top of page

J W Sweeny, the 1st or perhaps the 3rd?

1842 .. John Tyler was US President, slavery was not going to be abolished in the USA for another 23 years . 7 years earlier was the battle of Alamo in the Texas War for Independence, Charles Dickens was writing his American Notes: and the banjo had arrived in England through Liverpool.

Earlier in 1834 reference to a banjo appeared in the Dublin Weekly Mail with the immortal line “ ‘ O! corn-stalks and Jews harps!” said Daemon after worrying on his seat during the .. overture by the orchestra; “Will they tune their banjos all night, and never get to playin?”

26th January 1839 The Leeds Times advertised The Royal Illusionists Address which included The Unequalled ANTI-FANDANGO-DANCE. Banjo jig and Jim Crow Jump Dance, by a "New Laid Egg". James Low had been performing this very same banjo/dance show in New York in March 1838.

26th February 1842 ER Harper, the American Comedian was performing at the Royal Amphitheatre, Liverpool in a production called The Court Jester, for 10 days. He is credited with writing “Jim Along Josey” in 1838, and later in his schedule he was on stage at the Queens Theatre Liverpool on the 22nd October 1842 playing his Louisiana Banjo Melodies, on his New- invented Banjo .. songs like Lucy Lucy Long and Jim along Josey .. as originally introduced by him on both sides of the Atlantic.

In March 1842 JW Sweeny made the crossing from New York to Liverpool with The American Circus. Their first performance was also in the Royal Amphitheatre, Liverpool on 28th March. The show was made up of horse riding skills and gymnastic exercises interspersed with other performers.

Sweeny’s role was to entertain the crowd during intervals and on Thursday 31st March 1842 “The Liverpool Mail” reported .. A company of equestrians arrived from the United States …. We have only space to notice the racy and original negro singing of Mr Sweeny, who accompanied himself on the banjo, or mandolin. His instrumentation is excellent and his self-possession, while the house was convulsed with laughter …, was irresistibly comic ... encored three times.

ER Harper was an established comedian who wrote for and played the banjo, and bought the banjo into the UK one month before Sweeny. However Sweeny was part of a major tour and was primarily a banjo performer and dancer and gained faster recognition on the instrument than Harper.

Clearly they got to see each other’s performances as they we both in Liverpool at the same time at the beginning and end of 1842, and played some of the same tunes.

The rhetoric in the advertisements for their subsequent performances grows through the year as they both try to claim to be “the first”, and they were by no means the only ones performing the music of the American Negro.

However, it now appears that James Low (Uncle Jim Lowe?) was 3 years ahead of them both.

Soon after the end of American Civil War (1865) intensive development of the banjo started in both the USA and England. In London William Temlett (Snr) had established a workshop in 1864, and he patented the idea of a closed back banjo with a suspended sound box in 1869.

The biggest influence on the development of the banjo from the European side came from the Zither. The Morning Post London May 1849 records ... Max Homeier the celebrate Zither performer was resident in the Strand and available to be booked by Gentry and Nobility for Parties, Dejeuners and Concerts.

an instrument emanating from the Tyrol region (of the Alps) “appears to be a sort of guitar with metallic strings laid flat upon a table"

24th Nov 1883 in The Era, Alf Wood, Negro Comedian, banjo Soloist is sole agent for The Temlett Banjo. The Severn Oaks Chronical in December 1892 reported that Mr Arthur Doody received a well-earned encore for his zither banjo solo “Home Sweet Home”

The zither banjo created a totally different type of sound with its steel strings, closed back and geared tuners and in 9 years the description "zither banjo" had come into general use.

Having identified there was a clear difference in sound on 14th Sept 1897 W Covill Cheltenham advertised WE Temlett high class Zither and ordinary Banjos.

At its peak Arthur Wilmshurst was consistently producing the best quality zither banjos; his metal fretwork cover to the wooden pot kept the pot perfectly circular so the action never suffered, he still used the neck clamp (as used on ordinary banjos ..) on the internal perch pole (dowel stick), a thick ebony fret board and laminated peg head.


bottom of page