The Canadian War Museum’s latest acquisition is, literally, music to the ears of military historians: it’s a banjo signed by 28 members of the Canadian Expeditionary Force in 1917 while they were serving in France during the First World War.
“We are pleased to add the banjo to the National Collection because it is such an unusual, fascinating and historically meaningful artifact,” said James Whitham, director general of the Canadian War Museum. “The instrument represents a cross-section of Canadians who served during the First World War and reveals, through their personal stories, the camaraderie that sustained them on the battlefield and in the aftermath of the war.”
The donor, Alec Somerville (pictured), is an Irish banjo player, former resident of Canada and amateur historical researcher who, upon discovering the instrument’s significance, decided it belonged in the Canadian War Museum. Somerville found the battered old banjo for sale in England and couldn’t resist buying the instrument when he saw it was covered in signatures and the names of Canadian towns. After noticing “Paris, Aug 24th, 1917,” written twice on the reverse of the banjo head, he speculated that a group of Canadian soldiers had left their mark on the instrument while serving overseas during the First World War.
That theory inspired a quest to find out as much as possible about the banjo and the men who inscribed it with their names and hometowns. Somerville, himself an armed forces veteran and retired police officer, began his sleuthing by deciphering the signatures, many of which were faint and smudged.
Through his research and conversations with descendants, Somerville uncovered many of the soldiers’ personal stories: where they came from and, in many cases, their fates after the war. The servicemen who signed the instrument came from almost every province. About half were born in Canada, and the rest were immigrants from England, Wales, Jamaica and Belgium. One came from the Six Nations of the Grand River near Brantford, Ontario and another was the uncle of Roland Michener, who served as Governor General of Canada from 1967 to 1974.
The banjo itself is a traditional five-string, open-backed instrument with a walnut neck and an ebony fingerboard, the top half of which is missing. The goatskin or calfskin head — the proper name for the “drum” stretched across the banjo’s round body to reflect the sound — is worn through at the edges. The violin-type friction tuning pegs are made of plated brass, and some of the original tension hooks (the metal rods that hold the head taut) have been replaced by homemade ones.
The banjo will be on public display in the LeBreton Gallery at the Canadian War Museum from Jan. 27, 2014. (Canadian War Museum Corporate Photo Collection, photo B. Kent, CWM)