Banjo Hangout Logo
Banjo Hangout Logo

Premiere Sponsors

Banjo Lovers Online

Read Article

Back to Articles Homepage

The Story of "The Banjo Story": A. P. Sharpe and Banjo Historiography


Albert Percy Sharpe, born in London in 1906, was a musician, entrepreneur, band leader, a collector of banjo data, a renowned collector of phonograph records, an expert on Hawaiian music, a lover of the Spanish Guitar who did much to promote that instrument, a strong supporter of the tradition of workmanship of classically trained guitar makers and, as the longest serving editor of the Clifford Essex house magazine, a critical force in the British music community.

A.P. Sharpe's "The Banjo Story" was a "life's work" manuscript that occupied Sharpe's attention for at least 20 years, but at his death remained unpublished.

There are conflicting accounts as to why the manuscript never saw the light of day in the form of a published work. For at least two years after Sharpe's death, obstacles to publishing his manuscript continued to be aired in the pages of Banjo-Mandolin-Guitar (hereafter, BMG), a journal published by Clifford Essex.1 Tarrant Bailey, writing in BMG two months after Sharpe's death in January 1968, states: "... it is my earnest hope that some influential source will see to it that his greatest work, "The Banjo Story," is duly printed and published. The investment would be a good one as the work is now complete. Many years of hard labor, research, study and concentration were devoted to that book so it must be launched even if every reader and contributor has to subscribe to the cost."2 However, in the BMG obituary for Sharpe, Cyril Phillips states: "To me it is tragic that his book, "The Banjo Story," remains unfinished." The British Banjo World seemed to be divided over the issue of whether Sharpe had completed his work, or died without every having brought order to his magnum opus.

Conventional wisdoms within the British Banjo world suggested that a dispute over his estate figured in the disposition of the manuscript. However, Sharpe had no immediate heirs, so control over his intellectual property did not reside with his family, in spite of stories suggesting that disputes within the family in the aftermath of his death were what prevented the posthumous publication of his work.

The issue of whether the manuscript was copyrighted is still something of a sensitive subject in the small circle of concerned British banjoists. Kevin Keogh who owned Clifford Essex in the 1960s believed that the copyright belonged to the company since the typescript was compiled on company time. Julian Vincent, the editor of "The Banjoists' Broadsheet," believes that McNaghten never held the rights to the Sharpe manuscript, and was not in a position to sell those rights. Another knowledgeable source indicates that McNaghten did indeed believe that he was able to convey the right of control over the manuscript through a formal sale.

The Manuscript: Possession is Nine Tenths of the Story

Various people have come to possess either parts of "The Banjo Story" manuscript or the opus in its entirety.

Eli Kaufman holds the manuscript version of what became the posthumously published banjo makers articles carried in BMG during 1971 - 1973.

Alan Middleton has the original carbon copies generated by Sharpe. 3

Lowell Schreyer purchased the original manuscript, possibly at the point when Clifford Essex was finally going out of business in the mid 1970s and much of the inventory, sheet music, papers and other odds and ends associated with the BMG magazine were sold or discarded. Schreyer appears to have purchased the manuscript from McNaghten. The manuscript in Schreyer's hands is written on 8 1/2 x 13 inch pages and is a bulky 4 inches thick.

The most complete and authoritative version might be the carbon copies that Sharpe provided to Alan Middleton in the early 1960s.

The Banjo Story: The Middleton Carbon Copy

Patrick Doyle began publishing sections of Sharpe's manuscript in The Banjo: Journal of the International Banjo Circle, beginning in November 1999 with volume number 53 (number 3). Doyle's serialization of "The Banjo Story" was based on the original carbon copies generated by Sharpe. According to Alan Middleton, a Clifford Essex employee during the 1950s 4:

Some years prior to his death, Sharpe had sent me carbon copies of his book "The Banjo Story" so that I could comment and check them for typos. I received several chapters over a period of time, and Sharpe emphasized that there was no hurry to return them, because he knew that I was a very busy teacher.

He never asked for them to be returned, and it was only after many years, when I had retired and was living once more in the UK, that Pat Doyle started "The Banjo" and players began to ask what had happened to "Sharpe's book." I remembered the pile of carbon copies and offered to finish the checking so that players could read what Sharpe had written. I stressed that I didn't have all the chapters, and certainly none of the pictures and photographs which must have been with the original typescript, but Pat Doyle was happy to print what there was, and add the odd picture from his own collection if it was relevant.5

Middleton notes that Sharpe probably started amassing information on banjos before World War II, and employed the professional services of companies that collected newspaper and magazine clippings on fretted instruments for him. In Sharpe's defense, Middleton depicts A.P. as a fount of data whose breathe of knowledge ended up being reflected in articles written by BMG contributors such as G.A. Keeler and W.E. Brewer.6

A Detour: Some Notes on Middleton

It's worth pausing for a moment to capture a bit of information about Alan Middleton, who was born in August 1927 and now lives in Cullompton.

