06 January 2014

Alec Somerville adds to Canadian military history

Alec Somerville with the banjo at the Canadian War Museum, 17 Dec. 2013 (photo: Ashley Fraser of the Ottawa Citizen)

On 27 January, three weeks from today, the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa will put on display an English-made 5-string banjo, the sole example in its collection of a musical instrument that belonged to a soldier. The exact identity of the banjo's owner is not yet known, but there's no doubt about the man responsible for its finding a home in Ottawa - old-time singer and clawhammer-banjo player Alec Somerville.

Alec (who was born in northern England, spent most of his career in Canada, and is now resident in Donegal - see the BIB for 15 Sept. 2012), bought the banjo two years ago in England; the vendor knew only that it had come from clearing out an old house. It was not in playing order, but fortunately the original skin head survived; and on the inside were written the names of twenty-eight men from places in Canada, and 'Paris Aug 24th 1917'. They had clearly been members of the Canadian armed forces on the Western Front, at the time of some of the heaviest fighting of the first world war.

By diligent research, Alec has established the identities of twenty-five of the signatories (thirteen born in Canada, ten in England or Wales, one in Jamaica, and one in Belgium) and has been in touch with some of their descendants. He and the banjo have been filmed for a special edition of BBC TV's 'Antiques roadshow', which will be shown to commemorate the centenary of the start of the war; and before Christmas he travelled to Ottawa to donate the instrument to the Canadian War Museum, where research will continue.

You can read more in an article by Peter Simpson that appeared on 18 Dec. 2013 in the Ottawa Citizen. More photos of the banjo (including one of the inscribed vellum) and a list of the names can be seen here.

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At 1:47 pm, Blogger cameronjamesmcarthur said...

Want to get in touch with an old bud,alec's son mike. Can you pass this on ?

At 5:26 pm, Blogger Richard Hawkins said...

Sorry, but I don't have any way of getting in touch with him.

BIB editor


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