Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

What banjo style did you play before trying minstrel style?
I tried Scruggs-style but just couldn't get my fingers going that fast. I learned the basic bum-ditty strum and some frailing.

If you play clawhammer, do you have any difficulty going between clawhammer and stroke style?
I've had some difficulty learning to use my thumb more when I want to hit the string with the nail of my middle finger. It does seem that the 3rd and 4th strings sound clearer if you hit them with your thumb instead of your finger.

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I have always listened to bluegrass and old-time (leaning more and more towards old-time in the last decade), but never had a strong interest in playing the banjo until I saw George Wunderlich on the Woodwright's Shop on PBS. I had both an overwhelming urge to make a minstrel banjo and learn about early banjo music.

So I started doing research (and found all of you online) reading everything I could get my hands on about minstrelsy and the history of the banjo. One of the first things I read was Bob Winans' "The Folk, the Stage, and the Five-String Banjo in the Nineteenth Century" from 1976. This article was hugely influential on my understanding of the connection between clawhammer and minstrel music. He states the following:

"The earliest mountain folk style of banjo playing, then, is essentially identical to the early minstrel style. This similarity leads to the hypothesis that mountain banjo playing is a direct descendant of minstrel playing. Old-time mountain banjo players such as Wade Ward, Hobart Smith, and especially Glenn Smith and Fred Cockerham, since they still play fretless banjos, probably sound much like the early minstrel players." (p. 416)

Now this was before the revival of minstrel banjo--he was helping to create that revival and was instrumental in figuring out what that minstrel sound was. I don't know if he would make the same statement today, given what we know, but I think at the time it was a useful comparison that helped people to understand what early banjo music sounded like in comparison to something they already knew, and that is why he emphasized the similarities.

Karen Linn, in her book That Half-Barbaric Twang, emphasizes the differences between clawhammer and minstrel banjo:

"Although the basic action for making the string sound is the same in clawhammer and in stroke, there are some fundamental musical differences between the Southern tradition and the minstrel style that appears in the published method books of the mid-nineteenth century. Early minstrel banjo music, although usually monophonic, tended in its melodic structure to be more harmonically based than much of the repertory of Southern traditional music. The tuning of the minstrel instrument was rarely changed (unlike the variety of tunings used by most Southern rural banjoists) and the tuning almost always used in minstrel banjo (eAEG#B, later transposed to gCGBD) is rarely found in the Southern tradition. The minstrel banjoist, unlike the traditional Southern banjoist, frequently used 6/8 time and triplets in his playing." (p.120)

She continues in a footnote: "It can be argued that minstrel stroke style shares more with elevated banjo playing than with Southern clawhammer. Although the basic technique for striking the string was different, the use of the same favored tuning and the occasional playing in 6/8 time or with triplets evidences the direct lineage of minstrel stroke style to the elevated 'classic' style of the late nineteenth century."

I guess I would argue that it depends. There is a wide variety of minstrel banjo music in the tutors. I tend to prefer the more clawhammer-y tunes and see the similarities that Winans pointed out, which are similarities in basic technique. And these similarities are the reason why clawhammer players are the big potential growth market for early banjo. Because the basic techniques for the two are so similar I think it shouldn't be that difficult for clawhammer players to pick up the basic minstrel syle. And frankly, the most helpful instruction I found online for figuring out the basic patterns came from clawhammer players.

Another article which really complicates matters is Paul Ely Smith's "Gottschalk's "The Banjo," op. 15, and the Banjo in the Nineteenth Century" which argues that the early banjo style was more way more complicated and varied than notation used for banjo in the tutors could transmit. But that is a whole nother discussion.