Middleton's father, Percy Albert Middleton, was born in May 1888, and began studying banjo at the age of ten at Harry Smith's music shop in Rotherhithe, London. Percy Albert played early, and with distinction. He later studied then A.H. Nassau-Kennedy, a well known teacher and composer. Percy Albert played in a zither banjo trio with Smith and banjoist Will Spence. He did not do much banjo playing following his schooling, and a thumb injury sustained during World War One prompted him to set aside the instrument.

Alan Middleton himself started playing at roughly the same age, between 10 and 12 years of age, after discovering his father's banjo that had been relegated to the attic. His father taught him first on a student Temlett Zither, and then a Cammeyer. During World War Two Albert Percy began accompanying Alan in concerts around London, and after the war Alan's father played televised concerts with the London Banjo Club. Percy Albert died in January 1972 at the age of 83.

Alan Middleton joined the staff of Clifford Essex Music Company in 1948, after national service with the Royal Engineers. In 1949 he won the Emile Grimshaw Cup and came in second in competition for the John Alvey Turner Cup. In 1949 he and his father won the Clifford Essex Cup for banjo duets. At some point Alan Middleton started playing a Weaver, and took lessons with Bernard Sheaff. In his own account, Middleton began experimenting with guitar-like fingering on the banjo, including first and thumb finger runs. This was clearly an innovation at the time. Some of this can possibly be divined from his own book on Spanish Guitar, The Clifford Essex Spanish Guitar Tutor, published under the pen name Alonso Medio. Alan Middleton played many concerts in London during the 1950s, appearing with Julian Bream, Hugo D'Alton, and Edward Fairs, banjo luminaries of those days. He left Clifford Essex in 1954, and studied to become a teacher; he had qualified as a cartological draftsman before joining Clifford Essex in 1948. Alan Middleton lived in Guernsey, Channel Islands, during the last half of the 1950s and through at least 1993.

Alan Middleton lectured on fretted instruments, though I have not seen any evidence that these talks were captured in writing. I have also not seen a comprehensive list of his compositions and arrangements for banjo and zither banjo, though four of his pieces were printed by Clifford Essex as an album entitled "Solos for a Quieter Mood."7He was instrumental in The International Banjo Circle project to publish long forgotten material from the pen of Joe Morley. Middleton established the accuracy and authenticity of manuscript material, and scored 40 previously unpublished solos, which are available in published form though the International Banjo Circle. In his marvelous Joseph Morley website, David Wade notes that the solo banjo part for each composition has an accompanying preface by Middleton describing the history of the composition and providing a general guide as to how the piece might be played.8

The Sharpe Manuscript

The manuscript, at least in the form it is being made available to readers of Patrick Doyle's periodical, The Banjo, the membership publication for The International Banjo Circle, is largely devoted to the British minstrel scene, though it does integrate elements of Sharpe's other publications (including his taxonomy and his typology of banjos.) It is devoid of the data Sharpe collected about British (and American) banjo makers, and it does not include the lengthy Ollie Oakley/Joseph Sharpe biography that was penned by Sharpe.

Other versions of "The Banjo Story" appear to have consisted of the data collected by Sharpe on British banjo makers in the 19th and 20th century, biographic essays on banjo luminaries such as Oakley, and possibly articles on contemporary players. Sharpe also seems to have developed some lengthy biographic treatments of banjoists. Only one, the story of Joseph Sharpe/Olly Oakley has seen the light of day as an unpublished manuscript contained on the website "The Art and Times of the Zither Banjo." None of those elements, however, appear in the carbon copy manuscript given to Middleton by Sharpe for editing. Since Middleton refers to "piles" of carbon copies, it is possible that Sharpe simply kept typewritten notes in nearly finished forms, and that these various piles were seen by a variety of different friends and colleagues, and later eager collectors intent on preserving the detritus of the Clifford Essex empire.

So, it's not clear whether the Doyle publication of the Middleton carbon copies of "The Banjo Story" represents what Sharpe envisioned as his book, or merely another version of his data so far, though clearly in a much more complete form. The manuscript that Schreyer has in his possession seems to closely parallel the contents of the manuscript being reprinted by Doyle. In reference to his copy, Schreyer states:

The most serious gap is in the "Biographies" (other than minstrels) chapter that was planned but never written, according to an outline card. The chapters that I have are: Forward and Early History, Minstrelsy, All Blacked Up, Banjo Makers, Banjo Songs, They Said, How They Played, Instruction Books, The Banjo Family, The Resonator, Banjoists on the Boards (Music Halls), Tenor Banjo, Ossman and Oakley, and Miscellany. The outline indicates that chapters on "Stewart and Essex,"and "Clubs were Trumps," were also planned and possibly written but they are not in the copy that I have. Maybe the missing chapters are in the copies that others that you mentioned have. Sharpe had also planned to illustrate his book with 250 pictures but who knows where they are.9

Sharpe's manuscript, as serialized in The Banjo, may have still been a work in progress, though it appears to have been far enough along for the author to put it in the hands of a trusted colleague for editing. As Alan Middleton explained, he received several chapters from Sharpe for editing, a project to which Sharpe attached no specific timeline or end date requirements.

