Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

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Hi Dan'l,  Well, I'd always assumed that pre-Civil War banjos were pretty rare birds, mostly crafted as one-offs for professional musicians.  Reinforcing this view are the handful of genuine (and often elaborately-decorated) minstrel banjos that have survived to the present.   But these ads seem to be telling us something else:  namely, that large numbers of relatively cheap (and probably plain) banjos were also being made and sold to the general public as early as 1845.  For me this is a really exciting finding since few if any of these amateur instruments seem to have survived the ravages of time.         

Bob, do you think these banjos could have been Bouchets?  I remember reading somewhere a period reference to cheap Bouchet banjos in storefront windows.

John, The short answer is "very possible," although so many stores were selling banjos by the early 1850s that I can't imagine Boucher was the only supplier.  By the way, I found a series of ads placed by a Cleveland music store in 1855 trumpeting the fact that they were selling Wm. Boucher banjos, the same instruments "used by all of the popular minstrels of the day."  One of the ads is reproduced in the current early banjo exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Industry.     

That's a great example of 19th century advertising, since we know Boucher banjos weren't very good or popular with professional minstrels.

Hi, John: Roberta here. Why were Boucher banjos not popular with professional minstrels?

The Boucher banjos were made with some of the same techniques that mass produced furniture was made.  Boucher took some shortcuts so that he could make a banjo faster.  Drive a Chevy or drive a Cadillac.  The pros wanted the Cadillac.

Thanks, John: What would have been the Cadillac of the day?

The nicely made one-off banjos, or instruments made with professionals in mind.  If you go through the galley at www.banjodatabase.org, you can see how much variation there was among the early instruments.   One feature that was popular with the stage minstrels was a larger rim (14'' or larger in diameter)- something that Converse himself championed.  Here's a picture of one with a 15'' rim from my little (but growing) collection.  

Many of the Boucher banjos were pretty unplayable.  They have a beautiful design but were poorly constructed.  The necks were very thin, which doesn't provide the best stability.  

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Not to get off topic, but I've always wondered about minstrels playing ornate banjos.  The minstrels seemed to have painstakingly constructed their costumes, some even buying clothes off the backs of African Americans they encountered and impersonated.  One would think having an ornate banjo like a Levi Brown, for example, would not fit in with the rest of their appearance on stage.  Further, if they can be trusted (big disclaimer), the illustrations of minstrels on playbills and advertisements depict simple looking banjos.  Take, for example, the picture I posted above.  This is what I imagine the early minstrels playing.  It's an 1850s banjo that is very well made, has a lot of tensioning considering its age, and has a 15'' rim.  It was nicely finished, but doesn't have any elaborate details and looks rather rustic and primitive. 

John,

I would be curious to know if individuals such as George Wunderlich, Greg Adams, Pete Ross, and Jim Hartel, who have examined many of the extant Boucher banjos would share your opinion that they are "poorly constructed".

Jim has told me that before, and described to me why he thinks they aren't very good. His Boucher banjos feature a number of pretty major improvements to the original Boucher design. Maybe he can comment here and share his thoughts as I'd rather not put words into his mouth.

Nice post.   I have done some work on this issue and sme thinking.   One thing would be to figure out to what degree instrument selling was seen as an ethnic niche in business.  It certainly seems from Pete's work on Martin and the terrific trio's work on Boucher,  there is evidence that instrument selling and making was a German niche and at least from Boucher's example I know the best,  retailing banjos got added into retailing other instruments including drums.

It is a bit dangerous to hop from assuming buyers of instruments were members of the same natioonality that sellers of the instruments were particularly given the way retailing instruments seemed to be an ethnic niche.

Bob Sayers said:

I can add a little to the discussion here, based on some unfinished research I started last year.  Using a couple of digital newspaper databases, I was trying to document all of the store advertisements for "banjos for sale" beginning in the mid-1840s and proceeding up until 1860.  I only got through 1853 when the number of ads per year began to approach one thousand or more.   (I may push on through 1854 and 1855 at some point, but I'm currently taking a rest, given the exponential rate of expansion!)   Keep in mind that this represents multiple ads for the same stores; so the actually number of banjo purveyors that I documented for any one year might have been around 20 or so. Nevertheless, it's clear that banjos were very popular from about 1847 onward and were available through music and variety stores in most of the larger cities of the North and South.   Moreover, banjos were usually advertised along with tambourines, accordeons, bone castanets, and violins-clearly indicating that it was the "minstrel craze" that was driving banjo sales.    

Now here's something interesting:  Many of the very earliest (mid-1840s) ads that I found were placed by Irish stores in New York City and by a German store in Milwaukee.  This suggests once again an association with minstrelsy, since the music at the time was definitely popular in Irish working class communities and possibly among Americans of German descent, who constituted a large part of the white Northern urban community.  

As for whether banjo music at the time was a "formal" music or a "folk" music, I guess I take a position somewhere in between.   The most popular musical instrument in the mid-19th century was the parlor piano, hence the proliferation of sheet music for home consumption.   On the other hand, I have never seen an illustration of minstrels playing from sheet music.   They might have, especially since a large (and mostly forgotten) part of the early minstrel show involved quartet and trio singing of popular songs.   But the rest of the minstrel show, while certainly routinized (and possibly choreographed to an extent), was supposed to at least give the appearance of a spontaneous performance.   Once again, since the early audiences for minstrel shows were typically drawn from the white working class, I would think that the performative aspect was key.

Right now I'm tending to think of the urban musical culture of the day as being something like Irish pub music of the 20th century.  In others words, there were formal conventions for playing the music, but plenty of room for improvisation and "showing off."  This goes along with the popularity of banjo and jig-dancing (later clog-dancing) contests during the minstrel period.  

Whether one should call this "folk music" or "folk performance," I can't say.  But I suspect that it was rather informal.   As for the published banjo tutors:  My guess is that they were the equivalent of modern banjo and guitar "method" books and were aimed at the same amateur audience that bought piano sheet music for home entertainments.           

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