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 think what they called "tremolo" would tend to be musette tunings, with a pair of reeds at the same note of the scale; but one tuned accurately, and the other intentionally tuned a tiny bit sharp -- so there are audible "beats" in the sound emitted.

As far as I know, the earlier (say, pre-1880) diatonic instruments didn't have double reeds. As on a simple modern harmonica, each opening just had a pair of reeds on a plate -- one note when you push air, and a different note when you draw air, through it. You don't get the musette type of tremolo from a single reed. And these little accordeons don't have room for the paddle system (described by Ian from his pump organ) that produces "beats" physically, much in the manner of a "wah-wah" trumpet mute. (Acoustic beats are physical, too -- I guess I mean "mechanically.")

Anyway, issues of "wet" or "dry" tuning only arise when the instrument has more than one reed producing a given note.

I'd be interested in a description (or pictures) of that flautina, when it arrives.

Speaking of the banjo -- some are illustrated on the covers of the Septimus Winner accordeon books.
For completely unrelated reasons I was Googling our Dr. Bob, and ran across his "WinansBanjo" website today. As should we all. But, on the present point -- I downloaded one of his several downloadable articles there, which is described as the liner notes that should have been included with his "Early Minstrel Show" LP (we mostly know it as a CD), had they not run out of money for liner notes. It has some interesting stats about the instrumentation of the earliest shows. It seems that there was always a banjo and a tambo; usually bones, and usually a violin (20 out of 29) -- and only about 1/4 of the time a button accordion. (This was a little less common that triangle and second banjo -- but much more common than jawbones, second violin, drums, flute, tongs, or cymbals.) He makes this salient point: "The accordion, when used, seems always to have been a substitute for the violin, rather than an addition to it."

So, I just mention it. Heaven forfend that the Camptown Shakers (or somebody else) should slip up and put the fiddle and accordion onstage at the same time. My take is that the combo needed a continuo sound, and that could be supplied either by a reed or by a bowed string. (There are other ways, but they weren't used.) It was also interesting to me that no minstrel troupe in 1843-47 employed a bass. The banjo apparently supplied that. Bob mentions that "the bottom drops out" when the banjo stops for a few bars.

Here is where you may find this, and other important articles; the one I'm quoting is the fourth, on this page:

http://sites.google.com/a/wildblue.net/winansbanjo/

I also came across a site on which one may see photos of some very early "accordeons," with a little discussion of the reed arrangements they had. Thought it might be of interest -- though you don't necessarily have to look like the 1840s, when reenacting the 1860s. It's just hard to know when a particular design arose, with a rapidly evolving instrument such as this. Anyway, these photos are much more detailed than the drawings on early sheet music covers. On the following site (if the long url works), look at examples 7, 8, and 9:

http://www.123people.com/ext/frm?ti=person%20finder&search_term...

Dick
The ebay flutina arrived and though the bellows were in good condition as described I could see that this instrument was going to need some work in order to be played. It was the early single row version, with no chords on the left hand, just a finger operated air valve. This model had small keys, I suppose made from M.O.P, a bit different from some of the ones I've seen in pics which look like large flat mother of pearl pieces and are often missing from ones I've seen for sale. It had the two drone valves on the right hand side operated by a pretty crude mechanism fabricated from brass sheet and it was difficult to figure out what would supply the pressure to keep them closed. One of these drone notes seemed badly out of tune when I tested it. All of the other notes played, in varying degrees of tune, but there was a lot of leaking air. I decided to take it to an accodeon specialist in Philadelphia, about an hour away, and spent about an hour discussing it. In order to return it to playability he would have to part off the bellows, as on this early construction there is no way to open the instrument up as on later styles. Had I wanted to proceed he would have replaced the leather pads that seal each note, and repaired / replaced / restored the internal leather valves as needed. While he was testing the operation, playing scales, I asked him to note what key it was in - it was close to "g". As is frequently the case, this particular instrument would have cost more in restoration money than what I have into it and so I've reluctantly decided to return it for a refund, which was part of purchase terms.

As Dick mentioned these typically had only one reed per note and with the small size of the bellows (just four folds) and I don't think it would ever have been very loud. And no, I surely wouldn't have made the faux pax of playing this in accompaniment with the fiddle; Renny, our fiddle player also plays banjo. I am though planning on featuring two banjos in the band on certain songs.

