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How a 5-String Banjo Saved the Shackleton Expedition

Posted by twayneking on Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Dr. Leonard Hussey's Banjo is preserved by the London Maritime Museum


Brett and Kay McKay mentioned an unusual bit of banjo history in their post today on The Art of Manliness.  Apparently Dr. Leonard Hussey, meteorologist and a member of the ill-fated 1914 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition led by Ernest Shackleton, owned a five-string banjo. He brought it along on the expedition and played it frequently, leading crew sing-alongs on board the expedition's ship Endurance - at least until Endurance became wedged in the ice and began to break up. Shackleton ordered the men to abandon ship.  His plan?  To hike 346 miles across the ice to Paulet Island dragging 2 lifeboats weighing a ton each and from there to row to the South American mainland.

Shackleton ordered the men to leave behind everything except 2 pounds worth of personal possessions. The men were forced to ditch money, jewelry, extra clothes and keepsakes. The only things allowed to exceed the two pound limit were the surgeons' medical supplies and Leonard Hussey's 12-pound banjo. The thing was practically an anvil next to what the others were allowed, but Shackleton ordered it lashed underneath one of the lifeboats and brought along.

Shackleton called Hussey's banjo “vital mental medicine” and told the crew they would need it before their long and grueling journey ended. Later, Shackleton would credit Hussey and his banjo as “a vital factor in chasing away symptoms of depression” in the crew during the long journey and subsequent sea voyage.

Autographs of the Shackleton crew on Hussey's banjo.

Steve Martin once said, “The banjo is such a happy instrument–you can’t play a sad song on the banjo –it always comes out so cheerful.”  You can be singing about the most awful things and it still sounds cheerful. 

So next time you go on an expedition or even a vacation, consider leaving behind the extra fancy outfits you'll never wear and the 20 pound bottle of shampoo (the hotels have little bottles of shampoo and they replace them every day). Instead, invest 12 pounds of luggage weight and bring along your banjo. Who knows, it may turn out to be instrumental to your survival!

One final note on the banjo itself.  The instrument is called a 5-string banjo, but the headstock looks like a six string classical guitar headstock. A banjo type of the time called a banjo-zither had this type of headstock and Hussey's banjo may have been something like the modern six-string banjo made popular by LeAnn Rimes, Keith Urban and Robert Plant.  It can be played like a guitar, but has the sound and durability of a banjo.  If anyone has more information drop me a note.  The banjo itself as displayed in the museum only has 4 strings as you can see, but there seems to be the faint shadow of a fifth string on the head. The banjo-zither was a sturdy wooden backed design with six tuning pegs. It generally was strung with only five strings, but could accommodate a sixth.  Can't tell for sure if this one has a wooden back.  The company in Britain that is making a Shackleton tribute banjo that's an open back traditional 5-string. One commenter on the site did say the Hussey banjo was a banjo-zither.

Whatever it was, apparently the "glory-beaming banjo" as Twain called it, saved the day for Shackleton and his boys.  Pretty cool, little piece of history.

© 2013 by Tom King

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