I also get the feeling from the few handbills that I've see that have been reproduced from Minstrel shows that minstrel banjo was a solo instrument along with bones and perhaps a tambourine whereas in old-time music settings you could have several banjos playing.
I started with Bluegrass in the late '70's but by the mid '80's I had picked up clawhammer (and my first Stewart). My first foray into 'classic' style was via Banjo Newsletter having printed (late '70's) an 1870's version of "Spanish Fandango", after that, I slowly became more aware of the earlier repretoire that was hidden out there. In 1992, I attended the Tennessee Banjo Institute and saw Clarke Buehling play some minstrel stuff (as well as classic) and I picked up my first copy of an early tutor reprint (Converse little yellow book)...but I didn't think of it as much more than an oddity then. I didn't really start playing stroke style until I bought a copy of Bob Flesher's "Stroke Style" book.

In my mind, clawhammer is simply a (dare I say it?) 'dumbed down' sort of Stroke Style. The complex moves are mostly gone, the complex rhythms gone (last time you saw a OT CH tune in 3/8?) and syncopations are gone. There are hints of the older style in the "Galax Lick" and in other specialty movements but they are generally left to the occasional "player of a higher order". Yes, "dumbed down" is a tad harsh...esp. since I really love to play OT CH...which can be nearly as challenging as stroke style and equally as lovely.

OT CH rarely exceeds the 7th fret; you can play in an OT dance band without ever getting higher than the 5th fret (BTDT!). It is rarely melodic and most often a 'backup' or 'accompaniment' style as opposed to the bulk of our Stroke rep being solo stuff. Lots of exceptions, of course. Again, higher order players can and do play CH that is completely off the chart, funky time signatures (5/4, 7/8, etc.), pentatonic scales, lurid modes, 22 frets.

Another thing about OT CH is that it is truly an aural repretorie, that is, there is no 'set' way to play any tune. Any written version is simply a captured moment...nobody will play it exactly the same way twice...and having anything but a simple chord chart is strongly frowned upon; TAB is considered strictly for beginners.

Back to the OP, I had no trouble with moving from CH to Stroke, it happened quickly and naturally. I have noticed that some of the stroke moves have crept into my OT CH playing...a good thing!
Careful with that kind of talk Marc, I've had hate email sent to me for less ;).
I am a Civil War re-enactor. as such, I looked to the style correct to the period, which lead me here. My buddy Dean play old-tyme, but also in the clawhammer style ... so I get a little of that influence as well.

what's the difference between clawhammer and stroke. I thought that stroke, drop thumming, and frailing were all 'interchangeable" names for clawhammer ...
Paul Neher said:

what's the difference between clawhammer and stroke. I thought that stroke, drop thumming, and frailing were all 'interchangeable" names for clawhammer ...

Dear Paul, et. al.,

My perceptions of playing technique have changed over time. I am now at a point where my interest in defining playing technique is more source-based (e.g., individual players, textual references, and/or musical notation). With this, my current, personal hierarchy in discussing technique (which will surely change in the near future) generally lays as follows:

1) There is a broader structural attack that largely consists of a down-stroke motion where the lead finger (e.g., most often the index and/or middle finger) and the thumb work together in a variety of combinations/configurations to sound the strings. Any one person or source can reflect this statement. Examples include Jola ekonting players from the Senegambian region of West Africa, certain facets of old-time banjo music, and historical evidence of down-stroke playing in banjo instruction books from the 19th century.

2) Depending on the source, such as a player (e.g., Ekona and Remi Diatta, Tommy Jarrell, or Tim Twiss [a.k.a., the "New Frank Converse"]) or a banjo tutor (e.g., Tom Briggs 1855), the playing technique reflects any number of physical variations between the lead finger and thumb. As researchers and players, we can observe any number of commonalities and differences between these players and sources. This helps me to identify and appreciate what makes an individual unique and how their abilities might be related to other sources.