Sharpe, who died in 1965, did not ask Middleton to return the carbons. That could have been because he was working from multiple sets of manuscripts, or because he always had a wide range of projects in front of him -- editing the Clifford Essex monthly, Banjo-Mandolin-Guitar, was a full time job -- that distracted him from his magnum opus. Finally, his illness in 1963-64 period could have rendered him incapable of pursuing all the irons he had in the fire.

There does not appear to be any authoritative way of determining whether Sharpe believed the manuscript was close enough to a publishable form to profit from the editorial pen of Middleton, or whether he was just looking for a mid-course sanity check from a colleague whose critical eye he appeared to rely on. However, Middleton was clear: he had not been given all the chapters, and "certainly none of the pictures and photographs which must have been with the original typescript."10Thus, the manuscript that is still being serialized in the "member's journal of the International Banjo Circle was not at a point of pre-publication readiness when Sharpe asked Middleton to review it, or was only a portion of the work that Sharpe envisioned becoming the authoritative banjo book on which he had been working since, in some accounts, the thirties or the forties.

The manuscript itself, in its serialized form, does have substantial shape and focus to it. It begins with a "Foreward" in which Sharpe explains, or defends, his approach to the subject and the sources, and moves quickly to an "early history" section that reviews the origins of the instrument in "darkest Africa," Sharpe's infelicitous phrase that was probably untroubling and maybe even not as trite during the early 1960's as it seems to be now. Sharpe next takes up the task of identifying the earliest banjoists to play before British and American audiences, and segues into a discussion of the earliest banjo maker, taking up the issue of precisely what Sweeney may have added to the conventional form of the banjo, what banjos may have looked like before Sweeney's time, and in what circumstances banjos were played during the late 19th-early 19th century.

Importantly, Lowell Schreyer has noted that a paragraph by paragraph comparison of Alan Middleton's edited version reveals only minor changes by Middleton. However, on 57-3 he found that an important paragraph had been dropped. The manuscript tells of T. D. "Daddy" Rice "using the banjo in his act" at the Surrey Theatre, London, in 1836. If correct, this is very important information showing that Rice was playing banjo on stage at least as early as Joel Sweeney, if not earlier. Unfortunately, Sharpe did not provide a footnote of the source to document his finding. It could be that the omission was an oversight in copying or a decision by Middleton not to use it because of a serious lack of documentation.11

From there, Sharpe takes the argument in the direction of pursuing the origins of the fifth string, and the origins of the term "banjo," with the goal of cinching the case that Sweeney did not invent the fifth string. He cites Stewart's writings, looks at early American artwork, reviews ragtime histories, and then returns to the issue of the earliest public appearances of the banjo in England and the U.S. Another lengthy section speaks to the earliest incarnations of primitive vellum instruments in Indonesia, Africa, and the West Indies, citing a variety of non-specific sources as well as some of the rare references to specific publications. He touches on Sloane's interest in gourd instruments, Carl Engels' studies of ancient musical instruments, and the observations of G.A. Keeler, Stephan Chauvet, O.F. Menzel who recorded sightings of banjo-like instruments during their travels in the 1790-1860 period. After that, Sharpe turns his attention to the earliest forms of American minstrelsy, focusing on songs penned in the exaggerated "dialect" of American Negroes, songs containing references to banjos, and museum displays in the 1850s that featured banjo innovations. These sections seem as though they were elaborated notes that Sharpe may have intended to pull together more coherently or flesh out before going to publication.

Next, Sharpe offers a taxonomical study of the banjo, repeating essentially the same information contained in his pamphlet, A Complete Guide to Instruments of the Banjo Family, (London: Clifford Essex Music Co., 1966), including the typology of modern banjos. A quarter of the remaining manuscript focuses on the origins and evolution of minstrelsy in Britain and the U.S. By far the largest section of the serialized manuscript looks at American and British minstrel players. The remaining portion of the manuscript serialized in The International Banjo Circle's members journal is dedicated to dissecting the emergence and evolution of the music hall in British musical history, and similar evolutions in the United States.

Banjo Typologies

Sharpe seems to have test driven elements of "The Banjo Story" in a variety of formats, probably during the late 1940s and early 1960s. The Banjo -- And You: The Handbook of the National Society of Banjoists contains an early version of "The Story of the Banjo" by Sharpe, along with the Society's constitution, an essay entitled "You Lucky Banjoists!" by A. Fidler, another clever British nom de plume, "Making Your Own Music" by Jack Holliday, "Happy Days With The Banjo" by L. T. Broomfield, and "Twelve Hints for Beginners" by J. B. Dacre. Sharpe also wrote Banjo Facts, printed by the National Society of Banjoists. He compiled The Fretted Instrument Player's Dictionary of Music Terms, published by Clifford Essex. Frets Quiz, a 24 page question and answer essay on general information about fretted instruments, was printed by Clifford Essex; it does not contain a credit line. However, it resembled feature articles contained in the double Christmas issue of BMG during Sharpe's tenure as editor.12

Sharpe's strong views on the terminology employed to distinguish different types of banjos were transposed from the pamphlet to the Middleton carbon copies with only one minor addition, that being a reference to the well known banjo virtuoso Emile Grimshaw's agreement with Sharpe's strict position against the use of the phrase "G Banjo," which was the way music publishers noted that sheet music was intended for a plectrum rather than a tenor banjo. Tenors were popular in American dance band orchestras in the 1920s, but did not catch on in Britain until later. Sharpe excoriated London music publishers for putting out music for dance bands that were unreadable in England because of the differences in tuning between the tenor and the plectrum.

