Frank B. Converse

  • Frank B. Converse was born into a family of musicians in Westfield, Massachusetts on June 17, 1837. The Converses, however, soon relocated to Elmira, New York [1].
  • Young Frank began studying music at six years old and could play piano well by age twelve. He picked up the banjo at fourteen, devoting himself to it [2], though his Presbyterian father considered the banjo "the instrument of the devil" and initially banned it from the house (gradually coming to accept his son's chosen instrument) [3].
  • Converse left home at sixteen [4], in 1853; his "first engagement worth mentioning" was with McFarland's Theatrical Company at Detroit in 1855 [5].
  • He travelled with Matt Peel's Campbell Minstrels between 1856 and 1858 [6].  In early 1857, the group visited a "mere hamlet" in southern Illinois and were found they had an audience of fewer than twelve people: the local pastor had added, to the minstrels' posters, quotes from the Book of Proverbs such as "My son, if sinners entice thee, consent thou not," warning his people away from the minstrel performance [7].  Later in 1857, the Campbell Minstrels played at Spalding & Rogers's Amphitheatre in New Orleans; one night their performance featured Converse, only twenty years old at the time [8].
  • Converse eloped with his childhood sweetheart in January 1860. His bride was Mrs. Hattie [Harriet] A. Clark, who had been widowed only eight months prior and had inherited $150,000 from her deceased husband. Her family and friends opposed their association, so Converse sent a telegram to her family pretending to be her business agent requiring her to come to New York City. From New York the couple travelled to Hartford, Connecticut, where they married on January 29, 1860 [9]. Mrs. Harriet Maxwell Converse, as she became known, was very actively involved with the Iroquois. She was the second white woman to participate in a council of the Six Nations [10] and the first woman to become Chief of the Six Nations [11].
  • After a brief retirement from performing[12], Converse travelled with five others to Denver City, Colorado Territory in 1861 [13]. On the way there, he and Charley Petrie, a bone player in the troupe, would "serenade" close-by Native American villages. Apparently the Native Americans were "charmed by the bones" but "indifferent to the banjo" [14]. Denver City proved to be "a typical mining center, where nearly every individual...was 'a law unto himself,' and it needed but a slight provocation to make up a case for the Coroner," but Converse and his group survived and performed for a packed house; Converse returned to the East Coast with "a feeling of satisfaction...in having pioneered the banjo among the Indian tribes of the plains and at Denver" [15].
  • Converse taught banjo in New York City intermittently from 1864 to 1891 [16]. In 1865 and 1868, he was so busy that he enlisted the aid of John Sivori, a banjoist who played with Bryant's Minstrels [17]. In 1866 "the old longing for the footlights" took him away from his business and he joined "Pony" George W. Moore's Company in England, playing at St. James's Hall in London [18]. Converse then toured France, but returned to the United States when his wife took ill [19].
  • In between teaching, Converse dabbled in a few different banjo-related areas.  In 1867 he, George Coes, and Sam Purdy organized their own minstrel group, calling it Purdy, Coes, and Converse's Minstrels [20]. And in 1869 he and one Degroot began a serial publication, though it had merged with The Banjoist by 1872 [21].
  • "Converse banjos" were advertised by J. F. Stratton [22] and sometimes Converse himself [23], though Albert Baur alleged that these banjos (as well as banjos sold by George Dobson) were actually made by J. H. Buckbee [24], operator of a large factory in New York City [25].
  • In 1888, Converse was cited by banjoist P. C. Shortis as "the best authority on all matters pertaining to the banjo" [26].
  • During 1901-1902, Converse published a series of "Banjo Reminiscences" in monthly publication The Cadenza, published by Clarence L. Partee.
  • Converse died on September 5, 1903 [27], followed two months later by his widow [28].

     [1] "Frank B. Converse," New York Clipper, 1865, quoted in Frank B. Converse, "Banjo Reminiscences, I," The Cadenza, accessed July 18, 2011, http://thejoelhooks.com/Site/Instruction_&_Music_Collections_files/Converse_Reminiscences%201.pdf, 1. Since the Cadenza's page numbers are not always visible in the scans of Converse's "Reminiscences," the page number I give is of the PDF document.

     [2] Ibid.

     [3] Frank B. Converse, "Banjo Reminiscences, II," The Cadenza, accessed July 18, 2011, http://thejoelhooks.com/Site/Instruction_&_Music_Collections_files/Converse%20Missing%20Page.pdf.

