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 ARCHIVED TOPIC: The Banjo Player painting

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janolov - Posted - 11/08/2011:  11:47:33

The Banjo Player is a painting by William Sydney Mount around 1856. It has been showed and discussed here before but I think it is worth one more round. The picture came up in a discussion in FiddleHangOut about sawmill tuning for fiddle, and the thread have raised some questions that the OT banjo gang may have some answers to:

1. What style is the player playing? According to the minstrel banjo tutors it should be stroke style (predecessor to clawhammer), but I think it is looks more like up picking or Pete Seeger's basic strum. I have looked at some of the minstrel players videos here on BHO and sometimes they seems to have strange hand positions, especially a snapshot in the middle of a stroke, so it can be strokestyle.

2. The player has a metal thing hanging on a chord from the neck. It looks like a whistle or pitch pipe. Who have any idea of what it is?

3. This pictures seems to occur in two mirrored versions, in one version the player seems to be left-handed playing on a left-handed banjo, and on the other version is a right-handed player playing a conventional right-handed banjo. Which version is the original? Where there left-hand banjos in 1856 or was it bad copying techniques in the 19xx's when the picture was mnaifolded?

4. William Sydney Mount seems to have been one of the first to use AEAE tuning on fiddle which fiddlers use to play modal tunes. The tuning is also sometimes called sawmill tuning. is there anything more known about his fiddle and music interest?

5. William Sydney Mount have also made a lot of other nice paintings. For example, look on this pages:

trapdoor2 - Posted - 11/08/2011:  12:31:27

Maybe Greg Adams will chime in here. Greg discovered a huge pile of W.S.Mount manuscript, diaries, etc. in an LOC (Library Of Congress) search a year or so ago. He discussed these papers at the Antietam Early Banjo Gathering in 2010.

I would say the player looks like he/she (there is some question of gender, btw) is playing in the Stroke Style. Although fingerstyle was being used at the time, the bulk of the documentation is about stroke-style. Those are the two documented styles (stroke vs fingerstyle), everything else is speculation.

The metal thing may indeed be a pitch pipe...but I have no idea. I would love to see the painting in person.


Jim D - Posted - 11/08/2011:  12:48:07

the player has a collar button that is shown... if it's meant to be a typical male garment, that button would be on the right side. In the painting, it's above his playing hand, so I'd say it was meant to be a right handed player.


bordertownbrown - Posted - 11/08/2011:  14:01:16

Since this painting and others that Mount painted of black musicians are all studio pieces I suspect that he used models. The banjo may have belonged to Mount (notice how clean the head is) and used as a prop and it is quite possible that the subject was not actually a banjo player. The artist may have spent hundreds of hours on this painting, with the subject dressed in the same clothes with the same wrinkles in the same places for the duration, dressing each day he returned to the studio.

I have always loved this painting but don't actually think it can reveal anything about the playing style of the day, photos from the same era may be more reliable.

dculgan - Posted - 11/09/2011:  04:48:57

Intersting the banjo appears to be one of those double headed ones with the underside head tacked on. I always thought that skin would get a lot of wear against buckles, buttons, etc. Dave Culgan

MountainBanjo - Posted - 11/09/2011:  05:25:32

No matter how long I look at the painting the boy doesn't move, so the style he is playing is "wild speculation". You simply can't tell what style someone is playing from a still image, especially a painting where we don't know how much effort he put into portraying the playing style accurately. It can be extremely hard to tell even from a photo or moving image, and three people will see four different things. In fact we don't even know if this boy played banjo.

AEae was used long before Sydney Mount. Read Otjunky's post again. It came to America with Scottish fiddlers.

banjoholic - Posted - 11/09/2011:  07:55:58

I think we've all been had.

He's clearly playing "Nail that Catfish to a Tree."  1856 my arse! 


Dan Gellert - Posted - 11/09/2011:  08:56:47

If the model wasn't a player, Mount sure knew how to make him look like he did. As a teacher, there's something I'm always looking for in my students' hands, a sort of confident, relaxed intimacy with the strings, which I see wonderfully depicted in this painting. I'd say that the subject was probably a banjoist, but that the artist was almost certainly one!

The right hand looks like stroke style to me, especially if you take into account how very lightly banjos were strung at that time.

My guess on the fob is that it is a brass-instrument mouthpiece, likely for a hunting horn.

Bufo Bill - Posted - 11/09/2011:  09:08:48

Re the little metal thingy, I have seen things like this for Fob Watch chains, they have a double function, the thin end is either a propelling pencil or watch-key for winding up the watch, and the flared end is usually an ornamental gem stone or a wax seal.

It could be nothing of the sort but there is a similarity in shape.

All the best from Bill.

Marc Nerenberg - Posted - 11/09/2011:  09:34:10

When you're driving down the highway in a relaxed state, there are two ways you can see what's in front of you: You can see a stationary road with yourself moving forward on it, or you can perceive of yourself as stationary with the road and landscape moving toward and under you (like on a video game screen). The only way you can tell the difference is that you know that you are the one moving. The visual scene you experience would be 100% identical in either case.

Same here: the hand only looks like it's playing Seeger style, if you think it's moving up; and it only looks like stroke style if you think it's moving down. In this particular frozen moment in time, both images would be 100% identical. There is absolutely no way to tell from looking at the stationary image in the painting.

I would submit, though, that historical context - the time, the place and the specific artist - suggests stroke style (which I personally would not characterize as the predecessor to clawhammer, since I suspect clawhammer is likely older than stroke style, and that stroke style is actually a 'fancied up' version of clawhammer - but that's a whole other conversation that many threads have already covered, with absolutely no agreement being reached, and no real way to definitively prove either side of the debate).

