Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

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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.           

You different conclusions seem to be the basic ones that come out of the extended discussion of Boucher that Roddy,  Bob Winans Gregg , and Pete gave at the 2012 collectors at Ferrum which I dont think you attended.  You might try to talk to Roddy about this who looked at the diffusion of Bouchers into Virginia and thereabouts.   Minstrelsy spread the idea of manufacturered frame head banjos as a commodity just as it spread the idea of vernacular popular music as a commodity.  Try looking for adds for sheet music for minstre songs in newspapers.

IAnother thing to look at particularly in the NYC papers especially by the 1850s is the plethora of ads for banjo instruction including some of the great masters we think of offering banjo plaing in five easy lessons at easy rates.

Banjos and banjo playing emerged as a commodity especially insofar as misntrelsy and parallel branches of the music industry very quickly built it not simply as a performance product, but a home or neighborhood music product with instruction, song manuals, and whole instruction books for putting on a minstrel show becoming something for amateur enthusiasts as welll as the professionals before the civil war

This is the modern coommercial music industry arising, where you just dont hear a nice songm but buy the song book, get the instrument, take a few lessons, get your pals together and put on a show in your neighborhood or go from that to becoming Frank Converse and people are doing this not just in your branch of the folk tradition but in England, Austraia and New Zealand!



Bob Sayers said:

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.         

Boucher banjos won prizes in B more in the 1850s  as a general local product.  Bouchers also evolved from early gourd based models to quite developed instruments.   I do not think there is any affirmation that Bouchers necessarily were the best banjos, and it is not clear to names like those Roberta mentions above  whether Boucher actually manufactured these banjos or had all or some of them made to his specifications and had a major role as a marketer of banjos and precisely had other retailers selling his banjos.

But  on the other hand, we have almost no other banjos that are contemporary with Boucher's 1840s or even early 1850s banjos to compare them too.  

I am also not cear what John's database to make this comparison is, or whether John has played a Boucher banjo or two, or what he is talking about.
But their significance as an isntrument is largely in that they are probably the oldest variety of manufactured and retailed banjos know over a fairly wide area of distribution and marking the banjo as a retail product for players including non professional players.

I am not much of a judge of minstrel banjos because how can they compare to a tubaphone or a white lady or a Van Epps Recording Banjo,  LOL



John said:

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

Tony, aside from the period opinions we have about Boucher banjos, I have played an original and a number of exact reproductions.  Bouchers were not high quality instruments and had a number of design flaws that affected both their playability and stability.  I like to think of them as elegant cheeseboxes.  I have also played a number of original banjos from the 1840s and 1850s, many of these being "professional" instruments with the dimensions preferred by the big-time minstrels.  In my experience so far, these banjos have almost always been far superior to the Bouchers.  I have a large minstrel banjo circa 1850 in my collection that has become my go-to player, and now that I'm accustomed to it I have no intention to play Boucher's design any longer.  I do not understand the reenactment community's apparent obsession with the Boucher design, especially the diversity of the surviving early minstrel banjos. 

Like you said, they are extremely significant to the history of the banjo, and I am not trying to downplay this.  Boucher's design is both elegant and timeless, and there are makers today who will make you one minus the original design flaws (Bob Flescher, Jim Hartel).

It's iconic.....like a Strat.

Tim, that's exactly what I was going to write, but I deleted it before posting because I wasn't sure anyone here would get the comparison.  

So in other words you know very litte about the hundreds of banjos that Boucher had manufactured under his imprint over a period of 40 years having examined one banjo he made and another that based on your august credentials you believe to be an exact copy.

Here is one of two tables of original bouchers we had at the banjo collectors gathering in 2012 where Bob Winans Greg Adams, Roddy Moore, and Pete Ross put on a presentation on Boucher that went for more than one day.  Every one of these banjos was measured exactly.

Stan Werbin,  George R Gibson (black hat), Pete Ross, Scott Odell and Roddy appear in the picture from the colectors gathering at Ferrum College in 2012

Tony, with all due respect you hardly even know me or my credentials, which are not limited to "August". So far you have provided nothing to defend your argument other than a few irrelevant facts such as Boucher made "hundreds of banjos" and that you were present when two tables worth were measured. This does not say anything about the quality of these banjos.

Since Tony quoted some of my earlier posts, I'm going to weigh in here and say that I agree with both of you.  Firstly, the classic Boucher models are, from a design standpoint, well-thought-out, extremely handsome, and absolutely unique for their time.  Their s-shaped pegheads capped by a crowning finial, their wide flat necks with either a single or double ogee, and their often scalloped rims have some features in common with other early banjos--but not the whole design in one package.  The iconic Fender Stratocaster is a good analogy.  A better analogy might be Orville Gibson's iconic Florentine model mandolins (which, by the way, didn't reach their musical potential until after the eccentric genius-founder had left the company).  