     [4] "'The Father of the Banjo': Frank B. Converse Made That Instrument Popular but Lived to See Its Decline," Broad Axe (Chicago, IL), October 24, 1903, accessed June 4, 2011, America's Historical Newspapers.

     [5] Frank B. Converse, "Banjo Reminiscences, III," The Cadenza, accessed July 18, 2011, http://thejoelhooks.com/Site/Instruction_&_Music_Collections_files/Converse_Reminiscences%201.pdf, 5. See n. 1 re: page number.

     [6] "Frank B. Converse," New York Clipper, 1.

     [7] Frank B. Converse, "Banjo Reminiscences, IV," The Cadenza, accessed July 18, 2011, http://thejoelhooks.com/Site/Instruction_&_Music_Collections_files/Converse_Reminiscences%201.pdf, 7-8. See n. 1 re: page number.

     [8] "Make Way for the Banjo," Times-Picayune (New Orleans, LA), December 2, 1857, accessed May 28, 2011, America's Historical Newspapers, 1. Notably contains the inevitable pun "Converse will converse with his audience in many more than his usual ways" (italics mine).

     [9] "Marriage of the Great Banjoist to a Lady of Wealth," Hartford Daily Courant (1840-1867), January 30, 1860, accessed July 18, 2011, http://thejoelhooks.com/Site/Instruction_&_Music_Collections_files/Converse_Reminiscences%204.pdf, 8. Date of marriage was given simply as "Sunday" in the article. I used a specialized online calculator to determine that the article was written on a Monday: http://calendarhome.com/day-of-week.html.

     [10] "Honored by the Iroquois: A White Woman Takes Part in the Six Nations Councils," The State (Columbia, SC), April 11, 1891, accessed July 21, 2011, America's Historical Newspapers.

     [11] Springfield Republican published as Springfield Daily Republican, November 20, 1903, accessed July 21, 2011, America's Historical Newspapers, 6.

     [12] "Frank B. Converse," New York Clipper, 1.

     [13] Frank B. Converse, "Banjo Reminiscences, I," The Cadenza, accessed July 18, 2011, http://thejoelhooks.com/Site/Instruction_&_Music_Collections_files/Converse_Reminiscences%201.pdf, 2. See n. 1 re: page number.

     [14] Ibid.

     [15] Ibid.

     [16] New York Herald, February 3, 1864, accessed May 28, 2011, America's Historical Newspapers, 7; New York Herald, October 11, 1891, accessed June 4, 2011, America's Historical Newspapers, 25. These two illustrate the range of dates I found.

     [17] New York Herald, February 19, 1865, accessed May 29, 2011, America's Historical Newspapers, 7; New York Herald, April 27, 1868, accessed May 29, 2011, America's Historical Newspapers, 8; Edward Le Roy Rice, Monarchs of Minstrelsy, from "Daddy" Rice to Date (New York: Kenny, 1911), 83.

     [18] Converse, "Banjo Reminiscences, I," The Cadenza, 1. See n. 1 re: page number.

     [19] Ibid., 2.

     [20] Rice, Monarchs of Minstrelsy, 119.

     [21] Albert Baur, "Reminiscences of a Banjo Player, Ninth Letter," S. S. Stewart's Banjo and Guitar Journal 9, no. 2 (June and July, 1892): 4-5, accessed July 20, 2011, Sibley Music Library, http://hdl.handle.net/1802/2586, 4-5. Baur, a famous banjoist, printed his reminiscences in a serial publication just as Converse would about one decade later.

     [22] "Advertisement 3 -- No Title," Life (1883-1936) 4, no. 97 (November 6, 1884): 265, accessed June 8, 2011, American Periodicals, http://search.proquest.com/docview/91014798?accountid=11264. Stratton's advertisements also appear in Puck as well as newspapers Worcester Daily Spy and Springfield Republican, both of Massachusetts.

     [23] New York Herald, September 16, 1883, accessed June 3, 2011, America's Historical Newspapers, 5.

     [24] Philip F. Gura and James F. Bollman, America's Instrument: The Banjo in the Nineteenth Century (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999), 107.

     [25] Ibid., 103-5.

     [26] "A Talk with a Noted Banjo Player: The American Instrument on the Stage and in the Parlor," Evening News (San Jose, CA), January 7, 1888, accessed June 3, 2011, America's Historical Newspapers, sec. XI, 3.

     [27] "The Father of the Banjo."

     [28] Springfield Republican, published as Springfield Daily Republican (Springfield, MA), November 20, 1903, accessed July 21, 2011, America's Historical Newspapers, 6.