Text Box:  Inventor of 5 String Banjo

Great Grandson of Moses Sweeney = Joel Walker Sweeney

Great Granddaughter of Moses Sweeney = Mary J. Coffee, the grandmother of W. T. Arthur    

Mary J. Coffee and Joel Walker Sweeney are 2nd cousins, My 2nd cousin 4 times removed.












Joel Walker Sweeney was, in essence, the Elvis Presley of the 1840s. A professional banjo player, Sweeney introduced mainstream America to a music (and musical instrument) which had its roots in the transplanted black culture of the southern slave. Sweeney, an Irish-American born midway between Richmond and Lynchburg, Virginia, sampled African American music at a young age. He then added more traditional southern sounds to the music he heard, in essence creating a new musical form. The only avenue available to a professional banjo player was that of traveling minstrelsy shows and it was this route which Sweeney used to bring his music to the attention of the public.


(excerpt from the page above)

"Early, African-influenced banjos were built around a gourd body and a wooden stick neck. These instruments had varying numbers of strings, though often including some form of drone. The five-string banjo was popularized by Joel Walker Sweeney, an American minstrel performer from Appomattox Court House, Virginia.

In the 1830s Sweeney became the first white man to play the banjo on stage. His version of the instrument replaced the gourd with a drum-like sound box and included four full-length strings alongside a short fifth-string. This new banjo was at first tuned d'Gdf?a, though by the 1890s this had been transposed up to g'cgbd'. Banjos were introduced in Britain by Sweeney's group, the American Virginia Minstrels, in the 1840s, and became very popular in music halls.

The modern 5-string banjo is a variation on Sweeney's original design."

(There is some confusion by the claim that Joel added the 5th string, some naysayers are interpreting this to say he added what is the 5th or thumb string, it is actually believed that he added a string between the 3rd and 4th string of the previous 4 string banjo, making a total of 5 strings, so the 5th string he added is what is now the 4th string on a 5 string banjo.)


(excerpt from near the middle of the page above)

"At this point it's worth noting the myth crediting early white minstrel Joel Walker Sweeney (1810-1860) with the invention of the banjo's short thumb string. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The banjo's   thumb string is a genetic characteristic which can be traced back specifically to the lands that were once ruled by  the Mande Kingdom of Mali  (c. 1235-1500 CE)-- primarily, modern-day Mali, Guinea, Senegal, and Gambia. Of all the myriad different kinds of West African lutes, short thumb strings are only found on all varieties of griot lutes-- Ancient Mali was the crucible of jaliya, the griot musical tradition-- as well as on some Senegambia folk lutes like the Jola ekonting, Manjak  bunchundo, and  the Bijago  ņopata. Even more conclusive is the iconographic evidence found in The Old Plantation (The Abbey Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center, Williamsburg, VA), an anonymous folk painting from South Carolina, c.1777-1794, which is the oldest extant depiction of an early gourd banjo in North America. Here we can clearly see that the instrument has a short thumb string in addition to three long melody strings. If anything, the innovation that Sweeney probably introduced was the inclusion of an additional thick bass melody string-- the 4th string on the 5-string banjo."


JOHN3 SWEENEY (MOSES2, MOSES1) was born Abt. 1780 in Virginia, and died Abt. 1858. He married TABITHA VIRGINIA BAUGH in Prince Edward Co, Virginia, daughter of JAMES BAUGH and AGNES. She was born Abt. 1784 in Virginia, and died 16 January 1860.


 From "Historical Notes of Appomattox County, Virginia" by Stuart McDearmon Farrar.

 Sweeney House, it is said, was a four-room frame dwelling which was located very near the village of Clover Hill, the county seat. The exact description of the house and the site on which it was located has not been confirmed.  The house was built, probably around 1815, by John Sweeney and his wife, Tabitha Baugh Sweeney.  Opinion seems to locate John Sweeney house and tavern on the east side of Hwy. 24, north of the Appomattox River and approximately at the site of the Famous Apple Tree (marker). This structure was destroyed by fire some time just before or after the Surrender.

 John Sweeney mill was on the same side as Robert M. Sweeney place. There was a hole there with burrs, north of the bridge and about 75 yards west of the present highway. Major Flood owned this land and later sold same to the Government.


 Fact 1: Farmer/Wheelwright

 Fact 2: 10 children

 Fact 3: Abt. 1815, John Sweeney house and mill built near village of Clover Hill (Appomattox, VA)     


Second Child:   1ST LT. JOEL WALKER SWEENEY, b. 1810, Buckingham Co, Virginia; d. 29 October 1860, Appomattox, Prince Edward Co, Virginia (Source: 29 Oct 1860/Buried Sweeney Cem, (Rt 24) Appomattox, Appomattox Co, VA).


 "Lynchburg Virginian"

 11 December, 1845

 "Old Joe Sweeney"

 This immutable Banjo player is to perform at the Theatre tonight, (Thursday).  He is a native born Virginian, reared in old Buckingham Co. (soon to be Appomattox), and after an absence of several years in Europe, where he performed to the astonishment of the Crowned heads there, he was returned among us, and will make his original Virginia instrument gladder the hearts of the citizens and convulge their sides with laughter. He has with him Frank Bower the greatest Ethiopian extravaganza extant. - - Go and see them tonight.


"Lynchburg Virginian"

 2 July, 1848


 There will be a Barbecue and Dinner in celebration of the 4th of July next, at Clover Hill - at which time there will be a Sabbath School address, and procession of the different schools - the Declaration of Independence read and an Address delivered on the occasion. A parade by the Troop and a Band of Music in attendance, by Joe Swinney.




 Fact 1: Banger (Musician); Banjo, violin, harmonica

 Fact 2: Inventor of Banjo/5th string

 Fact 3: Banjo player for General J.E.B. Stuart

 Fact 4: 24 April 1850, 1st Lt./174th Regiment/Virginia Militia

 Fact 5: 29 October 1860, Was attended by Dr. William Diuguid Christian at death

 Fact 6: 1838, Joined a circus in Lynchburg/played banjo concerts

 Fact 7: April 1839, Appeared in New York City for the first time

 Fact 8: 1843, Went to England with the "Sands Great American Circus Company"

 Fact 9: 23 January 1843, Played the English Opera House (now the Lyceum Theatre) in London

 Fact 10: Played for Queen Victoria & royal functions for two years

 Fact 11: Died of measles

 Fact 12: House was used as hospital during latter days of the War.

 Fact 13: Engaged but never married






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