Edited by - Marc Nerenberg on 11/09/2011 09:35:58

oldwoodchuckb - Posted - 11/09/2011:  11:18:16

I'm with Dan on this. If the model was not a banjo player, then the artist certainly knew how to make him look like one. This is a confident young musician! I wouldn't speculate on the technique in use, or whether he was actually playing at any time while Mount painted.

I strongly suspect that the left hand version is a recent and probably Asian error. I never saw any left handed reproduction of this painting before the internet era. The left handed ones I've seen since are all obviously mirror images and are not re-posed.

Edited by - oldwoodchuckb on 11/09/2011 11:19:06

BrittDLD1 - Posted - 11/09/2011:  15:58:11

You would have to view the painting at 3 inches, a few times... as I have

had the chance to do. (Including in the vault -- at The Museums at

Stonybrook -- along with Mount's fiddles and other ephemera.)


The level of detail in the painting is extraordinary! And it's almost life-size.

Each string is wrapped correctly around each peg, and the tips of the gut

strings are slightly frayed. The bass string is silver wound.


It IS a real Boucher banjo...  in both construction and in most details -- but

Mount has also taken some 'artistic license' with some of the details. (He

designed his own fiddle -- which he called "The Cradle of Harmony" -- so he

DID know his way around musical instruments.)


I have an archival photo of the painting, when it was out of its frame for

restoration, back in the 1970s. (I attended a museum planning conference

there, back then -- and was able to 'cross the rope' to inspect the painting 

very closely. I was also able to get the Director to provide me with a high-res

8x10 photo of the painting for my files.)


In the restoration photo, the painting is OUT of it's frame -- and the tip of the

banjo's peghead is only about 1/2" from the edge of the canvas.  That means

Mount ran out of room on the canvas for the much larger S-shaped Boucher

peghead. So... Mount simply designed a new peghead for it. And the tip of the

peghead is actually shaped to be a stylized profile of a cock's head. (And no

extant Boucher has ever been seen with that type of peghead.)


The shortened peghead really didn't matter. The Banjo Player, and The Bones

Player were done as a set -- and were shipped to France to have engravings and

chromo-lithography versions produced for publication. The copies were done in

an oval 'vignette' format and the peghead was NOT shown in the original chromos.)


The player's fingernail is definitely coming down on TOP of the string -- NOT from

underneath it. He is definitely playing downstroke.


Not only that.  But the proportions of the banjo are correct! The scale-length places

the bridge at the right spot, for the octave to be located at the upper notch of the

decorative 'double ogee' curve on the side of the neck. (A true feature of some Boucher



According to George Wunderlich, the object on the cord, is a pocket watch key -- in

the form of a miniature trumpet mouthpiece.  (And the piece of paper hanging out of

his pocket is a package of George Miller tobacco.)


Two other features of the banjo have not been observed on any known Bouchers:

   1. The heart decoration on the tailpiece. (Assumed to be Mount's design.)

   2, The pegs are ebony with pearl dots on the tips, and on the sides of the buttons.

         (Mount's own fiddles had such pegs. He, and his friends, seemed to have

          taste for ebony pegs with pearl decoration. There are several examples in

          the Stonybrook collection.)


The Museums at Stonybrook has at least one of Mount's hand-written tune books.

They produced an LP of Mount's fiddle tunes back in the late 1960s or early 1970s.


There was also an exhibit of Mount's music-related work, called "Catching the Tune",

in 1984. A very informative catalog was done with it. (Don't have mine at hand.)


  Available here:


The ULTIMATE book on Mount is a 500 pager -- called (oddly enough) "William Sidney

Mount" -- by Alfred Frankenstein. It includes much of his known correspondence, as

well as his paintings.


It also comes with one of those small flexible vinyl records -- with tunes performed on

on one of Mount's own 'Cradle of Harmony' violins.




Ed Britt

Edited by - BrittDLD1 on 11/09/2011 16:02:56

Deaf Lester Crawdad - Posted - 11/09/2011:  16:45:57


Originally posted by BrittDLD1

You would have to view the painting at 3 inches, a few times... as I have

had the chance to do. (Including in the vault -- at The Museums at

Stonybrook -- along with Mount's fiddles and other ephemera.)



Ed Britt

You know, Ed; I learn something almost every time you post.

It's depressing.


deuceswilde - Posted - 11/09/2011:  18:52:05

Ed's got this one, I think he has put a little effort into this paintingwink


Yep, definitely a watch key- stem winders came along well after.

Buttons- not necessarily a indication- they went both ways at that time, but this one is correct and not a reverse banjo (no such thing as a "left handed banjo" or "playing left handed..." if you examine the painting very closely and look at all the details you will notice that the player is using both hands to play).

BTW, the Bones Player is equally excellent, you can stare into his eyes and there seems to be life there.  I like the violin case in the background of that one with a nice American shield shaped lock plate. 


BrittDLD1 - Posted - 11/09/2011:  18:59:54


Originally posted by Deaf Lester Crawdad

You know, Ed; I learn something almost every time you post.

It's depressing.

Hi Pete --


I meant to revise that first statement, to:  "As I was LUCKY enough to do."

But got timed-out on it.


We each have our own experiences and stores of knowledge.  None better, or worse...

just different. You've got some really interesting stories, too. And I've always enjoyed

hearing about them, And I get a little twinge of "Wish I could do that"... (Or "had done



Your 'Angel' is pretty awe-inspiring!



Ed Britt




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