At the time of the Civil War, or as it is referred to in the South: "The War of Southern Independence", The War Between The States", or "The War of Northern Aggression", the banjo and fiddle were the most popular instruments of both player and listener. The popular minstrel scene with all of its musical and political satire had been the pop music of the day for a almost twenty years. Every kids dream was to learn the banjo, fiddle or bones and run off with the traveling minstrel show, and many of them did. Remember, there was no music available at the push of a button, you had to make the music yourself or know some one who could. It was only natural when the war broke out and the call to arms on both sides was answered, there were literally thousands of banjo pickers, fiddlers, and bones players joining up, both professional and amateurs.
To illustrate this point, there is an interesting story by a Mr. A. Baur in his series of articles called "Reminiscences of a Banjo Player", published in the February, 1893, issue of S.S. Stewarts "Banjo and Guitar Journal". Baur had learned the banjo as a boy in the early 1850s and had joined the Union army early in the war. He writes "...In 1864 there very few regiments in the service that had more than one wagon for the whole regiment... Strict orders were at all times issued that no baggage must be carried for an enlisted man in any of the wagons...Where theres a will, theres a way, and a few of us managed with the help of a friendly teamster to stow away a tackhead banjo and an accordion...
If the weather was pleasant a crowd would gather around the camp fire, the banjo and accordion having been sneaked out of the wagon and a door from some farm house or a couple of boards having been put on the ground on one side of the fire, the audience would take its place on the opposite side, when the evenings entertainment would be gone through with. It consisted of songs with banjo and accordion accompaniment, stories of home and jig dancing. The performances were crude but helped while away many a lonely hour and remind us of home and friends in the far north.
Owing to poor facilities for keeping the instruments in order, the instrumental part of our entertainments were always the poorest. Sometimes it would be weeks before we could get a (banjo) string, and if the banjo head was broken, it took much time and maneuvering for one of our party to steal into the tent of a drummer and punch a hole in a drum (head) near the shell, after which we would watch that drummers tent with eagle eyes until he took the damaged head and threw it out, when one of the gang would pounce on it and bring it to camp in a round about way. Owing to their thickness, the drum heads did not make very good banjo heads, but they beat nothing clear out of sight. In addition to the banjo and accordion, we had a set of beef bones and a sheet iron mess pan answered for a tambourine. Taking into consideration our surrounding and the disadvantages under which we labored, we had some tolerably good shows and at any rate satisfied our open air audiences..."
Every brigade had its own minstrel show with commanders trading or commandeering the best talent for his band not to mention the thousands of banjos being player by the fire every night. John Billings writes in his book, "The Unwritten Story of Army Life", published in 1889, "There was probably not one regiment in the service that did not boast at least one violinist, one banjoist, and a bones player in its ranks...and one or all of them could be heard in operation, either inside or in a company street, most any pleasant evening....The usual medley of comic songs and negro melodies comprised the greater part of the entertainment, and, if the space admitted, a jig or clog was stepped out on a hard tack box or other crude platform."
The most famous banjo player of the war was Sam Sweeney who was an orderly for General J.E.B. Stuart, commander of the cavalry in the Army of Northern Virginia. Sams fame was derived from his brother, Joel Sweeney, who is credited as the inventor of the five-string banjo and the music there of. Sam Sweeneys only job during the war was to play banjo for the troops and General Stuart, his officers and guests..
Several years ago, while busy building banjos, I received a call from a fellow who was procuring props for a movie which was being filmed only a few miles from me. It was the Ted Turners Civil War mini-series, "Andersonville". This film was about the life the Union soldiers endured in this notorious Confederate prison camp. They wanted me to build two authentic Civil War style banjos for the film since their would be a fight scene and one might get broken. I already offered an authentic 1860s minstrel banjo called the "Sam Sweeney" model, so I built two of them for the film. I also taught one of the co-stars of the movie, Ted Marcoux who portrays Martin Blackburn, to play the old minstrel banjo stroke style on these frettless banjos in just eight hours. I didnt think it could be done but when you see him play in the movie, youll be convinced he has been playing all his life. This film is an excellent portrayal of a banjo player in a Civil War prison. In one scene he pulls the banjo out of the mud while it is soaked with rain and plays it. To my astonishment, it sounded good with soaked gut strings, and calfskin head. This film is available at most of the video stores and is one any banjo player won't want to miss.
Today in many of the events you might see some fellows recreating these scenes above. In order to portray the scene accurately, the banjo should be a good reproduction of an original banjo. A good reproduction would be frettless (no little strips of metal crossing the fingerboard) with gut or at least nylon strings, with friction tuners. The neck should be wider than a normal banjo being about two inches wide where it joins the rim.It should have an authentic calfskin head not plastic. The metal parts should be bare brass or steel with no nickel plating and the number of hooks holding down the metal ring which tightens the head should be between six and twelve. The metal band might be painted. It was quite common for the head to be installed on the rim with brass tacks. This is called a tackhead as referred to in the story above. The advantage is that it is simple and light to carry. The disadvantage is there is no way to tighten the head when it goes soft because of rain, dew, or high humidity. This makes the tone become thumpy and muddled. The only solution to a soft head is to hold it over the campfire a few minutes. It will tighten up for about twenty minutes and give a more brilliant tone.
I am the first banjo builder to build reproductions of authentic minstrel banjos and have several accurate models available. I offer them on my web site www.flesherbanjos.com I also have available several banjo kits which you can complete as many of the soldiers might have done. It comes with the neck shaped and ready for final sanding, all of the critical cut and holes are completed. The kit comes with detailed instructions and a book which I have written which will teach you to play the old "stroke style" quickly. It has 25 authentic song included, many of which are quaint and funny.
Speaking of music, the soldiers did not usually sit around the fire and sing sad or patriotic songs. Those kind of songs were performed on stage for the civilian population. The soldiers usually enjoyed the upbeat, and sometimes humorous minstrel music which was the pop music of the day which would lift their spirits and for a while take their mind off their plight. I offer many of the songs on tape and CD performed with original instruments of the period. I have done much research into this music and how it was played and try to make these recordings accurate so what you hear is exactly what you would have heard had you been there. I also offer historical data on the era and books on how to play. The banjo is an easy instrument to learn and you will derive much satisfaction from mastering it as well as join a long tradition of banjo players starting with Joel Sweeney in the 1820s and continuing with Americans building this nation for the last 180 years.