Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

After visting the Internet Archive last week and perusing Howe's Preceptors for both the banjo and the accordeon I got to thinking about the Ethiopian Serenaders. (I tried this statement as an ice-breaker at a party this weekend - with mixed results) The Serenaders played both instruments  - simultaneously if we can believe the engravings. Does anyone happen to know if the first accordeons were in concert pitch? The Howes book is written out as if it's in C.  Most of the early accordeons were diatonic, like button accordions today. There are a few from that era in museums around here but I've never had the nerve to ask to try one. I can probably lead a good life without knowing the answer this question.

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I believe the earliest ones available in the US were diatonic, made in Germany, and in C; but the scale was not arranged the same as on a modern diatonic harmonica -- whereas after a very few years, say by the 1850s, it was standardized pretty much as it remains today (basically, a harmonica with a bellows and a couple of left hand chords). If you study the scale in the Howe Preceptor, and see where the bellows go in or out, you'll understand. I think the tonic note sounds on a draw, rather than on a compression. That sort of thing, anyway. And it doesn't really matter what key or "pitch" it's in -- A=440 or A=442, for example -- they all play alike. And the banjo player has to tune to the reed, since the reverse is not practically possible.

Maybe I'll bring a Russian button accordion (bayan) to the next AEBG. As a popularity move, right up there with a Baby Ruth floating in the punch bowl... Bayan is chromatic, and the Howe Preceptor did illustrate a gamut for the chromatic accordeon (though that instrument was very uncommon, in those early days).
Coincidentally I am waiting for a French flutina accordeon to arrive in the mail from an ebay purchase I just made. It was described and pictured as being in very good condition, especially the bellows, and I spoke by phone with the seller. Although I am skeptical as to whether or not something this old can be played on an eveyday basis the seller did give me the right to return it if I am not satisfied with the condition. This instrument is a 10 key Busson, with the drones, exactly like the diatonic one described in Howe's. I plan on incorporating it into my minstrel ensemble, the Camptown Shakers. I've also communicated with an accordeon shop in Philly who no doubt will be getting some business from me over the years. If it turns out to be just too old and fragile for everyday practice and performances than I would at least like to use it on some recordings.

I had started practicing on a German 10 button diatonic I had laying around, circa 1920's, a few months ago and really feel in love with the sound of the reeds, but my casual research showed that this construction didn't appear until a bit later in the century than the sound we are after in our band. The German accordeon seems to be pitched between C# and D according to my 440 based electronic tuner. I was going to have to convince my band mate Renny to tune down from D. Although I don't know what key the flutina is in yet , I am thinking it will be C, and I suppose going down a few more half steps on the banjo will be doable. I just hope its real loud!

Dave Culgan
Thanks for the interesting responses. Dave, please report in when you get your flutina. I'm curious to know what key it's in - also how many reeds it has per note. I've played one and two-row button accordion for thirty years or so - trad. Canadian stuff. I've got a couple of old boxes but nothing older than about 1890. As Razyn points out the big difference in the fingering between these and what's in the Howe book is that on newer boxes the push-pull is arranged so that the push notes are all do - mi - so, and everything else is on the pull - which may be better suited to instinctive playing than the old system - though you might have to be listening pretty hard to tell them apart in a darkened room.

I was thinking about trying some recording with this combination and was wondering whether in the days of the Serenaders they would have been tuning the banjos down and playing out of "E" or tuning them up and playing out of "A"
I guess they'd just have to pick and choose what tunes they did with the banjo-accordeon combo.


Ol' Dan Tucker said:
Coincidentally I am waiting for a French flutina accordeon to arrive in the mail from an ebay purchase I just made. It was described and pictured as being in very good condition, especially the bellows, and I spoke by phone with the seller. Although I am skeptical as to whether or not something this old can be played on an eveyday basis the seller did give me the right to return it if I am not satisfied with the condition. This instrument is a 10 key Busson, with the drones, exactly like the diatonic one described in Howe's. I plan on incorporating it into my minstrel ensemble, the Camptown Shakers. I've also communicated with an accordeon shop in Philly who no doubt will be getting some business from me over the years. If it turns out to be just too old and fragile for everyday practice and performances than I would at least like to use it on some recordings.

