J W Sweeny, the 1st or perhaps the 3rd?
By nguiver, Nov 19 2020 04:20PM
1842 .. John Tyler was US President, slavery was not going to be abolished in the USA for another 23 years . 7 years earlier was the battle of Alamo in the Texas War for Independence, Charles Dickens was writing his American Notes: and the banjo had arrived in England through Liverpool.
Earlier in 1834 reference to a banjo appeared in the Dublin Weekly Mail with the immortal line “ ‘ O! corn-stalks and Jews harps!” said Daemon after worrying on his seat during the .. overture by the orchestra; “Will they tune their banjos all night, and never get to playin?”
26th January 1839 The Leeds Times advertised The Royal Illusionists Address which included The Unequalled ANTI-FANDANGO-DANCE. Banjo jig and Jim Crow Jump Dance, by a "New Laid Egg". James Low had been performing this very same banjo/dance show in New York in March 1838.
26th February 1842 ER Harper, the American Comedian was performing at the Royal Amphitheatre, Liverpool in a production called The Court Jester, for 10 days. He is credited with writing “Jim Along Josey” in 1838, and later in his schedule he was on stage at the Queens Theatre Liverpool on the 22nd October 1842 playing his Louisiana Banjo Melodies, on his New- invented Banjo .. songs like Lucy Lucy Long and Jim along Josey .. as originally introduced by him on both sides of the Atlantic.
In March 1842 JW Sweeny made the crossing from New York to Liverpool with The American Circus. Their first performance was also in the Royal Amphitheatre, Liverpool on 28th March. The show was made up of horse riding skills and gymnastic exercises interspersed with other performers.
Sweeny’s role was to entertain the crowd during intervals and on Thursday 31st March 1842 “The Liverpool Mail” reported .. A company of equestrians arrived from the United States …. We have only space to notice the racy and original negro singing of Mr Sweeny, who accompanied himself on the banjo, or mandolin. His instrumentation is excellent and his self-possession, while the house was convulsed with laughter …, was irresistibly comic ... encored three times.
ER Harper was an established comedian who wrote for and played the banjo, and bought the banjo into the UK one month before Sweeny. However Sweeny was part of a major tour and was primarily a banjo performer and dancer and gained faster recognition on the instrument than Harper.
Clearly they got to see each other’s performances as they we both in Liverpool at the same time at the beginning and end of 1842, and played some of the same tunes.
The rhetoric in the advertisements for their subsequent performances grows through the year as they both try to claim to be “the first”, and they were by no means the only ones performing the music of the American Negro.
However, it now appears that James Low (Uncle Jim Lowe?) was 3 years ahead of them both.
For tailpieces: Michael Holmes article on Mugwumps
Antique/Vintage Banjos at auction Collectors Weekly
Banjoleles on David Sims Ukulele Corner
Hank Schwartz site on the history of Fairbanks