Sharpe's banjo family typology are also contained in almost exactly the same form as they first appeared in a pamphlet in which he argued that while some saw the resurgence of the banjo in evolving musical contexts, from the 1930s dance bands to 1960s "trad jazz," the banjo had retained a fairly consistent place in various orchestral formats, and had not disappeared as a fixture in popular music. The instrument had been given a jolt by bluegrass music in the 1960s, courtesy of Scrugg's role in popularizing the music through his association with the Beverly Hillbillies television series. Sharpe argued that the constancy of the banjo as a musical presence was demonstrated by the fact that bluegrass itself was open to change and progress. The banjo's role in contemporary bluegrass music would, Sharpe reasoned, evolve away from near monotony in the same way that earlier archaic banjo sounds (by which Sharpe probably meant clawhammer) developed over time, definitely not a view that would find much support in any of the systematic contemporary attempts to chart the banjo's changing musical role.

In both the pamphlet and the Middleton carbon copy, Sharpe speaks to the issue of an emerging standard banjo, with practical scale length and systematically placed frets. A standard banjo, in Sharpe's view, has an 11 inch pot, with 24 hooks and nuts, a scale between 25 and 27 inches that enables the placement of the bridge about one-third of the diameter of the head away from the tailpiece. Skins should be taut; the sound should be "snappy" rather than "puddingly," a lovely term used in the pamphlet meant to indicate the tone produce by a flabby vellum. A standard banjo fingerboard should have 22 frets.

A banjo should have an ebony fingerboard and the positions marked should be the 3rd, 5th, 7th, 10th, 12th, 14th, 17th, 19th and 22nd, notwithstanding the preference of Americans for marking the 9th fret.

Sharpe's opinionated approach to key issues in his various pamphlets are repeated in the carbon copy text, including the arguments that barely skirt the facts. For example, he suggests that the extra long necked Pete Seeger banjo was the weapon of choice of "bluegrass banjoists" such as Scruggs and Roger Sprung (p.15). He describes the inspiration for the long neck banjo as the early banjos made in the day when strings would only tune up to the A tuning, rather than what we understand to have been Seeger's very practical effort to find a scale that would match his singing voice. He dates the use of guitar tuners on banjos to the postwar years, in spite of the fact that British makers used guitar tuners as early as 1870 (p.14).

Sharpe's typology of banjos is intended to be definitive, covering tenor, plectrum, banjolin, mandolin banjo, ukulele banjo, banjeurine, piccolo banjo, guitar banjo, bass banjo and contra bass banjo. His terminology is uniquely British, and he provides a fairly comprehensive listing of alternative nomenclature for the anatomical parts of banjos, though he does not get at the national or regional differences in terms -- except to note that Americans prefer "dowel stick" to "perch pole."

Could Sharpe have imagined that his "Banjo Story" would stand as the authoritative book on the banjo? His "Banjo Family" pamphlet, at least in its undated edition, is described (p. 6) as "a complete guide," excerpted from "the first complete history of the banjo." However, the manuscript itself, or what we know of the manuscript based on what appears to be an authoritative carbon copy of the text, is a lot more wide ranging a text than the elements of the "Story" contained in Sharpe's various "pre-texts."


Describing the evolution of entertainment venues involving banjo players, Sharpe notes:

Before 1900 the only widespread public playing of the banjo was heard in the minstrel show; in fact, it is probably true to say that the banjo was the most important musical instrument in that type of show.

Sharpe adds:

This, unfortunately, served to lay the foundation of the myth, held by so many otherwise knowledgeable people, that the banjo and a blacked-up face were inseparable.13

Minstrel show banjo players were not, to Sharpe, virtuosos. The limited melodic range of "crude" instruments constrained the capabilities of performers who in any event confined themselves to an accompanying role, "providing the background rhythm required by the shows straight and eccentric dances." Minstrel show banjos were fretless, the fingerboards were wide, the necks were club-like, the strings were a thick cord, the rims were large in diameter and topped with "an almost toneless, thick vellum." The banjo's music was second to the banjoists capacity to sing, entertain in a comedic fashion, and dance.

