Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

 I came across this banjo today in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art:


It is a Boucher neck attached to a gourd body.  I assume that somebody in the antebellum era attached a new Boucher neck to an old gourd body (as does the Met: "While gourd bodies were older than wood or metal bodies, this gourd may have been attached to the Boucher neck at a later date").

So probably not a real mystery.  But I just wondered if this particular banjo had been discussed on here before, or if anyone knew of other gourd banjos with Minstrel-era workshop/factory-made necks.

Or for that matter, of any other existing gourd banjos from the 1840s and 1850s.  I know of the Stedman Creole Bania (possibly 1770s),  and the Haitian Banza (1840s), but until coming across the Met's banjo I didn't realize there were others from that era.  It was my understanding that once wood-rimmed, five-string banjos were popularized by the early minstrel shows, gourd banjos fairly quickly became obsolete, even in African-American communities.  I didn't think there were any surviving examples of gourd banjos made by African-American (enslaved or otherwise) in the United States.

Of course, there is no way to know who made the Met's banjo, but if it is indeed from "ca. 1840" and it is a new Boucher neck on an older (pre-1840) gourd body, it would not be unreasonable to think that the gourd itself had been fashioned in the pre-minstrel, "folk instrument" period of the banjo's history.

Again, there is no way to know any of that for certain.  It just sparked my curiosity.

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The earliest Boucher banjo that I am aware of was from 1845, so I would highly question an 1840 date. Often one sees "circa" on a date because there is no way of knowing. A common problem is that museums often don't consult the banjo researchers who are Boucher authorities like Greg Adams or Pete Ross. They just assign a circa date instead.

I've heard from a number of sources that the gourd on this banjo is contemporary. The Met has their facts wrong, as they do with some of their other banjos. You can read a little commentary about this banjo in the current issue of the 5 Stringer. By all accounts a gourd body on a minstrel banjo is a historical anachronism.

Ah, that explains it - thanks for the replies.

I had never seen nor read about a minstrel neck on a gourd body, which is why this banjo caught my attention.  It seemed contrary to everything I knew about banjos of that period.  Nor was I aware of any extant, U.S.-made gourd banjos from the era, which meant I was surprised this one wasn't better known.

I guess I should have known not to rely on the Met's description, simply because they probably don't give banjos the same kind of detailed attention they do Old Master paintings. 

I still wonder who put the gourd body on that neck, and if they thought it was an historically accurate re-creation of the instrument.  I'll look for that 5 Stringer article.

I'm interested in:

1) what the definition of a 'minstrel neck' is, and then also in  2) knowing what kind of neck would be expected on a gourd IF the gourd was indeed from the 1840-45 period.


2) The million dollar question!!

Strumelia said:

I'm interested in:

1) what the definition of a 'minstrel neck' is, and then also in  2) knowing what kind of neck would be expected on a gourd IF the gourd was indeed from the 1840-45 period.


Where is the evidence of this?  Also, what in your opinion qualifies as a stage instrument?  Boucher banjos were not stage instruments.

Dan'l said:

 some gourd banjos had factory necks or mimicked the necks of stage instruments.


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