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  • Diane Janowski

Frank Buchanan Converse, Banjo Player

By ©Diane Janowski


Last year, someone asked if I knew anything about an Elmiran named Frank Converse. Instantly, I thought of sneakers. Might sneakers have been invented in Elmira? No, the person said—nothing to do with shoes. Frank Converse was a banjo player. Even better in my mind. I got excited as I played the banjolele, the banjo’s little cousin. So, I went off to learn of this Frank Converse. Banjo websites claim Converse to be the most important teacher and promoter of the five-string banjo in the nineteenth century.


The Pokeepsie Evening Enterprise, on November 3, 1903, claimed he was the “Father of the Banjo,” born in 1837 in Westfield, Massachusetts. The family moved to Elmira in 1841 when Frank was four years old. At 16, he left home to become a musician. Frank joined a minstrel company and traveled everywhere, including London, England. He was known principally as a banjo performer but also composed music for the banjo. Some of his songs were “The Vassar Galop,” “The Devil’s Dance,” “Lovely Angelene,” and “Sick Indian Jig.”


Frank was the son of Professor of Music Maxie Manning S. Converse and Anna Guthrie. 


 Frank B. Converse was the “King of Stroke Playing” in the 1850s and 60s and a master of the “guitar style.” He wrote at least nine banjo-playing books. Banjo scholars will say his “Analytical Banjo Method” has not yet been improved. 


I found a mention of Frank on the road on April 10, 1860, in the Richmond (Virginia) Dispatch, with the advertisement, “Have you heard Frank Converse in his Great BANJO Solo? Many similar ads followed chronologically from all over the United States.


Some papers were very intrigued by his love life. The Hartford (Connecticut) Courant headline on January 30, 1860, read, “Marriage of Great Banjoist to a Lady of Wealth.” It said, “She was a young and very beautiful lady.” Mrs. Harriet Arnot Clark, daughter of Thomas Maxwell of Elmira, was the lucky lady. 


The Hartford Courant said that the pair were “playmates back in Elmira, New York, where the parents of both reside, but as Frank ‘never told his love’ and joined an itinerant minstrel band. The lady in question accepted the offer of a wealthy New York gentleman three years since. She lived in the enjoyment of unalloyed happiness until some eight months ago when her husband died, leaving her sole heiress to the snug little sum of $150,000 and nary responsibility.” 


The young widow returned home to Elmira and asked about her childhood friend. Yes, they still liked each other. The trouble was her family did not want her mixed up with a musician. Her family would not let Frank visit their house. So, secret meetings had to suffice. Opposition from her family eventually brought an elopement for the two to New York City. The Hartford Courant continued, “The facts, as related here, have been confirmed by several who are intimate with the history of both parties and in whose statements the most implicit confidence can be placed.” 


In 1884, music stores sold “the celebrated Frank B. Converse Banjo.” These banjos are still sold on eBay. He taught the instrument after he ended his career. Banjo enthusiasts claim the decline of the banjo followed soon after the public interest in minstrel performances began to decrease. It is rarely heard on the stage now, even in vaudeville performances, and even the college clubs have lost their old enthusiasm for it.


Frank died at age 66 in Manhattan. His beloved Harriet died one month later. Both are buried in Elmira’s Woodlawn Cemetery. Legend says Frank has a small headstone because Harriet used most of her money for philanthropic causes. His stone is also misspelled F.P.C. On his death, the Elmira Gazette cited Frank Converse as “America’s best banjo player” on April 18, 1891. The newspaper said his wife, Mrs. Harriet Maxwell Converse, was known as a poet and an Indianologist (not my term) on April 18, 1891. Frank was also an author of Indian topics.


I didn’t know this until I started researching Frank, but banjo musicians worldwide make pilgrimages to his gravesite to sit and play their banjos. What an honor!








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