Sharpe draws a distinction between minstrel show banjo performers who blacked up and toured with companies, and banjo music that took its place in the music hall tradition that emerged from public drinking houses. Sharpe notes that music halls were originally sleazy adjuncts to pubs that gradually began to include live entertainment for paying customers. They evolved into "theatrical" stages that supplanted minstrel companies. The first musical halls in the early 1840s housed several bars, and several "skittle alleys" and "clubrooms" where impromptu amateur sing-songs were performed in the evening hours. Music hall landlords would occasionally engage professional singers on busy nights for working class audiences. Eventually, in the late 1840s, music hall owners engaged a few professional entertainers, adding them to the mix in a way that attracted a broadened clientele while still serving the landlord's main goal: selling drink. In the mid 19th century, efforts to bring in larger crowds prompted music hall owners to spruce up their venues and hire "chairmen" to bring order to performances. Entertainers began receiving weekly fees, music hall successes led to expansion of the halls, and the innovation of raised platforms for performers, and finally to the practice of charging entrance fees or selling tickets entitling bearers to a pint of ale or a measure of gin or a cigar, and a seat in the performing chamber. By the early 1850s, music hall owners such as Charles Morton, who opened the Canterbury, built structures for entertainment that adjoined but were separate from the pubs, engaged "resident companies" of entertainers to perform organized acts, and began charging admission fees for the entertainment itself.

Sharpe suggests that in both the U.S. and the U.K., between 1846 and 1870, the banjo was "in general use, if only as an accompaniment to a black-face singer of Ethiopian songs, or to provide a simple jig or breakdown for a burnt-cork dancer." In Sharpe's view, both British and American banjos during this period were crudely made, strung with gut strings and played with a thimble. However, improvements began to show in both banjo construction methods and playing styles. Fretted factory instruments were paired with soloists who used "guitar style" approaches to achieve the effect of a more sophisticated and complex playing of original music for banjos, increasingly with piano or orchestral accompaniment. The banjo stage player ("banjoist on the boards") depended more on his skill as a musician than his black-face predecessors, in Sharpe's words, though a "considerable degree of showmanship still entered into the presentation" with players till telling jokes between tunes (The Banjo, 69-7, 69-8; The Banjo, 79-6, 79-7)

One can tease out of the Sharpe manuscript glimpses of banjo evolution, piecing together insights and observations plucked from the pages of his work to yield a picture that may be more coherent than what Sharpe had intended at the stage of production in the early 1960s, when he put the pages in Middleton's hands for editing. In other words, having strung together his notes and clippings, Sharpe may not have gotten to the point in his writing effort at which a concise and integrated story of minstrelsy could emerge. Nevertheless, it is worth picking through the manuscript to attempt to chart what Sharpe saw as the big picture evolution of banjo-centric entertainment in the period from 1850 to 1900.

To Sharpe, the circus ring was the inspiration for the ring formation adapted later by minstrel companies. British minstrel troupes changed the structure of American version of the minstrel performance to suit more gentile audiences, to strip out the ribald element of the entertainment, as music hall owners sought to broaden audiences in the late 1850s for purely economic reasons. In the early days of the British show, performers were generally not banjo virtuosos. The instruments themselves had limited range. Wide fingerboards, stout strings, and thick vellum heads on large hoops were themselves limiting factors in terms of the tool available to players. Banjos were regarded as a novelty, a prop for a singer-comedian-dancer. Nevertheless, the era of minstrel music did produce a number of brilliant soloists, and did see evolution in the nature and form of the banjo itself.

The emergence of the music hall as a key entertainment venue in the 1880s contributed to this dialectic. By that time, banjo playing artists had become an irreducible minimum for music hall programs. Music halls accommodated concerts, private engagements, and stage shows, offering a range of alternative settings for the banjo player. Silk strings replaced gut around 1890. As ragtime music took hold, steel stringed, resonated plectrums emerged to provide the power projection necessary to enable banjos to cope with other instruments in an orchestral setting. By the early years of the 1900s, minstrels were no longer a prime drawing force, and banjo players parted company with troupes of take advantage of the chance to earn a living by making circuits of music halls. Plectrum players in the 1890-1900 period confined their playing to single not tremolo playing. Music hall players used chords and developed the "scrubbing brush" style to project sound loudly, an innovation that led to long, tedious and argumentative debates over "plectrum versus finger style" in the pages of Clifford Essex's house journal, the Banjo-Mandolin-Guitar magazine.

In the U.S., variety shows in the civil war period through the 1870s evolved into beer hall shows long about 1875. Variety shows shed their disreputable aspects to attract a larger paying clientele. Vaudeville emerged in the 1890s, an outgrowth of the minstrel form of entertainment that revolved around songs, choruses, and a grande finale that derived its inspiration from the "minstrel walk around." This was similar to the British revue.

During the period from 1870 to 1900, the emphasis in Britain shifted from banjo playing singers and comedians to virtuoso players of the instrument, such as Joseph Morley and Alf Wood, who composed their own show pieces. In the 1880s many large industrial companies, particularly in northern England, organized their own minstrel entertainment.

Minstrelsy began to decline in popularity in the 1890s, though in the 1904-1910 period theatrical magnates sought to revive minstrel performances with varying degrees of success. Seaside amateur minstrel shows were one vehicle for breathing life back into the art form. The promotion of Pierrots by Clifford Essex around 1891, Sharpe notes, was the beginning of the end for black face entertainers in seaside minstrel revivals.