3) Depending on the source's time frame and geography, a variety of names are applied to these down-stroke actions, as reported by the historical record, players, and observers. Some of the Jola ekonting players identify the specific fist-like hand motion upon the ekonting as oo'teck (which is "to strike" or "hit"). Terms such as "clawhammer,' "frailing," and others are used to define how many old-time banjo players and observers define their technique. 19th century popular music that includes the banjo (i.e., minstrelsy) uses names such as "stroke" and "banjo" style represent this downstroke approach. As you have observed, Paul, I too believe that we've reached a critical mass where more people seem to be using these terms interchangeably. This is understandable because there are several overarching elements, like the "bum-ditty" or dactylic rhythms found in banjo music in the 19th century as well as in old-time music. None of this necessarily suggests that they are all part of a single monolithic, unilinear approach, however. To me the beauty is in the details, which is what has been driving many of us to dig deeper.

4) Yet, for me, bottom line, I have become quite conservative in lumping all of these terms together because it blurs the real distinctions that certainly exist between individual players and sources both now and in the past.

As in other posts, I am not sharing this as a directive to anyone else, just to report my perspectives as well as make a contribution to this great conversation. I wish more people were willing to ask these questions in other areas.

Okay, talk to you guys soon!

Well, this thread is becoming quite the discussion area. Wonderful!!! I like the discussion on playing styles and what-not, but we should also drop our personal experiences in there too, of how we came around to playing (ahem... Greg). Regardless, I find both conversations fascinating and no need to separate them; we do too much of that anyway. On that note, I shall continue the previous rant.

As the banjo and its related instruments are created by people, the way its history is recorded, interpreted and understood is always changing. As Greg mentioned earlier, history and geography play a HUGE role in shaping playing styles and understandings of their distinctions because the PEOPLE who play the instruments are in large part shaped by their history and geography, and vice-versa. Each instrument possesses its own context based largely upon these three factors. Hence, different playing styles, instrument construction, material choice (instrument and repertoire), gender and class of players, social and environmental setting, rhythmic distinction and the subsequent differentiation and description of these characteristics through particular languages create a huge mess of possible understandings and interpretations. Isn't that GREAT?!?!?! That means researchers will never be out of work... hah! Anyway, something to chew on, especially if you dig into any Kant philosophy, which I recommend for mental paralyzation. But, this is what creates a never ending discussion about essentially the same thing, as Greg mentioned. The bottom line is these instruments' essential movement of striking the strings to produce sound (appropriately Greg's first point tying these instruments and styles together). Our common thread between Africa-America and clawhammer-stroke style.

Now, as a drummer (back to Trapdoor2's reply), I find old time and bluegrass music irrevocably boring rhythmically. There is little room for rhythmic improvisation, and if it happens, it tends to upset the group setting, to the point of even devastating the jam or tune. Minstrel tunes however offer a little more variety in rhythm. Play "Get Up in the Morning" to a metronome and listen how certain melodic notes are accented on the off beat, creating the syncopation. Some of these notes are accentuated by pausing slightly after a throw, and plucking the 5th string by the raising of the arm on the off beat. Old time just does not incorporate this technique to the extent of stroke style, not to say it doesnt happen.

To me, clawhammer and stroke connote separate repertoire, culture and playing technique, even tunings. Clawhammer being old time tunes almost exclusively from English and Irish folk music, an inherently Appalachian cultural setting using simple rhythms and pulses to convey time and the melody. Frailing I place under clawhammer and as akin to strumming a chord on a guitar. Frailing attempts to emphasize melody, but if you dont, what the hell does it matter? Stroke style, to me, means tunes from the banjo tutors and other related Americana popular tunes played on the minstrel stage, it means the culture associated with that stage act as well as the overwhelming population of reenactors who play these tunes as Sam Sweeney did, and finally, its use, not ability, to be rhythmic dynamic.

I feel any clawhammer old time player could easily pick up minstrel tunes with some practice, especially veterans. As long as they can feel a new rhythmic pulse, and get it out through their hands on the instrument, what's to stop them?!

So, I guess back to the point, the only real difference between calling something clawhammer and stroke is your own personal experience of the different musical cultures surrounding the banjo. Let's hear more of those!!!
I might suggest Cecilia Conways " African Banjo Echoes in Appalachia"


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