For his part, Boucher seems to have farmed out his iconic designs to craftsmen of varying skills (look at the variation among all of the banjos in Tony's photograph).   He doubtless had to do this to produce the quantities of instruments he's reputed to have sold.   However, I wouldn't go so far as John in calling them "elegant cheeseboxes."  As Jim Hartel has pointed out, he didn't have to tinker too much with Boucher's original design to produce a durable, and eminently playable instrument.   

The banjo is a relatively simple instrument as far as its construction is concerned, and the few changes Jim Hartel makes are actually very important. His Bouchers have thicker necks since the originals are too thin and prone to stability problems. He also makes his rims out of different, stronger materials, and he does not use the thin, scalloped rim design because of it's inherent weaknesses. There are some other differences but these are the most important in my opinion.

Oak- commonly used for pots on original minstrel banjos- is a very unstable wood, and the maple used for necks isn't that stable either. Boucher's design exacerbated this the inherent weaknesses of these woods. There are some original banjos with much thicker and studied rims and necks, but they aren't Bouchers. Don't get me wrong- I'm a huge fan of the Boucher design- it is beautiful and economic (both in cost and labor). I'm a happy owner of a Hartel Boucher...

Since John has mentioned me as a source for some of this discussion, I should respond so he is not blamed for my opinion about Boucher banjos.

As I see it, the popular Boucher banjo with the scrolled peghead and ogee neck is an primary icon of the popular 19th Century Minstrel show. and probably can be aligned, at least symbolically, with Dan Emmet and Joel Sweeney almost as much as the "Stratocaster" is linked to "Rock and Roll" performers like Buddy Holly and, more intensely, with Jimi Hendrix.

John has mentioned that I think that Boucher made "crappy" banjos. I do, but not all of them are. It seems only the early Boucher banjos that were mass produced quickly and cheaply are fragile. One wonders how so many survived the years.  To see examples of "better" Boucher banjos (quality instruments that were sold under the Boucher name,) you can to go to Greg Adams and George Wunderlich's  banjodatabase.org. The "Rabbit Ear" model is a hearty solid instrument with cast brackets and a deep 13.5" rim. And unlike the early mass produced Boucher model which I think we are all reviewing here, the neck is arched nicely off the rim. The other higher quality Boucher banjo on the "banjodatabase" is listed as "Boucher Late Model." It's fingerboard and peghead is generously ornamented and it has a spun over rim with fine solid nickel-plated hardware.  You can also check out "Hank Schwartz Design" to see a couple more nice Boucher banjos - one is quite exquisite.

http://www.hschwartz.com/banjopages/Boucher/Boucher.html
http://www.hschwartz.com/banjopages/BoucherLate/BoucherLate.html

When I make a copy of the popular scrolled-head Boucher banjo, it seems to beg to be improved and better adjusted so that it plays well. Over the years, I have found that, although some performers want the instruments to look like they were made in the 19th Century, all prefer that they handle well and sound solid. So I do make modifications while holding as close as possible to the original overall design. some modifications that I prefer are:


1. Thicker metal butterfly brackets, wing nuts, tension hoop.
2. A slightly thicker rim and thicker neck (many originals necks are only 5/8" at the third position, which I feel is too flat -I prefer about 3/4"+.
3. I also like to sharpen up the lines when carving the back of the neck. I put all the turns and edges in the right places but make everything more defined.
4. I also arch the neck back to bring the action down to the fingerboard with a high bridge - there is little or no arch on the original Boucher - contemporary banjos use about 3 degrees. I also arch the peghead back to about 12 degrees. The original is at about 5 degrees. This helps keep the strings from popping out to the nut.

Also I have included some detail images of an original Boucher neck which illustrate some of the weakness of the original construction.

Image 1 - the original butterfly bracket is weak and prone to failure. I use thicker brass and anchor it with screws rather tacks.  
Image 2 and 3 - Original wing nut on the left - my reproduction wing nut on the right.. From the side they pretty much look identical but one is much stronger. 
Image 4 - Since it seems to me that Boucher banjo makers cut corners to save on steps and materials, perhaps the offset round end of the dowel is evidence of that -  not centered because to center it would require two parallel cuts rather than one.
Image 6 - The arch of the peghead in relation to the fingerboard is only about 5 degrees.
Image 7 - The scarf joint on the heel end of the neck shows how they conserved wood and painted over to hide the joint. I make one-piece necks and accent the natural grain.  

After all is said and done, I enjoy making the early Boucher banjo more than any other.  Not just because of it's beautiful and distinctive profile which I interpret as a presumptuous but naive appropriation of the "empire" style. The shape and fragility of the Boucher banjo embodies the spirit and fragile beginnings of the early popular music period.  I enjoy emulating the movement of the workers that first produce this instrument. For me it is a dance of hands and eyes that imitates and embodies the clumsy beginnings of a social mass using it's own "crappy" condition as a source of music and entertainment. 

Well said, Jim.  You should write a book (or at least an essay) on the craftsmanship of early banjos and your obvious affection for the same.   Bob

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