Banjo music and American cultural history run on parallel tracks, Len Schneider says.

Schneider, who lives in Augusta and has been playing the banjo for at least 50 years, will talk about the history of the banjo and play some early music in a presentation at 2 p.m. Saturday at Hallowell’s Hubbard Free Library.

Schneider said early banjo songs from the late 1700s up through the early 1900s provide a glimpse into the lives of ordinary Americans because the songs were about everyday life.

“The banjo’s always been a storytelling instrument, right from the beginning,” Schneider said. “As the world changed, the stories changed. If you look at it all and study it all, you begin to connect the dots.”

Schneider’s presentation will focus largely on the 19th century and the contributions of performers like Joel Sweeney and Theresa Vaughn.

Sweeney popularized the banjo, which was created by black Americans based on African gourd instruments. Sweeney, a white man from Virginia, performed his blackface minstrel act around the country and in England in the 1840s.


Theresa Vaughn started performing in the early 1870s as a banjo player, singer and comic actress with a traveling troupe of entertainers. She later performed on Broadway, became very wealthy and was recorded by Thomas Edison, Schneider said.

Schneider said Vaughn is not widely remembered, even among banjo players, but he thinks her music is timeless. He was inspired by her romantic, troubadour style to return to an old-fashioned mode of banjo playing instead of continuing down a path toward the highly technical style that he said is more popular today.

“These days it’s all technical. These guys are trying to show you how fast they can play,” Schneider said.

At the library, Schneider will play two banjos he restored after receiving them from a Gardiner woman who found them in her attic. He said the instruments sound completely different than a modern banjo and are more like instruments that Vaughn would have played.

Susan McMillan — 621-5645

Twitter: @s_e_mcmillan

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