I mentioned to Mike, at Liberty Bellows, that there was a huge interest in these early accordeons amongst the early banjo community and would it be feasible to make new reproductions. He supposed that it would not be a difficult instrument to reproduce and that getting the correct size bellows made up would probably be the most expensive part. As I could see he seemed a little interested in this idea I had to admit that "huge" was probably not accurate, that there might be a demand for maybe a dozen or so. Thus ended my dreams of adding the sound of the flutina to the Camptown Shakers. While I was there I also had him look over the 10 button, circa 1920's, accordeon I have been playing on and decided to put a little money into giving it a routine servicing. He remarked that it was nice instrument, if a bit on the small side (child's?) and I'm sure I won't be able to resist using a bit with the band as I'm kinda hooked on the reed - banjo combination. I should have just stuck with the harmonica.

I don't think they have ever worked on anything this old before, but Mike seemed willing to work on anything and I saw them doing pretty extensive work on a few later accordions on the bench. Knowing that a lot of the flutinas for sale need bellows work I asked him if replacements could be made up and he said that yes they made by a bellows specialst but that this is pretty expensive. The way that works is that the bellows are removed, and sent to the specialist who makes a new one to the pattern of the original. Before closing I should also mention that Liberty Bellows has on consignment a very old concertina, supposed to be Civil War vintage. Mike mentioned that when the seller brought it in he had an image of the original owner (ancestor of seller?) in uniform with the flutina . This was a very large instrument, very beautiful with detailed marquetry covering all of the surfaces. At around two grand, it was out of my consideration, but worth investigating if anyone was interested. I don't think it was on their web page inventory yet. He also had a similar vintage concertina, with a more plain appearance for about half of that. My personal experience with accordeons is with the smallish one I've had and I hadn't realized how large these concertina were.

Dave Culgan
razyn said:
On the following site (if the long url works), look at examples 7, 8, and 9:

As some may have noticed, it didn't work. I had found that website by two redirects from other people's, and that caused at least one too many imbedded urls. (And I tried to get this correction into the original post, but my fifteen minute window for editing ran out on me.) Anyway -- here's a straightforward url to it; look at Stephen Chambers' Annotated Catalogue, items 7-9:

http://www.concertina.com/chambers/

Incidentally, Dave, thanks for the flautina report. I don't want a nice restored one for $2 K, either -- but I feel your pain.

Dick
Thanks for the report Dave - too bad about the instrument. If it's any consolation I've acquired a number of "wallhangers" that I'd hoped might turn out to be actual instruments - but was wrong! Unlike banjos and violins it seems like there aren't very very many "good old" accordions out there - seems they're either one or the other.

Ol' Dan Tucker said:
The ebay flutina arrived and though the bellows were in good condition as described I could see that this instrument was going to need some work in order to be played. It was the early single row version, with no chords on the left hand, just a finger operated air valve. This model had small keys, I suppose made from M.O.P, a bit different from some of the ones I've seen in pics which look like large flat mother of pearl pieces and are often missing from ones I've seen for sale. It had the two drone valves on the right hand side operated by a pretty crude mechanism fabricated from brass sheet and it was difficult to figure out what would supply the pressure to keep them closed. One of these drone notes seemed badly out of tune when I tested it. All of the other notes played, in varying degrees of tune, but there was a lot of leaking air. I decided to take it to an accodeon specialist in Philadelphia, about an hour away, and spent about an hour discussing it. In order to return it to playability he would have to part off the bellows, as on this early construction there is no way to open the instrument up as on later styles. Had I wanted to proceed he would have replaced the leather pads that seal each note, and repaired / replaced / restored the internal leather valves as needed. While he was testing the operation, playing scales, I asked him to note what key it was in - it was close to "g". As is frequently the case, this particular instrument would have cost more in restoration money than what I have into it and so I've reluctantly decided to return it for a refund, which was part of purchase terms.

As Dick mentioned these typically had only one reed per note and with the small size of the bellows (just four folds) and I don't think it would ever have been very loud. And no, I surely wouldn't have made the faux pax of playing this in accompaniment with the fiddle; Renny, our fiddle player also plays banjo. I am though planning on featuring two banjos in the band on certain songs.

I mentioned to Mike, at Liberty Bellows, that there was a huge interest in these early accordeons amongst the early banjo community and would it be feasible to make new reproductions. He supposed that it would not be a difficult instrument to reproduce and that getting the correct size bellows made up would probably be the most expensive part. As I could see he seemed a little interested in this idea I had to admit that "huge" was probably not accurate, that there might be a demand for maybe a dozen or so. Thus ended my dreams of adding the sound of the flutina to the Camptown Shakers. While I was there I also had him look over the 10 button, circa 1920's, accordeon I have been playing on and decided to put a little money into giving it a routine servicing. He remarked that it was nice instrument, if a bit on the small side (child's?) and I'm sure I won't be able to resist using a bit with the band as I'm kinda hooked on the reed - banjo combination. I should have just stuck with the harmonica.

