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.
In 1881, the company sailed to England, where James and his brother George relocated to London. They established successful careers as banjo teachers, sellers of banjos, composers, musicians, singers, dancers, theatrical managers, and promoters.
From 1876, the brothers toured the US as members of various minstrel companies, including one which they managed and promoted themselves. They first traveled to England in 1881 as part of Haverly’s Colored Minstrels. In 1882, when the rest of the troupe returned to America, the Bohee brothers remained in Europe to continue touring and performing. Their company, alternately called the Bohee Brothers Coloured Minstrel Company and the Bohee Operatic Minstrels, employed both white and black performers. The group toured regularly from 1889 until James’ death in 1897. Although the Bohee Operatic Minstrels disbanded in 1898, George Bohee continued to tour as a solo act and make a living as a musician.
When not on tour, the Bohees operated a successful banjo teaching studio. An 1883 notice advertised lessons available from 10 am to 6 pm on weekdays and 10 am to 1 pm on Saturdays. Students could also opt for banjo lessons in their own homes.
While the banjo is often associated with American bluegrass musicians, it experienced a surge in popularity as a drawing-room instrument during the final two decades of the nineteenth century. Although songs from blackface minstrelsy had been popular for public and home entertainment since the 1830s, the banjo’s acceptance among white upper and middle-class Victorians grew more slowly due to its association with working-class and African-American cultures. However, in the 1880s, the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII, began taking banjo lessons from James Bohee, which helped solidify the instrument’s respectability. The Bohee Brothers capitalized on their famous student, advertising themselves in a performance on July 21, 1890, as ‘Banjoists and Entertainers to the T.R.H. the Prince and Princess of Wales.’
James and George Bohee composed and performed sentimental songs that resonated with European audiences. Their repertoire also featured antislavery songs, cakewalks (dances originating from slave plantations), and minstrel songs, exposing their listeners to African-American heritage. Some of their well-known songs include 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 accomplishments as musicians, teachers, and entrepreneurs, the Bohee brothers hold a unique place in history as some of the earliest black musicians to have their music recorded. In the early 1890s, they recorded banjo duets on a phonograph—an early recording device using wax cylinders—likely making them the first African-Americans to do so. Unfortunately, these wax cylinders have not survived.
James Bohee died in 1897 and is buried in the Brompton Cemetery, UK.
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