Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

AP article about modern interest in early minstrelsy and Civil War era music

Thought some folks here might be interested in a recent story being picked up from the Associated Press. See what you think.

Happy Labor Day,


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Wow, some national exposure we're getting here.  Kudos to Dave, Joe, Bob and Greg.

My question is this--if the lyrics to "Gwine Ober De Mountain" make you cringe, then surely the policies of Abraham Lincoln make you cringe, because he like 99% of white people in the 1860's believed in the concept of White Supremacy.   He was on the right side, in my opinion, but still a white supremacist.  Our country has evolved.  The toxic concept of white supremacy is no longer acceptable, mainstream wise.  So why do we play this racist old music??

I play it because the banjo music rocks.  And it puts me it touch with history in a way that nothing else can.  Hell, it's a springboard, for eff's sake, ain't it?  Would we be talking about America's racist roots if it wasn't for this article?  That's the whole point, for me; let's get a dialouge going.  You bet our country has racist roots.  But good things also came out of this era, didn't they?  Jazz, Rock, Country, everything musical has multi-cultural roots that minstrelsy reflects.

Thanks for pointing that out Greg. I would not have seen that otherwise. It is becoming a system of connecting the dots....through the many people in present time approaching the material. Reporting different approaches and experiences is good for the public. As Carl sort of implied, pop music does not create policy and attitudes.....it just relects them for entertainment and profit. Such is still the case. 

I agree with Carl, the music is outstanding. not only that but I'm telling ya after playing this music for almost a year I have grown musically. It transfers to other instruments and playing other music besides minstrel music. The lyrics can make you cringe especially if  your approaching the materiel with modern day sensibilities.  

Sometimes particular lyrics are pertinent to the piece. There are less demeaning words that can be inserted that still get the point across.  It's History, all of our history, not one race or anothers. And openly discussing these topics are healthy, do the music, talk about it openly, and educate those that are interested, but don't sweep it under the rug or change it so it just sounds so far from the original story line you loose the story the song is creating.

There are tons of materiel that one could choose and never touch a song with an offensive line, but then your not exactly portraying the era and it's issues and cultural standings. Like singing songs about the 1960's or 70"s and not mentioning drugs.  

I am happy to be on the ground floor of a growing population that is bringing this music back to life, and keeping it alive.

I was contacted by the AP reporter earlier in the summer after Joe Ewers pointed him my way. The reporter sent me a series of questions and I answered as best I could. As a rule my band does not spend a lot of time talking about the music, and prefer to just play it and let folks decide for themselves what it means to them. Rhiannon Giddens mentioned her dislike of such earnest performance and its hard to explain but I guess that having performed this material so long I feel that to some extent I've transcended the racism and don't feel any hate when I perform.That being said I try not to hurt anyone's feelings and hopefully not make anybody cringe. As I remarked to the reporter I will sometimes change a lyric or drop it entirely if I feel like it. I don't think education is the primary mission with my music, its entertainment. Much the way a movie soundtrack helps to draw you in to a particular time and place we try to connect folks to past history. Some people will zero in on the songs and inquire about the lyrics and their meaning, but for others we help to  round out the whole sensory experience that comes with visiting a historic place or seeing people trying recreate a historic event.  Many others here do a really great job of really examining the music and all that is behind it and then imparting that knowledge to others. Me, I'm just a banjo player that likes to play and sing old songs, as Carl said, in a way that rocks. Dave Culgan

PS - Here are some of the questions I was asked, and my answer below:

-My story also concerns the nature of the material that camp bands perform, i.e, the minstrel songs, and the choices the musicians must make in selecting material that is so loaded with racial overtones. How do you deal with that? -For example, from your website, it’s clear that you do songs in dialect. Do you also do songs that include the word, ‘darkie? -Do you perform “Dixie?”

