I received a fascinating letter some days ago from John Cox, a musician from Melbourne, Australia, who has played with Len and Bob Barnard and many other traditional / New Orleans / swing bands.

John told me that he has a signed banjo head from the Twenties with members of the King Oliver band, that he would like to sell and have go to a good home. Several New Orleans authorities including Greg Lambousy have said they thought it was genuine.  John says he has a Gretsch tenor banjo which the head came from. He’s looking to sell both for a starting bid of $1800 (he has had offers from interested people and institutions) and you can email him at johnpaulacox@optusnet.com.au.


From what I can see, the Louis signature is genuine. And it appears that the original owner of this holy relic offered it to musicians in 1923, 1926, and 1928 for their signatures.  I see Freddie Keppard, Sippie Wallace, Baby Dodds, Johnny Dodds, Honore Dutrey, Manuel Perez, Bud Scott, and one other (top left) that I don’t quite recognize. (News flash!  Kris Bauwens, who knows a great deal about these things, has suggested that it is Bunk Johnson.  Indeed!)

I asked John about the provenance of this object, to learn more about it, and to sense its authenticity, and he told me that he bought the head from a man named Sampson, living in Queensland.  Sampson told John that the banjo had belonged to his father.  When Sampson’s father was about 15, Sampson’s grandfather would take him to the United States from England by ship to New Orleans, up the Mississippi River to Chicago.  They would stay in a hotel and get contraband to take back to England. In the hotels were jazz bands, and he befriended Bud Scott, who looked after him and gave him the banjo, which he had musicians sign over the years.  The banjo would have been fairly cheap at the time.  The boy was nicknamed “Mississippi Sam,” which was shortened to “Sippi Sam.” John believes the story to be true as Sampson’s father had died but Sampson said he could always remember the banjo at the family home.  Sampson had come out to Australia as a child and was about sixty when John met him.

I don’t ordinarily turn JAZZ LIVES into a hot market, but this object is so enthralling on its own that I felt drawn to do so. Please do get in touch with John if your budget can tolerate the purchase of such a beautiful artifact.

May your happiness increase!

8 responses to “WRITE ON THE HEAD!

  1. banjo players in the king oliver bands all did play vega banjos.
    this bands all are well documented with photographs from their times.
    the skin size of the regular vega series (professional, soloist, nr.9 nickel plated, artist & deluxe had the diameter of 19 15/16 ”.
    the other series of vega which were used were the short neck tenor banjo with a diameter of about 21”. both different ”vega skins” never
    ever would fit a gretsch banjo. on the other hand in oliver times, gretsch was not jet a banjo being used professionally.

  2. I appreciate your factual information. But I would simply say that Bud Scott didn’t seem to present this banjo head as one he’d played on, but as a tabula rasa on which musicians could write their names. And we also know that the instruments that musicians are photographed on are not the only ones they ever use. You are welcome to your skepticism, and thanks for the facts!

  3. Bill Lavin


    I can’t get the link to work. What is the e-mail address of the person with the signed banjo head?


    Bill Lavin wlavin@woh.rr.com

  4. The link doesn’t work…this has to be totally bogus…never heard of John Cox…I played with Bob Barnard (once) and many others in the late 50s/early 60s. Never heard of Sampson either…also, really, only $1,800? If it were genuine it’d be worth a lot more than that.

  5. Nick Ribush

    OK well, my contacts have confirmed he’s a real person and his bona fides. So perhaps this is real thing. Still…1800 seems awful cheap.

  6. Nick, as Nat Cole sang, “Cool down, papa, don’tcha blow your top.” If I thought the banjo head was “totally bogus,” I wouldn’t have posted it. The Louis signature looks genuine to me.

  7. I fixed the link in the post but his email address is johnpaulacox@optusnet.com.au.

  8. hi nick ,yes i am a real person, good to know your contacts confirmed that,i was getting worried. sampson was the boy who bud scott gave a banjo to,he didnt play in bands, just for his own enjoyment.i have played with the barnard bros many times as well as ade,frank,sangster,ect it was always a privilage. if you would like to make me a large offer ,if you think its too cheap,i would consider it .
    for uli,the gretsch banjo wasnt used by bud scott ,he gave it to the boy it would have been a low price as it has a cast body,i play a 1928 vega artist plectrum ,gold plated,i love it ,also the signed head is calfskin cut to size to fit,it still has the metal ring in it
    the plastic ones are great,if they had them then they would have used them , you do need the right size tho .thanks hope to hear from someone.

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