as a bones player. The two toured, performing in early October at the Theatre Royal in Birmingham and later that month in a circus at Leicester. At some point, Brower parted company to tour with Dan Emmett, though he rejoined Sweeney by spring of 1844.

At this time, Dick Pelham met up with Sweeney and Brower, and the trio decided to reform the Virginia Minstrels with Sweeney as banjoist. They found Emmett in Bolton and talked him into joining, although Sweeney would be the troupe leader. The new Virginia Minstrels performed in Dublin at the Theatre Royal from 24 April to 7 May during entr'actes, then continued for a series of entr'actes and complete minstrel shows in Cork, Belfast, then Glasgow by the end of May. They did several shows at the Theatre Royal, Adelphi, and later in the Waterloo Rooms in Edinburgh, followed by a return engagement in Glasgow, this time at City Hall.

Joe Sweeney's younger brothers, Sampson ("Sam"), Richard ("Dick"), and his sister Missouri were also talented banjo and fiddler players. Though Joe died in Appomattox in 1860, Sam Sweeney enlisted in the 2nd Virginia Cavalry and served in the Civil War. It was in this period that he gained particular renown through his association with the famed Confederate officer J.E.B. Stuart. Much to the dismay of the 2nd Virginia Cavalry, Stuart saw to it that Sweeney and his banjo were attached to his headquarters entourage. Before the end of the war, the names of both Stuart and Sweeney would be added to the hundreds of thousands who fell in the struggle, Sam dying of smallpox in January 1864. His loss was a great blow to Stuart who met his own death a few months later at the battle of Yellow Tavern, Virginia. Sam Sweeney's signature song, possibly penned by Stuart himself, was "Jine the Cavalry," with new lyrics set to the pre-existing tune entitled "Down in Alabama."

Sweeney's grave may be seen in the Bohannon-Trent cemetery, currently located within the bounds of Appomattox Court House National Historical Park.


  1. ^ Cockrell 148.
  2. ^ Rice 22..
  3. ^ Carlin.
  4. ^ 15 October 1834. Boston Post. Quoted in Cockrell 147.
  5. ^ 23-26 December 1839. New York Herald. Quoted in Cockrell 52.
  6. ^ 18 March 1841. Playbill, Bowery Theatre. Quoted in Cockrell 148.
  7. ^ 9 December 1841. Boston Post. Quoted in Cockrell 148.
  8. ^ 31 January 1842. New York Herald. Quoted in Cockrell 149.


  • Cockrell, Dale (1997). Demons of Disorder: Early Blackface Minstrels and Their World. Cambridge University Press.
  • Nathan, Hans (1962). Dan Emmett and the Rise of Early Negro Minstrelsy. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
  • Carlin, Bob (2007). Birth of the Banjo: Joel Walker Sweeney and Early Minstrelsy. Jefferson, NC and London: McFarland & Co.
  • Rice, Edward LeRoy (1911). Monarchs of Minstrelsy: From "Daddy" Rice to Date. New York: Kenny Publishing.

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