August 16, 2022

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James Bohee

James Bohee

James Bohee was born in Indiantown, a Saint John neighbourhood on December 8th, 1844 and died in South Wales on December 8th, 1897. James was an Afro-Canadian song and dance artist, composer, instrumentalist and theatrical manager. Both James and his brother George began to love and play string instruments as children. James had taught himself to play the banjo and could not read printed music.

James and George later moved with their parents to America. James gained professional experience by playing his banjo in Boston beer halls in the late 1860’s.

Around 1876, along with his brother George, he organized his own Bohee Minstrels. They then joined the Callender’s Georgia Minstrels and Haverly’s Genuine Coloured Minstrels in 1878, touring the United States of America. 

Bohee Brothers
James (left) with his brother George. (Credit: Minstrel Memories (1928))

The company then sailed to England in 1881. James and his brother George moved to London England and made their living as highly successful banjo teachers, sellers of banjos, composers, musicians, singers, dancers, theatrical managers and promoters.

From 1876, the brothers toured the US as members of minstrel companies, including one which they managed and promoted. They went to for the first time England in 1881 as members of Haverly’s Colored Minstrels. When the rest of the troupe returned to American in 1882, they stayed on in Europe to tour and perform. Their company, various called the Bohee Brothers Coloured Minstrel Company and the Bohee Operatic Minstrels, employed both white and black performers, and it toured regularly from 1889 until James’ death in 1897. The Bohee Operatic Minstrels disbanded in 1898, but George Bohee continued to tour as a solo act and make a living as a musician.

When they weren’t on tour, the Bohees ran a successful banjo teaching studio. A notice for their studio from 1883 informs the public that lessons are available between 10am to 6pm weekdays, and 10am to 1pm on Saturdays. Students who did not wish to come to the studio could have their banjo lessons at their own houses.

Many people think of the banjo as an instrument played primarily by American bluegrass musicians, but in the last two decades nineteenth century it enjoyed a wave of popularity as a drawing-room instrument. While songs from blackface minstrelsy had been popular for public and home entertainment from the 1830s, the acceptance of the banjo among white upper and middle-class Victorians grew more slowly. Lingering doubts about the respectability of an instrument associated with working-class and African-American cultures seem to have finally vanished in the 1880s, when the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII, began to take banjo lessons. His teacher was James Bohee. The Bohee Brothers made the most of their famous student. In an advertisement of a performance from 21 July 1890, the Bohees called themselves ‘Banjoists and Entertainers to the T.R.H. the Prince and Princess of Wales’. 

Bohee Brothers Song Sheet
Bohee Brothers sheet music (Credit: Mervyn Slatter)

James and George wrote and played sentimental songs that appealed to European audiences. But their repertoire also included antislavery songs, cakewalks (dances originating in slave plantations) and minstrel songs, which introduced their audiences to black American heritage. Some of their songs in their repertoire were: I’ll Meet Her When The Sun Goes Down, The Darkey’s Wedding, The Darkey’s Patrol, The Yellow Kid’s Patrol, Bohemian Gallop, The Darkey’s Dream, The Darkey’s Awakening, Medley of Airs, Restless March, March in C, Hunter’s March and Niagara March.

In addition to their careers as successful musicians, teachers, and entrepreneurs, James and George Bohee are also among the earliest black musicians whose music was recorded. In the early 1890s, the brothers recorded some banjo duets onto a phonograph (an early form of recording device using wax cylinders). They were probably the first ever African-Americans to do so. Sadly the cylinders haven’t survived. 

James Bohee Grave site
James was buried in an expensive plot in the Great Circle, but no stone marks his grave. (Credit: Greywolf)

James Bohee died in 1897 and is buried in the Brompton Cemetery, UK.

Source: The Royal Parks, UK  

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