I had started practicing on a German 10 button diatonic I had laying around, circa 1920's, a few months ago and really feel in love with the sound of the reeds, but my casual research showed that this construction didn't appear until a bit later in the century than the sound we are after in our band. The German accordeon seems to be pitched between C# and D according to my 440 based electronic tuner. I was going to have to convince my band mate Renny to tune down from D. Although I don't know what key the flutina is in yet , I am thinking it will be C, and I suppose going down a few more half steps on the banjo will be doable. I just hope its real loud!

Dave Culgan
I have looked into the use of concertinas as well as accordians. There were a number available. The most common that I can find are in the keys of C and G, and were diatonic scale as well. Anglo concertinas came into vogue from what I can tell in the 1830s/1840s. I have been watching Lachenal concetinas from the period, but haven't found the bargain I'm looking for yet.

The picture on the Ethiopian Serenaders' cover looks like a melodeon/button accordeon.
I think I have a Howe accordeon method a little later than the (1843?) Preceptor, that incorporates the modern reed arrangement. It's still pre-1860, and there is no "Authentic Campaigner" type reason to go with the 1840s if you can get the 1850s type instrument a lot more readily. If I can dig it up, I'll photograph and post the comparative scale setups from both books.

If you want to replicate the cover of an 1840s piece of sheet music, I suppose you need the rare reed setup. But that would be a little like playing an akonting in a Union soldier suit. (I've actually seen Greg do that; but he was just demonstrating it, and that was what he had on at the time.)

When I got my Accordeon Preceptor, it was part of a sort of disputed eBay transaction (I sniped, and the guy I outbid thought I wasn't a gentleman, or something). It came with the accordeon, and I took that apart and tightened up a few notes. Then I let him buy the instrument (what he wanted), and I kept the book (what I wanted). He now presumably thinks I'm a gentleman, but I'm one who no longer owns an 1840s accordeon.
Dan'l said:
Is it out of the question that I could ask a bellows instrument player to moderate loudness? Or is that not possible with such an instrument?

It takes a certain amount of wind to get the reeds to speak at all -- and it takes more if the bellows leak, which they usually do, on an older instrument. But perhaps the greater issue is that it takes a certain personality to want to make those noises in the first place. That personality, typically, is not known for moderation. (Obviously, that's oversimplified -- but where there's smoke, yada yada yada.) Accordions are played more quietly by, you know, nuns, etc. But not as often.
As a side, I've been playing many of the pieces from Howe's on the richter harmonica. Most of the tunes are within the gamut of a 10 hole richter.

I have been shopping around for a ten button accordion for awhile now (not historical correct, just one for fun) and the tuning is the same except for 1-pull. This is on what is being marketed as a "cajun" accordion today. These are similar (but not perfect by any means) to what is described in late 19-early 20th century catalogs. I guess that the accordion is much like the harmonica, the latter being thought of today as exclusively a "blues" instrument.

Here is another tutor showing the "modern" gamut on page 8...

http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/D?mussm:7:./temp/~ammem_zWnI::@...

Then there is the Accordion/ Melodeon name debate. Funny that all the catalogs called them "German Accordions."
Thanks for the link to the accordion book, Joel. I hadn't seen that before. My main squeeze - a single row in D, was made by Junior Martin, a cajun box maker from Louisiana. He makes them to order. Since I mostly use it for Canadian trad. dance music (Scots/Irish/Quebecois) I had him temper the scale and put some tremolo into the reeds. The hard-core Cajun players have them tuned to a "natural scale" and completely dry, for that characteristic "honk". It's a great instrument - in basic black with red bellows, and wouldn't look too out of place in an 1890's Montgomery Ward Catalogue. (except for the chrome) I don't know how much they are now. I paid about $1300. for in it 1996. The problem with old accordions - like the one I used on the video is that they're hardly ever in a condition to be played with passion. I'm always afraid I'm going to pull that one in half! Finally, just in case we get accused of going "off topic" - banjo, banjo, banjo, banjo.

deuceswilde said:
As a side, I've been playing many of the pieces from Howe's on the richter harmonica. Most of the tunes are within the gamut of a 10 hole richter.

I have been shopping around for a ten button accordion for awhile now (not historical correct, just one for fun) and the tuning is the same except for 1-pull. This is on what is being marketed as a "cajun" accordion today. These are similar (but not perfect by any means) to what is described in late 19-early 20th century catalogs. I guess that the accordion is much like the harmonica, the latter being thought of today as exclusively a "blues" instrument.