"The Banjo Story" and The End of Banjo History

Sharpe intended his manuscript to be the ultimate word in banjo history. Why did he think that was possible, writing as he did in the 1950s and 1960s? Did he believe that banjo history had reached a culmination, or that banjo scholarship had exhausted itself -- the "End of Banjo History" theory, with apologies to Francis Fukayama? Did he simply fancy himself as possessing a higher level of prescience about the evolution of banjo music than most? Or did he identify a gap in the historiography of banjos and banjo music, and simply want to make sure that his heroic contribution the comprehensive story of the instrument was enshrined as the chronicle of that banjo's long path through time?

Sharpe's introductions to various pamphlet-length publications suggest that he did believe he was offering the single most important synthesis of banjo knowledge, though his writing and his editorial work across his career indicate that he believed the banjo had the potential to evolve as music itself evolved. He appeared to think that his contribution was bringing the entire corpus of banjo knowledge together in one place, distilled and set out authoritatively.

In my view, during the span of his own tenure as editor of the monthly Banjo-Mandolin-Guitar magazine published by Clifford Essex, he had seen virtually every kind of argument aired between those covers, moderated (or stoked) his fair share of divisive feuds within a particularly rowdy banjo community, and noticed some circularity in the evolution of arguments, possibly akin to the way various internet-age "chat groups" such as BANJO-L have worked: one "generation" of participants in that electronic community, attracted to the forum as newcomers to banjoing, learns the ropes, aggressively defends its views, debates the seminal issues, establishes the conventional wisdoms on key issues (string brand, picks or no picks, banjo construction choices, jam etiquette) and moves on while another group of newcomers begins the cycle again, perhaps zeroing in on unique issues or jumbling the order in which each banjo-related issue is attacked.

On that basis, having seen several "evolutions," Sharpe probably drew the conclusion that it was time to synthesize key issues. That corpus of central banjo issues must have struck him as being essentially finite over time: gut string open back versus the steel strung, closed back zither banjo; the appropriateness of "smaller vellum instruments" versus standard open back banjos for classical playing; the traditional banjo versus the hybrid new fangled inventions; the use of the phrase "G Banjo" to distinguish sheet music intended for a plectrum versus a tenor banjo; the crude large and deep hoop tack-head “tubs” of the minstrel era versus the six-and seven- string; unfretted instruments over eighty years old that were never intended for anything more ambitious than an elementary vamping accompaniment versus the crisp, bright sound of modern banjos. Sharpe had participated in long running debates over the role of the banjo in evolving musical contexts, from the 1930s dance bands to 1960s "trad jazz;" the banjo's place in various orchestral formats and popular music; the banjo's evolution away from near monotony of earlier archaic banjo sounds (by which Sharpe probably meant clawhammer); the issue of an emerging standard banjo, with practical scale length and systematically placed frets; alternative nomenclature for the anatomical parts of banjos. His manuscript was meant to enshrine his hard earned views on these central issues.

Does his manuscript help crystallize the distinction between British and American banjo history, banjo playing, or banjo scholarship? Sharpe does not really focus on the broad themes that represent the distinctive twists separating British and American banjo history: The evolution of British banjo in the direction of a closer association between banjo and comedy in the minstrel shows; the trend toward extra bass and thumb strings in the 1860s; the English preference for less elaborately decorated, inlaid and engraved instruments; the evolution of standard pitch for the banjo and the emergence of a national preference for C notation as distinct from the enduring American system of writing banjo music in A notation; and the development of the zither banjo, a closed back instrument with wire first, second and fifth strings; the emergence in Britain of banjo-centered groups of four performers in Pierrot costume whose repertoire included banjo duets, solos, song accompaniments, piano accompaniment, and comedy.14

Instead, he takes a more combative approach to an isolated set of issues regarding British and American contributions to banjo history. His approach to Joel Sweeney's contribution to banjo music is argumentative. He sets up a debate over the claim that Sweeney was either the originator or the inventor of the banjo that never entered into Sweeney's own conception of what he brought to the banjo. He comes down firmly on the side of the argument that looked to Africa for the origins of the banjo ("darkest Africa" (53-3) in Sharpe's infelicitous phrase), and notes that through the sixties American historians argued that the precursor to the present day banjo was an Egyptian not an African stringed instrument.

I turned to a range of friendly banjo historians on this issue. Ulf Jagfors agrees with Shlomo Pestcoe who states that the idea that the ancestry of West African plucked lutes can be traced back to Ancient Egypt was initially proposed by B. Ankermann in 1901 (Die Afrikanischen Musikinstrumente, Berlin) as well as by Curt Sachs in 1921 (Die Musikinstrumente des alten Agyptens, Berlin) and Henry Farmer in various publications from 1924 on through 1939.

