Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

I recently came across the following description of an 1851 performance by the English banjo virtuoso E.W. Mackney.   It strongly suggests that period minstrel performances were anything but dour affairs. 

 

"The Hippodrome. --We had an opportunity of hearing the celebrated Mackney, the negro delineator, at Messrs. Risley and M'Collom's Great Hippodrome recently erected at Toxteth Park.  Besides his highly amusing songs and witticisms, he imitates, by the aid of a banjo, a locomotive engine, in starting, at full speed, in slowing, and at rest, with great effect.  His imitations on the violin of the bagpipes, the farm yard and its various occupants --fowls, pigs, calves, and cows --were well executed, and he was loudly encored.  He dances and at the same time plays the violin, which he places before, behind, above, and below him, and yet keeps up the melody and accompanies it in double quick step.  His feats are truly wonderful and fully deserve the thunders of applause which greet him whenever he makes his appearance."  (From the Liverpool Albion). 

 

Bob

 

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 Thats interesting,, and the description that it was a "show" I bet it was fun. .   Jimmy Hendrix was lauded by playing behind his head,,, but I guess he was far from being the originator.  .

Too bad we cant time travel and witness a show like that personally.

 Steve

Besides his highly amusing songs and witticisms, he imitates, by the aid of a banjo, a locomotive engine, in starting, at full speed, in slowing, and at rest, with great effect.


This reminds me somewhat of the late DeFord Bailey's rendition of "Pan American Blues."  In performance, it wasn't necessarily obvious; but I drove him to and from gigs in the mid-1960s, and he talked about what was going on in that piece.  The train sped up, approached (the WSM live broadcast microphone by the track, to show that the L&N's southbound Pan American Limited was on time), went over a trestle, got farther away, etc.  The whistle incorporated into the number was supposed to be the standard signal for a grade crossing.  (I think that was dah dah dit dah, in Morse code terminology -- may be mistaken.)  He had corrected his whistle pattern after the Pan American engineer (Will McMurry, who was my grandmother's uncle) visited the WSM broadcast studio and explained the relevant signal to him -- in about 1926.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yjlR8eS0YPM

That brief (and apparently interrupted) late Opry performance doesn't have quite the power of his full "concert" version, but you get the idea.  DeFord was about four foot ten, and a childhood polio survivor, but a mighty man on the harp.

Incidentally, 1851 is pretty early to be imitating a train, on a banjo or otherwise -- but it's not unique, or perhaps even unusual.  The Russian classical composer Mikhail Glinka wrote a popular vocal solo, "Poputnaya pesnya," celebrating the first rail link from St. Petersburg to Moscow -- in 1840.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eHjb-jl9V5s

All in all, I really prefer DeFord... and our balalaika orchestra version of the Glinka number sounds way more like a train than a single piano does.  But this pianist is a babe.  If you don't like classical music, mute the sound and just watch...

Steve:  Well, at least he didn't throw his banjo or fiddle down on the stage and set it on fire!

 

Bob

Steve Jeter said:

 Thats interesting,, and the description that it was a "show" I bet it was fun. .   Jimmy Hendrix was lauded by playing behind his head,,, but I guess he was far from being the originator.  .

Too bad we cant time travel and witness a show like that personally.

 Steve

Dick:  It's interesting that you mention DeFord Bailey in this light.  I can think of lots of fiddlers imitating bird sounds (e.g., "Listen to the Mockingbird") or train sounds ("Lee Highway Blues," "Orange Blossom Special").  And, of course, there Uncle Dave twirling his banjo.  I guess there's nothing new under the sun.  I'll keep looking for more early performance descriptions.  Bob

razyn said:

Besides his highly amusing songs and witticisms, he imitates, by the aid of a banjo, a locomotive engine, in starting, at full speed, in slowing, and at rest, with great effect.


This reminds me somewhat of the late DeFord Bailey's rendition of "Pan American Blues."  In performance, it wasn't necessarily obvious; but I drove him to and from gigs in the mid-1960s, and he talked about what was going on in that piece.  The train sped up, approached (the WSM live broadcast microphone by the track, to show that the L&N's southbound Pan American Limited was on time), went over a trestle, got farther away, etc.  The whistle incorporated into the number was supposed to be the standard signal for a grade crossing.  (I think that was dah dah dit dah, in Morse code terminology -- may be mistaken.)  He had corrected his whistle pattern after the Pan American engineer (Will McMurry, who was my grandmother's uncle) visited the WSM broadcast studio and explained the relevant signal to him -- in about 1926.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yjlR8eS0YPM

That brief (and apparently interrupted) late Opry performance doesn't have quite the power of his full "concert" version, but you get the idea.  DeFord was about four foot ten, and a childhood polio survivor, but a mighty man on the harp.

Incidentally, 1851 is pretty early to be imitating a train, on a banjo or otherwise -- but it's not unique, or perhaps even unusual.  The Russian classical composer Mikhail Glinka wrote a popular vocal solo, "Poputnaya pesnya," celebrating the first rail link from St. Petersburg to Moscow -- in 1840.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eHjb-jl9V5s

All in all, I really prefer DeFord... and our balalaika orchestra version of the Glinka number sounds way more like a train than a single piano does.  But this pianist is a babe.  If you don't like classical music, mute the sound and just watch...

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