Here is another tutor showing the "modern" gamut on page 8...

http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/D?mussm:7:./temp/~ammem_zWnI::@...

Then there is the Accordion/ Melodeon name debate. Funny that all the catalogs called them "German Accordions."
I'm sure that they will tell us to shut up if they feel we are inappropriate.

On the dry wet tuning issue. How were the 19th century counterparts tuned. The Monkey Wards and Sears' descriptions point out that some models have a "vox humana" attachment for tremolo. Most do not. This leads one to believe that prior to the 20th "dry" was the norm. Any thoughts?

The listings for harmonicas have "tremolo" models, but they are the exception. By far most are "concert" models, tuned without tremolo.

The early 1900s show more tremolo models.

I can justify only about a grand to spend on one, if it aint' enough then I can live without one. I really don't care for cajun music, it's kinda loud. I'd like to just play from the Winners tutor.

I saw that the NAA's convention is next weekend just down the road from me, I may stop into the trade show. They are mostly piano accordion players, so my hopes of finding a single row are not high.

It seems that the Hohner's are Chinese now.
On another thread Trapdoor has just mentioned that he has collected all of the reprints, and many of the originals, of the early banjo tutors. I blush to disclose that I've also done that with "Accordeon" tutors, as I've found them for sale. There is a good bit less competition (e.g. on eBay auctions) -- and therefore I've found generally lower prices, for the squeezebox literature. But I'm not sure it's significantly less important to the minstrel show tradition.

Anyway, this is the earliest one I know of, and it's a few years before Howe started calling himself Gumbo Chaff:


I have no idea when to date this Howe item -- later, anyway. Maybe as late as 1880 or thereabouts... but maybe not:


To my taste, this Winner 1864 is the best of the lot:


And I have another, later (1873), and I think somewhat inferior product from Sep Winner:


All of the accordion methods that I have, later than this, spell it "accordion;" and they deal with the larger, more versatile chromatic instrument -- whether with a piano keyboard, or some arrangement of buttons for the right hand.
Wow!

razyn said:
On another thread Trapdoor has just mentioned that he has collected all of the reprints, and many of the originals, of the early banjo tutors. I blush to disclose that I've also done that with "Accordeon" tutors, as I've found them for sale. There is a good bit less competition (e.g. on eBay auctions) -- and therefore I've found generally lower prices, for the squeezebox literature. But I'm not sure it's significantly less important to the minstrel show tradition.

Anyway, this is the earliest one I know of, and it's a few years before Howe started calling himself Gumbo Chaff:


I have no idea when to date this Howe item -- later, anyway. Maybe as late as 1880 or thereabouts... but maybe not:


To my taste, this Winner 1864 is the best of the lot:


And I have another, later (1873), and I think somewhat inferior product from Sep Winner:


All of the accordion methods that I have, later than this, spell it "accordion;" and they deal with the larger, more versatile chromatic instrument -- whether with a piano keyboard, or some arrangement of buttons for the right hand.
I've never tried a really old instrument so I'm not sure about the tremolo. I've never done any serious study of this. Seems to me you start seeing the "stop" buttons on instruments from the 1890s. I'd love to see the "vox humana". I have an old pump organ that has one inside. It's a little turbine that takes air from the bellows and uses it to spin a sort of cardboard fan around inside the empty part of the cabinet. I guess it causes fluctuations in pressure on the reeds. It actually works - sort of. Something like this would have to be scaled down pretty small for a squeezebox. Love those Victorian contraptions!
I may ask around amongst my accordion-nerd acquaintances.

deuceswilde said:
I'm sure that they will tell us to shut up if they feel we are inappropriate.

On the dry wet tuning issue. How were the 19th century counterparts tuned. The Monkey Wards and Sears' descriptions point out that some models have a "vox humana" attachment for tremolo. Most do not. This leads one to believe that prior to the 20th "dry" was the norm. Any thoughts?

The listings for harmonicas have "tremolo" models, but they are the exception. By far most are "concert" models, tuned without tremolo.

The early 1900s show more tremolo models.

I can justify only about a grand to spend on one, if it aint' enough then I can live without one. I really don't care for cajun music, it's kinda loud. I'd like to just play from the Winners tutor.

I saw that the NAA's convention is next weekend just down the road from me, I may stop into the trade show. They are mostly piano accordion players, so my hopes of finding a single row are not high.

It seems that the Hohner's are Chinese now.

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