Both Sachs and Farmer lumped together the various different plucked lutes found throughout West Africa with the guinbri (also gunbri, sintir, hajhuj, etc.), the 3-string plucked lute of the Gnawa of Morocco and Algeria, an Islamic brotherhood and ethnic group made up of descendants of West African slaves and soldiers. According to them, the Gnawa guinbri-- and, by extension, all West African lutes-- are directly descended from the lutes of Ancient Egyptian. In The History of Musical Instruments (New York, 1940), Sachs stated: "The Egyptian lute, with the handle ending inside the body, has survived in the Northwest of Africa.15 It first degenerated to a clumsy Negro instrument, used in Morocco and Senegambia and called gunbri in Sudanese. In the 1920 - 1940 period very little was known about the Gnawa guinbri and West African lutes. Most scholars today agree that the Gnawa guinbri is actually related to and descended from the various lutes of West Africa.16

Returning to the question of Sharpe's core arguments on banjo origins, in an ineffectively substantiated act of British nationalism, quoting Clarence L. Partee, Sharpe makes the case that the existence of six and seven stringed banjos in England, unknown in the U.S., "leads to the conclusion that the banjo in its primitive forms must have been introduced to England at a much earlier date than it appeared in the U.S." There is broad agreement among students of American and British banjo history that there is no sound analytical basis for this argument.17

Finally, Sharpe makes the case that advances in the banjo as an instrument ("structurally") were the result of innovations made by "whites" not "colored man." In Sharpe's words:

In the whole history of the banjo no colored man appears to have made any structural improvements to the instrument, despite the fact that a black face and the banjo were inseparable to the non-player for over a century.

In short, banjo innovations, according to Sharpe, emerged as white players in England and America adapted the banjo to their playing requirements.

Two sets of comments on this matter. In a 21 March 2007 communication, Greg Adams told me that his growing experience with each of the instruments encountered for the Banjo Sightings Database (focusing on the earliest New World instruments through the Civil War) shows that other than missing bridges, tailpieces, heads, strings, and some hardware, provenance is the number one detail most often missing from each instrument. In his words:

This problem is further emphasized by the fact that many of the banjo's "developments" from the 1830s onward are found in the historical record created by the white class who, in turn, would not necessarily attribute any developments to African Americans. Thus, it is generally implied, although (and I emphasize) not quantified at this time, that the provenance of many of these instruments comes to us through the “white” lineage. Only through understanding the provenance of each instrument can we determine to what degree statements like Sharpe's and others are true.18

Shlomo Pestcoe writes, and Ulf Jagfors concurs, that "the banjo was appropriated by European Americans and Europeans from the African American and African Caribbean traditions. From the 1840s on, these banjo innovations were all about making the banjo more acceptable and marketable to middle and upper class white folks."19

Sharpe's remarks are consonant with his other broad generalizations about both modern and ancient

aspects of "banjo history."He peppers his manuscript with references of this historical sort. Sharpe clearly viewed his perspectives and interpretations as authoritative and unassailable conclusions regarding these aspects of the banjo's history. He did make claims to having conducted exhaustive source surveys, but he may have merely deployed the Clifford Essex stock boys to fetch British Museum references, and he may have also merely clipped and filed without maintaining adequate bibliographic control over his material which, once compiled, represented a jumble of data not easily sourced.20He may have been most effective and coherent in his focus on late 19th century British banjo luminaries such as Joe Morley and Oakley, but his goal was to establish an encyclopedic reference to all things banjo with the publication of "The Banjo Story" manuscript.21

The End Of His Story

The Sharpe Story is not quite finished just yet. As remote and removed from the current banjo scene as Sharpe may be, and as esoteric as his approach to banjo history might appear to us now, he remains at the core of some recent and ongoing scholarly enterprises, and at the center of a long running debate.

  • Patrick Doyle continues to serialize slightly edited portions of "The Banjo Story" manuscript. Alan Middleton, an early editor of the original manuscript, is involved in annotating the script for serial publication in The Banjo: Journal of the International Banjo Circle.
  • Until his death last year, Lowell Schreyer continued to work on his study of the musicians of the period, a significant part of which involved the Sharpe manuscript. That scholarship is itself likely to emerge as the core of some future research effort, especially if his family follows through on a commitment to see Schreyer's work through, and make provisions for depositing Lowell's papers with an appropriate library.
  • Contemporary banjo historians and commentators have been drawn into correspondence over Sharpe's case that advances in the banjo as an instrument ("structurally") were the result of innovations made by "whites" not "colored man."
  • A number of former shop boys and other associates of A.P. Sharpe, employees of the Clifford Essex Company, and contemporary professional musicians in London (Chris Spedding, David Wade) appear to be organizing themselves to assemble recollections of A.P. Sharpe for a commemorative essay that demonstrates the extent to which he was a positive force in the British music scene, and a significant influence on many musical careers.22

Thus, there is still more work to be done in untangling the life story and examining the musical influence of Alfred Percy.

1. Selwyn Cash, "Letter to the Editor," BMG, July 1970, p. 343.

2. "From A Bath Chair," BMG, March 1968, p. 192.

