By DAVE McMILLION
6:00 AM EST, November 5, 2012
George C. Wunderlich drew an interesting comparison Sunday when describing hot banjo players in the United States in the mid-1800s who were blazing new trails with the instrument.
Wunderlich, a banjo expert who has built the instruments and lectured across the country about them, said popular banjo players in the mid-1800s were no different from the flashy, lead guitar players in rock ’n’ roll bands from the 1960s to today.
Banjo players then were “every bit as messed up,” often drinking too much and living their life on the road playing their music, said Wunderlich, who gave a lecture at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts.
And like rock ’n’ roll fans, people who listened to banjo music in the mid-1800s were young, Wunderlich said.
The banjo fans were driving their parents nuts, playing the music loud and annoying the adults with music the older generation had never heard before, Wunderlich said.
Wunderlich’s presentation was part of the museum’s commemorative exhibition of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.
The “Valley of the Shadow” exhibit, which runs through July 28, 2013, includes 300 to 400 objects related to the war.
Soldiers who fought at the Battle of Antietam and other skirmishes carried banjos, Wunderlich said. He played a reproduction of an 1845 banjo and said instruments like it often show up in photographs of Civil War soldiers.
Banjos came from Africa, but when players in the United States got their hands on them, things started to change, Wunderlich said.
One of the players, Joel Walker Sweeney, took traditional African banjo-picking patterns and applied them to Scotch-Irish fiddle tunes, Wunderlich said.
The result was more melodic banjo sounds.
Wunderlich said Sweeney was like other banjo players of his time, often playing for tips and drinks in bars.
Sweeney’s brother, Sam, was a banjo player who played for Confederate Gen. J.E.B. Stuart, Wunderlich said.
Besides his 1845 reproduction banjo, Wunderlich brought along a gourd banjo that would have been popular during the 1820s and 1830s.
While Wunderlich lectured, he sprinkled in a few banjo songs and musical humor.
For example, he said the country’s national anthem used to be a popular English drinking song.
“We sing the song, then we drink,” Wunderlich said.
A few other tidbits from Wunderlich’s vast knowledge of the banjo:
• Despite a popular notion, there were not more banjo players in the South than the North during the Civil War. “In fact, there were probably more banjo players in the northern Army than the southern Army,” Wunderlich said.
• Early banjos used animal hides stretched over their “pots.” If the skin got wet, it could be hard to play. Banjos eventually evolved into models that allowed the skin to be tightened. In the winter when the air is dry, the banjo can sound like a “human voice,” Wunderlich said.
• Wunderlich played Sunday on “cat-gut” strings. Such strings are not made from cat guts but from goat or sheep intestines, and can cost $50 a set.
Wunderlich stays busy with his love of the banjo and Civil War-related interests.
Besides serving as the executive director of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, Md., he is working on the opening of the new Clara Barton’s Missing Soldier Office Museum in Washington, D.C.
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