Alfred Kirby

W. M. Brewer; The Banjo in Britain; BMG August 1955

Alfred Oswin Warriner Kirby was born in Rochdale, Lancs, on June 12, 1876, and at the age of eight began to play a "tackhead" banjo with a smooth arm and a few inlaid frets. On this crude instrument he learned the elements of banjo playing until his father rewarded his enthusiasm by the gift of a better instrument.

Young Kirbyís first teacher was a coloured banjoist who was appearing at Bradford in a minstrel troupe known as "The Uncle Tomís Cabin Company"*, from whom he received a short term of tuition. The enthusiastic youngster travelled from Heckmondwyke, Yorks (where he was then living) for each lesson. Later, he received instruction from Harry Sykes (a relative of the well-known banjoist, Albert Lyles, of Dewsbury, who died on March 25, 1942) until he was able to study alone.


Progress was rapid and Alfred Kirby became a professional at the early age of 14. Three years later, he attained his ambition of becoming a composer; his first solos being "Florenza Serenade", "Empress March", "Gavotte Sentimentale", "Japanese March" and " Introduction and Quickstep". The latter was outstandingly popular.

At the age of 22 Alfred Kirby wrote his famous "Swanee Echoes'' and "La Vivandiere March", both of which were recorded for the Columbia label by Ernest Jones. His next composition was the exceedingly difficult "Marche Americaine".

In 1912 Alfred Kirby gave up playing the banjo and went into the variety agency business until 1916, when he joined the army. He served in Malta, France, Belgium, and with the Army of Occupation in Bonn. During his military service Alfred Kirby had his banjo with him and it became a popular feature of numerous concerts at home and abroad, particularly when his battery was resting behind the lines.

Upon demobilisation Alfred Kirby resumed his business of variety agent, but a slump made him turn to the banjo again and the fretted instrument world thus secured some 35 outstanding compositions which he might not otherwise have written.

In the early days of broadcasting, he became a popular soloist from the 5IT (Birmingham) studio and during this time played about 25 of his own compositions. In 1930 he secured a contract with the Piccadilly Company and his first recordings for that company were "Heather Bloom" and "Riverside March". Unfortunately, the Piccadilly Company went out of business before further sides could be released.

I can testify to Alfred Kirbyís outstanding ability as a composer as he wrote for me a second banjo part to his "Joy Dance" which is almost a solo in itself, and blends with the solo part in a duet par excellence. Many readers "B.M.G." will remember his solo recital at the Alliance Hall in London, sponsored by the National Society of Banjoists, where Alfred Kirby displayed in no uncertain manner his amazing technique and complete mastery of the banjo.

Rex Hart wrote a masterly tribute to Alfred Kirby and his music in the March 1944 "B.M.G." in which he gave calibre and tempo of each of his compositions and arrangements which exceed 50 in number.

Alfred Kirby died of peripheral failure and post-operative shock in the Selly Oak (Birmingham) Hospital on January 1949.

* The coloured banjoist, George B. Bohee, was at one stage with "The Uncle Tomís Cabin Company" in the Isle of Wight. It was possible that he was with the same company in Bradford,

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