3. Letter to the author from Alan Middleton, 3 October 2006.

4. In 1957 Sharpe was involved in pre-publication preparation of The Clifford Essex Spanish Guitar Tutor, written by Alan Middleton, who worked for the Clifford Essex Company from 1948 to 1954. Middleton wrote under the name Alfonso Medio. The International Banjo Circle published 40 long forgotten compositions by Joseph Morley. Middleton was responsible for establishing the accuracy and authenticity of manuscript material. See JoeMorley/pages/midsolos.htm

5. Letter to the author from Alan Middleton, 3 October 2006.

6. In a 10 October 2006 letter Middleton spoke of incestuous exchanges of information and the creation of circular sourcing: "He also talked with all the contributors such as G.A. Keeler and W.E. Brewer, exchanging information with them, so that details might appear in a Brewer article, although they had originated with Sharpe: at the same time, he would keep a note of the facts for his book."

7.; correspondence from Alan Middleton, 3 October 2006 and 10 October 2006.


9. Email from Lowell Schreyer, 16 April 2007.

10. Letter to the author from Alan Middleton, 3 October 2006.

11. Email from Lowell Schreyer, 26 August 2007. In the manuscript, this paragraph follows the one on Didbin on 57-3 of the edited version.

12. I am grateful to Alan Middleton for his recollections concerning these pamphlets, as well as for a copy of The Banjo -- And You.

13. Lowell Schreyer has pointed out that many of the biographic notes in Sharpe's manuscript aboutv the musicians of minstrel period came directly from Edw. Le Roy Rice's Monarchs of Minstrelsy, published in1911. Sharpe never explicitly credited Rice in the manuscript. Email 16 April 2007.

14. Winans and Elias Kaufmann, “Minstrel and Classic Banjo: American and English Connections,” American Music, Spring 1994, pp. 20-24.

15. Pestcoe notes that the term "Sudanese" does not refer to the modern nation state Sudan. It comes from the Arabic term for black Africans. The dialect of the Gnawa is referred to as Sudani. West Africa was referred to as Western Sudan in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

16. Pestcoe does believe that the Ancient Egyptian lutes are the ancestors of the West African lute family. However, in his words, it was a bit of a circuitious journey from Ancient Egypt to West Africa which took many centuries to complete. "The actual agents of transmission were the Amazigh (Berbers), the indigenous peoples of North Africa-- specifically, the Kel Tamashek (Tuareg) and the Moors." 19 March 2007 email. See banjoancestors_ w.a.luteorigin.htm and egypt.htm and _ w.a.lutesgourd.htm.

17. Pestcoe notes, and Ulf Jagfors concurs, that one should bear in mind that "Sharpe was writing before Dena Epstein's Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War (1977) came out, which was the first scholarly work to give us a sense of what the historical record had to say about the early banjo prior to the Minstrel Era. Needless to say, there's no historical evidence to substantiate his claim. 19 March 2007 email from Pescoe. In a 14 February 2007 email, Bob Winans writes: Possibly there was some direct African input into British banjo history, but the multi-string banjo would not be proof of that. More likely that idea is a kind of wishful thinking, based on not wanting to admit their ex-colonials brought the English the banjo, more than anything else."

18. In a subsequent 21 March 2007 communication, Adams stated: "I know that some of the collectors in our group feel that a select few instruments may have been constructed by black builders as opposed to white, but, again, I think it is based more on a "feeling" as opposed to any concrete evidence.

19. The bottom line to Pestcoe and Jagfors is that enslaved Africans and their descendants invented the banjo. In Pestcoe's words: "The evidence of the only two extant early banjos--Stedman's Creole Bania (Suriname, 1770s) and Schœlcher's Banza (Haiti, 1840-41) shows that these were, in fact, quite sophisticated instruments." 21 March 2007 email.

20. To quote Lowell Schreyer: "One of the problems, in addition to excessive wordiness in Sharpe's writing style, is that he was very casual about documenting. While he credited sources within the text on direct quotes, he did not do as well on a lot of information that should have been footnoted. Many of the biographies of the minstrel period, for instance, came directly from Edw. Le Roy Rice's Monarchs of Minstrelsy, 1911, but he gave that source absolutely no credit. While this might have gotten by in magazine form back in the years he was working on it, I'm afraid the lack of proper documentation would make it unacceptable to the academic people we now have in our banjo circles. "It is said" and "we hear that" just doesn't cut it in banjo history writing nowadays." Email, 16 April 2007.

21. As Nick Bamber stated in a 21 March email: "His true domain was the world of Oakley, Morley etc. His greatest contribution for me was his biography of Oakley. . . "

22. Email from Clem Vickery, "Re: A.P. Sharpe," 8 March 2007. The effort to memorialize Sharpe might have in part been galvanized by my less than flattering paper on A.P. Sharpe, presented to the Banjo Collectors Gathering in 2006, and informally circulated in British banjo circles. Alan Middleton, a confident of Sharpe's and an early editor of the manuscript as it existed in the early 1960s, took exception to some of my characterizations of Sharpe. Correspondence from Middleton, 3 October 2006, and 10 October 2006.

About the Author

Lew Stern, a clawhammer player, has written about banjo history and 18th century British banjo makers and other banjo-focused topics for The Banjoists' Broadsheet, The Old Time Herald, and Banjo Newsletter. Lew's banjo repair shop, Little Bear Banjo Hospital, provides "health care services" for vintage and modern instruments in Staunton, Virginia.

Hangout Network Help

View All Topics  |  View Categories