I collect songs that I like from several places, and I am usually introduced to these songs by seeing them mentioned in primary documents: minstrel playbills, contemporary writings, or sometimes from hearing others doing modern or period interpretations. Many of them of course do have racial overtones and  many of these are mostly non-nonsensical, like Keemo Kimo, or even some of the lines to Oh Susanna. Its the great poetry that I find in the lyrics that appeal to me beyond the fact that these were extremely popular songs and important to present for anyone trying to play the popular music of the period.

Again, for me to sing these songs, and want to perform them for others, racial warts and all, I have to enjoy them myself whether they are comic, tragic, or sentimental. Like any performer I want to tell a story and entertain. I probably shy away from some of the material just because I know I won't enjoy  them and neither will my audience. As far as specific lyrics containing words like "darkie" I am not real consistent as to how I treat them and it depends on a song by song basis. If I change a lyric its not for wanting to be p.c. but more for being sensitive to any particular audience. The venues we play are varied, some folks are educated about the music and listen more carefully, others hear more casually as they stroll bye. Many of my songs may not have any of these toxic words but they do describe characteristic racial stereotypes but I've found over the years that they are not upsetting to people. I feel the songs are what they are, but there is much great music within that is very worth getting out but at the same time I am just very sensitive to my audience and don't offend anyone.

Dixie is one of my favorite songs. A lot of the songs we do were still being song by people when I was a kid. Dixie falls into this category along with many others like Ol' Dan Tucker, or Keemo Kimo even. I especially enjoy performing these in their original style to general audiences because i know folks will recognize them. Dixie though is pretty special, there is a lot of magic in that song and I suppose you have to be careful how you use it. As I mentioned earlier, for me "Dixie's Land" has a lot of great poetry, its a bit hard for me to sing but its funny we can all be tired having performed all day in the heat but I can always draw on the energy in that song.

Although the essence of my perspective on the issue raised by this article is presented there, I would like to add a bit more here.  First, let me confess that I took Labor Day as holiday seriously, and goofed off (although it was “labor intensive”) the whole day tracking the distribution of the article. I have never been part of an Associated Press story before (so far as I know) and wanted to find out to what degree the story was picked up by other news outlets, both for ego reasons and to have a sense of how widely the topic of the article was seen to be important enough to share with readers. By the time I gave up searching, I had a list of over 150 news outlets (that is, the websites of newspapers and television and radio stations) that had posted the full text (or a direct link to it), and another 50 or so that posted a severely truncated version of the article (without quotes from anyone). Aside from the Washington Post, major newspapers (on their websites at least; I don’t know if the story was also carried in their print editions) include the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Miami Herald (and maybe others that I missed). National media outlets include NPR, Google News, Yahoo News, Fox News, and ABC News. Local and regional media outlets that carried it cover the whole country (with the possible exclusion of about 5 states). Beyond that it appeared in Australia, Malaysia, Argentina, Zimbabwe, Taiwan, and the Philippines.

But back to the issue of racist content in the songs and what to do about it. I agree with Carl that the publication of this article should be a catalyst for discussion of racism in minstrel song lyrics and beyond, and I suspect that result is one of the things the author had in mind. And it is already underway in this group. Thank you, Dave, for sharing with the group your full response to the article’s author. I believe that you, and the 2nd South Carolina folks, have no intention of offending your audience and that you find that the “characteristic racial stereotypes” of the songs are not “upsetting to people.” But, with respect, I think that that is not enough. I believe that you and 2nd SC, and those in this group who perform minstrel songs, avoid the most offensive material and sometimes make non-offensive substitutions. But I think that that is not enough.

Now, I have always taken a scholarly approach to the minstrel material, and I recognize that that approach probably disqualifies me from commenting on the re-enacting scene. Joe Ewers, the banjo player in 2nd SC, is quoted as saying that they are “performing,” not “lecturing.” However, I believe that Civil War re-enacting is, by definition, a learning experience (or to use another cliché, “a teaching moment”), both for the audience and the re-enactors. What else is it for but to allow people to learn more about the Civil War? (Well, of course, it is also about having fun.)  Not being part of the re-enactor scene, either as re-enactor or as audience, I cannot say the following with absolute certainty, but I cannot imagine that a lot of explaining, from re-enactor to audience, is not an essential element of the scene. So explaining more about the content of the songs, contextualizing them, raising the issue of their racism and its meaning for the event they are re-enacting, would seem, to me, to be a perfectly natural element to include. And certainly a desirable one. And it does not have to be with long “lectures.” Actually, that the “characteristic racial stereotypes” of the songs are not “upsetting to people” is upsetting to me.

