Return To Main Page


Looking For Roots


Sweeney History


Joel Sweeney & The Musical Sweeneys of Appomattox

Click To Enlarge

The leader of the Virginia Minstrels was Joel Walker Sweeney who was born in Buckingham County, Virginia, in 1810. Joel Walker Sweeney was born in a log cabin in 1810, near the site where the Civil War ended. In fact, General Robert E. Lee rested under an apple tree on the Sweeney family farm waiting to be escorted to General Grant where the two Generals could discuss the terms of surrender of Lee’s Army.

Sweeney, whose antecedents came from Co. Mayo, has become one of the most controversial characters in the history of the banjo, having been credited widely with introducing the fifth string, or chanterelle, to the instrument. In fact, there are early watercolour paintings well before Sweeney's time that show the fifth string on American plantation banjos. Although he most certainly did not invent the 5-string banjo, what he did do however, with his minstrel show was extend the popularity of the banjo to an enormous audience all over the United States and Europe.

According to a 1969 article in "The Iron Worker", a trade publication of the Lynchburg Foundry Co. of Lynchburg, VA, Joel Walker Sweeney, learned to play a four-string gourd banjo at age 13, from the black men working on his father's farm. He also learned to play the fiddle, sing, dance, and imitate animal sounds. Until this time, all performances on the banjo seem to have been from black players. Joel started traveling through central Virginia in the early 1830's, playing his five-string banjo, singing, reciting, and imitating animals during county court sessions. These performances seem to be the first time that the banjo had been performed in a show. He soon became a star in a circus which toured Virginia and North Carolina for several years. He eventually performed on his banjo in New York City, and even toured England, Scotland, and Ireland performing for Queen Victoria in 1843. Sweeney's introduction of the 5-string banjo to England led to the rise in popularity of the banjo there which has continued to the present.

Facts are few and fables are many about Sweeney. One such story has him playing the banjo with his toes, the violin with his hands, and blowing a mouth harp simultaneously. Later, students of Sweeney showed that he had taught them to strike the string with the back of their fingernail and their thumb. This is still the African way of playing. Today, a simplified version of this style of playing is called "clawhammer" or "frailing", as well as many other regional names such as "knocking down", "old Kentucky knock", "thumb cockin ", "rappin ", "whammin ", " flammin ", etc.

Around 1845 Joe Sweeney organized a minstrel troupe called "Old Joes Minstrels", using his younger brothers Sam on the banjo and Dick on the bass. He also used his cousin Bob Sweeney, a left handed fiddler, and some Negro dancers he knew from his area. Playing to thousands of people in their minstrel shows they became an overnight sensation.

The most famous of the American Civil War banjoists was perhaps Samuel Sweeney, the younger brother of Joel Sweeney, who was an orderly of General Jeb Stuart, the famed Confederate cavalry officer. He was originally in the regiment of Colonel T.T. Munford. According to Burke Davis in The Last Cavalier, Munford exclaimed, "Stuart's feet would shuffle at Sweeney's presence, or naming. He issued an order for him to report at his quarters and 'detained' him. It was a right he enjoyed, but not very pleasing to me or my regiment."

So there was always music. Sweeney on the banjo, Mulatto Bob on the bones, a couple of fiddlers, Negro singers and dancers, the ventriloquist, and others who caught Stuart's eye. Sweeney rode behind Stuart on the outpost day and night. Stuart [who was possessed of a fine baritone voice and sang even on his deathbed] often sang and Sweeney plucked the strings behind him. "Her Bright Smile Haunts Me Still," "The Corn Top's Ripe," "Lorena" and "Jine the Cavalry."

"Jine the Cavalry," which you can hear by clicking here, became Stuart's theme song, recounts some of the General's more famous exploits, including his daring "Ride Around McClellan" in the early summer of 1862, his incursion into Pennsylvania, and his assumption of command during the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863 following the woundings of Stonewall Jackson and A.P. Hill. Sam along with cousins Robert Miller Sweeney and Charles H. Sweeney served in the 2nd Virginia Cavalry Regiment.

Today, you can attend "THE JOEL SWEENEY BANJO & OLD-TIME MUSIC FESTIVAL" in Appomattox, Virginia. This year’s banjo festival marks the fourth year in celebration of Joel Sweeney. Also you can see located on the grounds of Appomattox Court House National Historical Park the still standing log cabin home of Charles Sweeney, cousin of Joel Walker Sweeney.

Joel Sweeney died of "dropsy" at Appomattox on October 29, 1860, at the age of 50. His brother Richard also died the same year. Sampson "Sam" D. Sweeney, the youngest brother, died January 13, 1864, of smallpox.

Have you got a story you would like to see here?
Send it to us at

<< Back To Talented Sweeneys
Click here to visit the
Sweeney Clan Shop


© Sweeney Clan 2003 Web Site by John Michael Sweeney