Joel Sweeney (1810-60) was a popular 19th century blackface minstrel performer** credited with helping to refine and popularize the banjo.
Originally from the area around Appomattox, Virginia, Sweeney claimed to have learned the instrument from enslaved Africans in his hometown. During the 1830s, he is said to have added a fifth string to his banjo, thus inventing the incarnation of the instrument as it is popularly played played today. Interestingly, his innovation was not the obvious “odd” string on a banjo, the top, stray one that banjoists typically pluck with their thumb. Rather, he put a fifth string between that one and the other strings on the fretboard, adding to the instrument’s melodic and chordal range.
Sweeney started out performing in circuses and minstrel shows in Virginia and North Carolina, and finally came to New York City, then already the capital of American show business, by the end of the 1930s. Billy Whitlock of the Virginia Minstrels claimed to have gotten banjo lessons from Sweeney at around this time. Later, in the 1840s, Sweeney toured the British Isles and the Continent with assorted former members of the Virginia Minstrels at various times, including Dan Emmett, Frank Brower, and Dick Pelham.
In 1845 Sweeney formed a new group with his younger brothers Sam and Dick called Old Joe’s MInstrels. Their sister Missouri Sweeney was also a talented musician. In 1860, Joel and Dick died. Sam joined the Confederate army where he became a sort of court musician to General J.E.B. Stuart.
For more on vaudeville history, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad.