Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

Thanks to all who attended.  A special thanks to Susan and Greg for all of their work making the event possible.  


On a side note, I talked to Greg after the event.  He started a vitally important conversation about interpretation of the banjo.  I think that this is a topic that needs more discussion.  As we enter year two of the sesquicentennial, we should consider a deeper conversation and even the possibility of developing a statement of purpose regarding banjo interpretation withing a historical setting.  


My question, is anyone interested?  As a public historian, I would love to see some standards applied to the banjo in the same way that we have set standards for interpretation of material culture and military drill.  If anyone is interested, let's start a thread to keep the conversation alive. 

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The banjo is an excellent example of divergent evolution of a musical instrument. I, for one, had never heard of minstrel banjo before this weekend. It's unfortunate that so many people associate the instrument with "Duelin' Banjos".
I am extremely interested in pursuing this.  I've been thinking about this since the conference.  It is possible for me to establish a specific forum for this topic on this site.  I really believe that this will extend way beyond just banjo interpretation, and could be of use in other fields as well. 

I've been wrestling with the same devils (and angels) since I started performing "period" music at museums and historic sites in about 1981. After searching for answers to these hard questions for 30 years I have to admit I haven't found many, but I'm willing to keep looking. Maybe it's the quest that's important. Let's talk.

I would agree with all of you. What I've been seeing in the academic historical discussion about the Sesquicentennial is a great concern with the nature and content historical memory--what story is being told and  what is NOT being told in our commemorations, and the social/political use to which those stories are put.  This is the sort of discussion that Greg started us having on Saturday and which obviously has continued since then. And which we ought to continue.

I think the discussion is very valuable.  It helps to hear what others are doing to explain the music of this time period to their audiences.  We need to somehow get the 19th century mindset into the minds of the 21st century audience in order for them to better understand what music meant to the people of our era.  It has to be done with care, but with an historical accuracy that is honest and forthright.


I also would like to thank George, Susan and "Cool Hand" Greg for a wonderful weekend.  Can't wait until next year!!

Your comments are well taken Dan'l.  


Just to clarify,  I do not want to get into the nitty-gritty of what type of banjo to play or how performances should go.  Instead I want to help both the living historian and the historic sites to understand the issues involved in banjo (and music in general) presentations so far as social context and audience sensibilities go.  


Greg and I spoke yesterday and his idea is less of a standard and more of a set of guidelines and questions that each performer and site could review so that the final decision they make is the best choice for that site, audience and performer.  If we can pose the right questions and suggest best practices then we can accomplish a worthy goal without becoming an onerous, stitch counting burden. 


I hope this clarifies thing a bit.  



I was asked to do a program of Civil War music at a public library earlier this year. I spent a lot of time researching the songs and learning to play them.  I mostly play either clawhammer or two finger style, and my stroke style playing is pretty rudimentary at this time, I focused my banjo playing on the styles I am comfortable with. I also played mountain dulcimer for several songs. Trying to keep authenticity as intact as possible within these limitations, I tried to focus more on the stories behind the songs, and the way the songs evolved over time, rather than on my instrumental performances. Actually, learning about the songs, and in the cases where authorship is known, about the composers, was fascinating to me, and I tried to deliver that fascination to the audience. I think it worked pretty well. There were a number of questions regarding the songs and stories. I also contrasted older and newer lyrics, such as Old Rosin The Beau/ Lincoln And Liberty. I only sang one verse of Rosin, as an example, then sang several verses of  Lincoln. I also showed, through song choices, how the music changed during the war, from the more upbeat early songs like Marching Along, to the more somber later songs like The Faded Coat Of Blue and The Knot Of Blue And Grey. Rather than a pure performance, I tried to make it more of a sung lecture.  I think this is a good way to go for an audience whose members may not have heard these songs before. I played Boatman for friends last week and one asked if I wrote it. These songs that we hold close are less than mainstream.

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