I don't think they have ever worked on anything this old before, but Mike seemed willing to work on anything and I saw them doing pretty extensive work on a few later accordions on the bench. Knowing that a lot of the flutinas for sale need bellows work I asked him if replacements could be made up and he said that yes they made by a bellows specialst but that this is pretty expensive. The way that works is that the bellows are removed, and sent to the specialist who makes a new one to the pattern of the original. Before closing I should also mention that Liberty Bellows has on consignment a very old concertina, supposed to be Civil War vintage. Mike mentioned that when the seller brought it in he had an image of the original owner (ancestor of seller?) in uniform with the flutina . This was a very large instrument, very beautiful with detailed marquetry covering all of the surfaces. At around two grand, it was out of my consideration, but worth investigating if anyone was interested. I don't think it was on their web page inventory yet. He also had a similar vintage concertina, with a more plain appearance for about half of that. My personal experience with accordeons is with the smallish one I've had and I hadn't realized how large these concertina were.

Dave Culgan
I picked up another, earlier (1854) accordeon tutor from Winner. This one has separate sections, with a number of tunes each, for "French Accordeons" of increasing complexity.


It looks to me as if all of the earlier tutors (from 1843 Howe through the 1873 Winner) are for this "French" setup, basically backward to the "German" setup described in the [1879?] Howe's Eclectic School, which was illustrated in that last batch of tutors I posted. It is the German setup that matches that of a Hohner harmonica, and is also pretty standard on the 20th century diatonic accordions I've seen.

I think most of the tunes transcribed for the French accordeon in these earlier books could be played with the same fingerings on the corresponding size of German instrument, but using the opposite bellows motion to that indicated. In the Winner books, e.g., there is a dot under the key number if it is to be pressed, and no dot if it's drawn. Switch these instructions -- if there's a dot, draw the bellows, and if not, press it. I think that would work. Maybe not on every key (highest and lowest, on the ten and twelve button instruments, may differ a little). Most of the melodic stuff is played on keys 2 through 8 on a ten-key, anyhow.

By the way, there is somewhat more repertoire that's overtly from the minstrel shows in the 1843 Preceptor, and this 1854 Sep Winner collection, than in the later ones. None of them would qualify as an "Ethiopian" collection, though.
Once again, making assumptions can be dangerous. I just came across this sheet music cover of White's Serenaders. Look at the guy to the right of the fiddler.



razyn said:
He makes this salient point: "The accordion, when used, seems always to have been a substitute for the violin, rather than an addition to it."

So, I just mention it. Heaven forfend that the Camptown Shakers (or somebody else) should slip up and put the fiddle and accordion onstage at the same time.
Attachments:
John Masciale said:
Once again, making assumptions can be dangerous. I just came across this sheet music cover of White's Serenaders. Look at the guy to the right of the fiddler.

Well, I see the squeezebox. I don't see him playing it, at the same time as the fiddler -- they are just standing there. The Camptown Shakers can do the same thing, under the current forecast. And if this is an argument, you are arguing with Bob Winans, not me. However -- it's just one sentence, in his 31 page article; and it refers to a chart (5th page of his article, or p. 73 of the volume in which it was published). That statistical chart only covers groups playing between 1843-47. I don't know the date of your White's Serenaders cover -- but if it's any later than 1847, I imagine there's no argument from Bob, either.

Anyway, as a generality, I think it's useful: violin or accordeon, not violin and accordeon (playing the same notes, at once). If you have harmonized parts available, I guess they could harmonize... and the louder instrument should play the higher, or "first," line.

Dick
The White's serenader's sheet music cover was from 1849. I'm not arguing with Bob per se. My question is, if both instruments were played in a group, why would they not have been played together?
Good taste?
Ouch. That hurt.

I have a 22 button Lachenal Anglo (probably 1870-ish)- It's got the accidentals you describe, but is actually pretty awkward to play in D due to the location of those buttons. My gut feeling (after playing around on single row accordions and anglo concertinas for 35 years) is that most (non-virtuosic) players would have happily played along on the G tunes and refilled their drinks when the action moved to D. As you say though, there are lots of D tunes where you can cheat around the C# - especially if others are playing the tune too. I do that all the time. In Canada (especially Quebec) there are lots of accordion versions of fiddle tunes that do this, except now it's usually a matter of playing in A or G on a D accordion.

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