So, let the discussion continue.

Banjovially, Bob Winans

Bob, thanks for your reply. I should explain that when I said "not upsetting" it is because they just aren't following the lyrics that closely and are not thinking about the individual words. I wasn't clear about this in the interview. Dave

Below is the preface to a songster I published online and made available through my links page.  

Many of the songs in Uncle Coffee'’s Ethiopian Songster are common, blackface, minstrel songs from the antebellum period.  Each retains the original words of the original songs.  Some contain particular words which are harsh and offensive to the modern ear.  Despite this, the songs have been kept in the original for reasons of authenticity.

What may be appropriate on the march or around the campfire at a Civil War living history is not necessarily appropriate around all campfires.  The proper circumstances for these songs to be sung depend upon time, place and manner.

I was singing Dandy Jim rather loudly last weekend at a CW reenactment when it was pointed out to me that I - of all people - had gone PC by using the word, feller, instead of the othe word.  There were so many people around and I was being so loud that I switched to feller.  I turned down the volume and used the period word, but it didn't feel right.  It was dusk.  I was with my friends.  However, others could hear.  So, I reverted back to feller. 

The lawyer in me harkens back to days studying First Amendment speech in my constitutional law classes.  Speech is all about time, place and manner.  Just because the words are correct and accurate doesn't mean they must be sung under all conditions. 

I'm fortunate in that I'm such a bad singer that I seldom if ever sing except for an occasional Doo Dah, Doo Dah.  However prior experience has taught me the importance of using common sense, and, as has been mentioned, it's all about context.  Roughly 30 years ago on the 4th of July I was playing banjo in a little stringband in a newly opened shopping mall.  We were in the middle of a rousing redition of "Dixie" when we noticed that the crowd watching us from the balcony were voicing their first amendment rights in the form of spitting on us.  We took this this as an omen that our performance was over, packed our instruments and got the heck out of there.  There's a time and place for everything.  Also I was in a band that was asked to play Ashokan Farewell at a meeting of the Sons of the Confederacy.  Halfway through that one the chapter president requested we cease and desist, because, unknown to us, Ken Burns was a well known Communist.  Again, it's all about time and place.--Rob Morrison

Silas, I fully understand what you are saying.  As a reenactor, I sing a lot of this music.  Singing at a reenactment is a loaded situation.  People are always wandering past, and it seems like it never fails that someone can overhear you and be offended, whether that was your intention or not.  It is extremely rare when I use either Darkey or the other word for this reason.  A lot of this comes down to the public's perception of the music, rather than a historical one.  I don't really find anything offensive in Dixie, but some people feel it is horribly offensive (I've never encountered this here in the Chicago area, but understand it is a major issue in some areas of the country).  When I can have a dialog about music and the history of it, I stray closer to the original lyrics, but otherwise not.  I'm not singing or performing to get in anyone's face, or to ruin their experience.  By the same token, at reenactments we tend to overlook the whole slavery issue, and I have to sometimes wonder if we are doing the public a disservice by avoiding the issues.  It would be great to do an event advertised and focused on slavery and racism of the time.  I think it is too politically and emotionally charged a subject to really be able to get it going.

These songs and words are sort of like "Yes" songs to me....it's the sound of the words and how it fits the music that grab me. I so often space out beyond the implications of it all and just enjoy the thing as a whole. Of course, not everybody sees (nor hears) it that way. These words mean about as much to me as any mindless pop song....past or present.

I know....I feel sorry for the musicians 150 years from now putting disclaimers in front of whatever tunes they dig up from our tasteless culture.

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