Cammeyer Passes


BMG February 1950

AFTER a brief illness of two weeks duration, Alfred D. Cammeyer passed away peacefully on December 22nd last. With his death the fretted instrument world loses a master musician and truly artistic performer; one whose outstanding compositions have done much to elevate the banjo during the past half century.

Alfred Davies Cammeyer was born in Brooklyn, New York City, U.S.A., on March 17th 1862 and his first musical instrument was a violin, presented to him by his father on his ninth birthday. After two years’ tuition his teacher took the young Cammeyer to play to Dr. Nightcrick (conductor of the New York Handel and Haydn Orchestral Society), with the object of finding out if his pupil was good enough to play in the Orchestra.

The audition was successfully passed and Cammeyer was given the second violin part in "The Messiah" but his constant practising of the part at home was too much for the rest of the household, eventually meaning the end of his orchestral experience.

In his book "My Adventuresome Banjo", Mr. Cammeyer told how he first became interested in the banjo. His one objection to the violin was that it did not lend itself to the playing of chords and harmonies. A fellow student at school played the banjo at sing-songs, and this instrument seemed to "fill the bill".

All pennies that could be spared were hoarded until the day the young Cammeyer, at the age of fourteen, bought his first banjo and commenced to teach himself to play - much to the disgust of his parents.


Cammeyer and his school friend worked together; making progress and discovering a new chord every day. They arranged duets of most of the comic operas of the period and soon requests began to come in for them to appear at charity concerts, which gave them an incentive to further study.

The success of their many public appearances set their imagination working and soon they were appearing with the Georgia Amateur Minstrel Society, being billed as "Cammeyer & Thompson - Musical Versatiles"; the act consisting of a multi-instrumental comedy scena.

Mr. Cammeyer himself described in an article in our December issue how he evolved the "zither-banjo". After this "new" instrument, with its wire strings, had been perfected, Cammeyer teamed up with a guitarist named Teddy McGinnis and engagements at private society functions in and around New York were soon forthcoming.

It was whilst playing for Adelina Patti at the Windsor Hotel, New York, that this famous singer asked him if he had ever thought of visiting London. She told him the British people would certainly take kindly to his zither-banjo and added: "You must certainly come and pay me a visit if you do".


But it was not until 1888 that Cammeyer sailed for England, with many introductions to the cream of London Society. It took him some time to convince these people that his playing of the zither-banjo was different to the then usual black-faced "banjoist", but once he started, his private engagements included names famous the world over.

At one of these parties, Sir Arthur Sullivan first gave Cammeyer the idea of composing solos for his zither-banjo. "Such advice from a master musician," says Mr. Cammeyer in his book, "made a deep impression and the more thought I gave it the greater appreciation I felt for his timely warning, for I fully realised that there were many weak spots in the various arrangements I had hitherto relied on."

Eventually he composed hundreds of solos, many of which are real musical gems - judged purely as music. In fact, it has been said that Cammeyer was such a fine composer it was a pity he limited his melodies to the banjo.

Four years after landing in England he and Clifford Essex formed the firm of Essex & Cammeyer with premises at 59, Piccadilly, but the partnership was dissolved in 1900.

For the next thirty-nine years, Cammeyer continued to write and publish his musicianly compositions; appear on the concert platforms and play at private parties given by the cream of London Society and, during this period, it is safe to say he converted more people of note to the "humble banjo" than any other artist.

In 1939 he retired from business, being provided with a house on the estate of the Hon. Arthur Strutt in Derbyshire, where he enjoyed a happy life until his death.

The passing of Alfred Davies Cammeyer makes a gap in fretted instrument history that can never be filled. Cammeyer was an outstanding performer and composer; he was unique. His name and memory will never die.