The banjo is a musical instrument that has been in the United States for centuries.  It was brought here by African Americans during the slave trade and became a major instrument during the late 19th and early 20th century.  There were many different kinds of instruments in Africa that were related to the banjo.  Many of these instruments did not have the neck and tuning pegs like the banjos we would recognize.  These instruments had a neck that was a stick, the strings were attached to the neck with loops for tuning.  These instruments made their way to America and evolved into the banjos we see today.


Early banjos in America were made out of a hollowed out gourd and some string.  The emptied out gourd was covered with a flat skinhead.  The five string banjo has a tuning peg for the fifth string located on the side of the banjo instead of on top with the other four tuning pegs. In the 1830s, a man named Joel Walker Sweeney popularized the banjo and became the first white man to play the banjo on stage.  The banjo that Sweeney used replaced the empty gourd with a sound box that was like a drum.  Eventually the four string banjo was made and became popular around 1910.  The four string banjo has a guitar style neck.  Currently, the four string and five string banjos enjoy practically equal popularity among banjo lovers.  There are now many different types of banjos which include the five string clawhammer banjo, the four string tenor banjo, and the four string plectrum banjo. 

Aside from losing a string, banjos during the late 19th and early 20th century began to have more brackets placed on them.  Brackets are placed on the banjo to secure the skinhead onto the body.  Originally, banjos had approximately six brackets on them.  Over time this evolved into anywhere between thirty and forty brackets.  The brackets, along with the rest of the banjo, became much more decorated.  This increasing decoration came at the same time that the banjo was becoming an instrument accepted by people of higher status.  Banjo makers began to give their banjos elitist names like the "Monarch" and the "Imperial."


St. Bonaventure's collection of banjo music was given to us by John Flanagan of the class of 1962.  The music is from the late 1800s to the early 1900s. 

Flanagan started playing the banjo during his last semester here at St. Bonaventure.  He and his friends would mostly play in their rooms since there wasn't a music studio on campus that they could use to practice.  When Flanagan started playing banjo, he played one that was given to him by his father.

Flanagan gathered this collection mostly by buying from shops and flea markets.  There are a good number of rare pieces from this era and Flanagan felt that the music would be safe and appreciated here at St. Bonaventure, due to our reputation for historical conservation.  Much of the music that was given to us is a classical banjo style including many different marches, as well as chord books and method books that teach how to play the banjo.

Here are two pieces of banjo music from the Flanagan Collection 

To the left is Analytical Banjo Method which is the oldest piece in the collection with a publishing date of 1887.

On the right is a collection called Van Eps Banjo Solos in C Notation with Piano Accompaniment.  This was published in 1923 and is the most recent music in the collection.


The banjo is a very important part of Flangan's life.  He picks up his banjo and plays every day.  It took him years to gather this collection and we are pleased that he trusts St. Bonaventure to be able to appreciate and preserve this impressive collection.


For more pictures of the music that was donated to us click here. 

This site was created by Ryan Thompson for History 495, Internship, during the Fall 2012 semester.  Any changes, other than minor edits will be noted here.

For information about the Archives'  collections contact:

telephone: 716.375.2322

Friedsam Memorial Library
St. Bonaventure University
St. Bonaventure, NY 14778 USA
Telephone: 716.375.2323
Fax: 716.375.2389
Information Desk: 716.375.2164;

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Last updated: 11/16/2012