A black banjo player with a wooden leg. Photograph, ca. 1865 (?).

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A black banjo player with a wooden leg. Photograph, ca. 1865 (?). Wellcome Collection. Public Domain Mark. Source: Wellcome Collection.

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About this work


Described as follows by Jim Bollman, The Music Emporium, Lexington, Mass., in an e-mail to the Wellcome Library on 12 February 2001: "It is quite simply one of the most powerful 19th century banjo images that I've seen. ... Obviously it's a studio portrait but unless someone could identify the painted backdrop it's practically impossible to name the studio and thus ascertain the location. My suspicion is that it's American (the rustic chair is typical of Adirondack stick furniture). If the flag or pennant attached to the chair were more visible that could give us additional clues. I frankly don't know what to make of the rag dolls on the chair. Perhaps he made them himself and "hawked" them as a street peddlar. What I can tell you is that the fretless banjo is typical of the period 1850-1860s with scoop-neck, about 6 sets of hooks and nuts, "vertical" fifth peg, etc. The decoration in the fingerboard and matching tailpiece is unusual but not unique for the period (they do mark the fret positions on the board). I can't tell from the photo if the instrument has flush or scribed frets on the board or simply has the rectangular inlays to show the relative positions. It is simply conjecture but he could be a veteran amputee (American Civil War) who either had an act (stage or street) playing the banjo and using the rag dolls as puppets or perhaps was dressed in rags by the photographer to produce an interesting genre photo. It's hard to believe that he would have the wherewithal to afford such an expensive sitting .... I have several thousand banjo images in my collection (probably 95% of them are unidentified)."



Physical description

1 photograph : photoprint, albumen ; sheet 15 x 10.9 cm

References note

Philip F. Gura & James F. Bollman, America's instrument: the banjo in the nineteenth-century, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999 (this picture not reproduced or mentioned)


Wellcome Collection 527805i

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