Silas and his Mandolin

–by Kim Davenport

Silas Seth Weeks was born in Vermont, Illinois in 1868. His father Thomas, a barber, recognised his musical talent early and encouraged him to pursue a musical education. Seth began with the violin, but soon gravitated towards the guitar, and would eventually focus his attentions on his favorite instrument, the mandolin. After fifteen years of devoted study, he would go on to a successful career as a touring artist, teacher, composer, and recording artist who did much to further the technique and popularity of the mandolin in the United States.

So far, this reads like many stories about a talented musician from the past – what is it that makes Weeks’ story unique? Primarily, the fact that Weeks was a Black man. In the era prior to World War I, most prominent mandolin players in the United States were either of Italian descent or had a Jewish background. Weeks is believed to be the only Black person to make a career as a mandolin soloist during what is referred to as the “Golden Age of the Mandolin.”

Through both his playing and his original compositions for the instrument, he is considered vitally important in bringing the mandolin to the prominent national standing that it had in the early 1900s. Prior to this time, the mandolin was used within ensembles, playing simple parts, but by the turn of the 20th century, virtuoso performers like Weeks took on the “duo style,” playing melody, counter-melody, and harmony all on one instrument.

Although classical composers dating back as far as Vivaldi in the 1700s had written works featuring the mandolin, Weeks is credited with being the first American to write a mandolin concerto, which he did in 1900.

After beginning his career as a classical soloist, by 1919 he was also playing mandolin with jazz bands, possibly making him the first jazz mandolinist.

His touring career as a performer took him not only to prominent U.S. cities such as Chicago and New York, but also to Europe, where he performed in London and Paris. It was while in Europe that he made several recordings for Edison Records in London and Berliner Gramophone in Berlin. Unfortunately most of these recordings have been lost.

Weeks was clearly a significant musician of his era, and left his mark as both a performer and a composer. But what is his connection to Tacoma? Biographical profiles of Weeks – which appear frequently in mandolin-themed corners of the internet – often include a phrase along the lines of “and he led a mandolin and guitar orchestra in Tacoma, Washington,” but without further detail. That was enough to get this Tacoma researcher intrigued!

The paper trail puts Weeks in Tacoma between 1892 and 1896, which would indicate that perhaps our city was his first professional destination after leaving his childhood home in Illinois. He appears in the 1892 Washington State census, where he is listed as a musician living with his wife Carrie, a housekeeper. In the City Directory that same year, he is listed as a music teacher. He appears again in the 1893, 1895, and 1896 City Directories, as a music teacher both living and residing at 1113-1/2 Tacoma Avenue – an 1890 building which still stands today, across the street from the Tacoma Library’s main downtown branch.

What brought him to Tacoma isn’t clear, although the 1890s were certainly a booming time for the city. Entrepreneurs in a variety of fields, including music, made their way to Tacoma on the train to join a growing community in what was advertised to be the “New York of the West.” Some stayed for just a few years, like Weeks, while others remained for a lifetime. Clearly, Weeks enjoyed touring enough that he wasn’t destined to remain here.

It is fascinating, though, to imagine this young Black man in 1890s Tacoma, boldly pursuing his dream of making a career as a mandolin soloist and composer. Now that I am familiar with his name, I will keep an eye out for accounts of his concerts here, perhaps shining more light on how his music was perceived and appreciated, what his time in Tacoma was like.

His long life was an eventful one. He was twice widowed. After leaving Tacoma, he would make homes for himself in London, Paris, New York, and Chicago. He composed and published dozens of works for mandolin, formed multiple jazz ensembles, and taught students in every city he visited. His place of death is unknown, but was reported in the January 9th, 1954 edition of the New York Amsterdam News.

I can’t think of a better way to conclude this post than with a recording of one of Weeks’ works, titled Polka Caprice:

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