Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

One of our members has asked how do I go about creating a period banjo part for a tune. This is a great question, and I don't have a pat answer.

First, I think spending a lot of time in the banjo instructors is essential. This gives you insight into the period style of playing. Be sure to search all of the instructors for some of the songs you are intersted in. One of the most useful indexes for this is in The Early Minstrel Banjo book by Weidlich. Also look in some of the books on the banjo clubhouse.

Next, go to the sheet music sites, and see if you can download the published piano score. This can give you a sense of the feel of the piece.

You can always ask the opinion of people here on this site about specific songs. It might be fun to take a few songs and see how different people would handle them. Any suggestions out there?

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Well, now that our holiday concert season is winding down, I figured I’d give this a shot.

As I mentioned in a previous post, The Raging Canal is harmonically quirky. Its key signature is major (F major in the original sheet music). Wearing my music theorist hat for a moment, I would really consider this to be in minor. (If anyone wants to take up that theoretical discussion, I’ll be glad to -- but let’s set it aside for the moment.

Anyway -- in Briggs’ discussion of tunings, he suggests the following:

If the performer wishes to play in the Minor Key, he must tune the Second String a Minor Third from the Third String, learning [typo --obviously should be “leaving”) the other strings at the same pitch as in the Major Keys.

I’ve been disappointed that neither Briggs nor any of the other mid-19th c. tutors (at least to my knowledge) left us any pieces in this tuning. So, I’ve decided to make my arrangement in what I call “Briggs’ minor tuning.”

So --key of D minor -- dGDFA tuning.

Because of the unfamiliar tuning (and considering those who don't read notes), I've included tab -- though I do think that tab is a bit bizarre for a fretless instrument. After all, with no frets, wouldn't the proper indication for each position be "0"? ...but I digress...

In addition to its stylistic appropriateness, the triplet arpeggio serves to accentuate the shift of harmony back to major from the minor of the previous measure. I play the ascending part of the arpeggio as a glide of the index finger but it can also work with a left hand pluck on the 2nd string.

The arrangement should work as either a vocal accompaniment or a banjo solo.
Great work on your arrangements, gentlemen.

John -- I find the ascending figure that you play between the verses particularly effective.

Tim -- very Briggsian! --and well played too.
What do you use for a notation program? I can't figure out how to get Finale to give me the 16th note flags like the tutors use for the 5th string. Any suggestions in that regard will be much appreciated.
Jim..very cool. Seems like we kind of did the same thing. I use Sibelius, and I flag my thumb string notes by "create symbol" function which allows me to copy and paste the opposite stemmed note right over the existing note. Are you going to play yours? I'd like to hear your interpretation and tempo.
We should talk more, because I am quickly (and possibly in error) reacting to this. I see it simply as a tune in minor in which the harmony begins on the iv chord. That makes the V7 (the major chord 1 step up) make sense. It seems almost like it is in a parallel minor, but I think it starts on a iv chord. Do you think the lack of an Ab (from the original) at the end is a typo? (this would make the ending chord minor, which seems consistant with the piece) After all, look at M3...an Ab in the melody and an A natural in the bass? (along with other spots) I think it is an error. Also, notice the inconsistancies of the D and Db.
I think it is really not a good arrangement (the piano part from the Levy version).
But, there must have been something about this tune that made the Christy Minstrels include it in their playbill in 1844. It was worth looking at. Is it a parody of a Sea Shanty?

First -- thanks for the tip about the "create symbol" thing -- I never think to do that. Certainly Finale has that feature too.

Yes, we did take a rather similar approach to the tune. I didn't listen to either yours or John's before doing mine. Even with the different tuning, we managed similar phrasing.

I'll try to make time tomorrow for a quick recording...

My analysis of the song is as follows:

Working from the Levy Sheet music.

I hear it as being in F minor with a modulation to C major for the middle (Meas 7-10 "I'll sing to you the dangers...") and then back to F minor for the end.

There isn't anything here that you wouldn't find in a Schubert song. Remember that Schubert was an influence on Foster and others. Essentially, the German 19th c. song tradition (Schubert, Schumann, Brahms Wolf etc.) would have had a very flexible approach to shifts of mode (moving back and forth between major and minor) --so having that alteration between F major one measure and F minor in the next would not be unusual at all.

Having a major I chord in a minor key was a fairly common usage in European music since the 16th century. It was called the Tierce de Picardie or picardy third (referring to the raised third in the chord. It was first used only at the end of compositions but by the 19th century the practice had expanded. I don't think the major chord at the end is inconsistent at all, for this reason.

The copy that I have has A natural in both treble and bass in m. 3.

The D/ Db issue is resolved as follows -- Db in the Bb minor chord (iv in F minor) meas. 2 etc. and D natural in the G7 chord (V in C major) meas. 7-12.

Misprint in the penultimate measure -- A (in bass) should be Ab.


So -- there are two basic ways to analyze this song:

1) As I described above F minor to C major and back to F minor -- every chord is either i, I, iv or V of one of the two keys.

2) The middle section could be said to have "secondary functions" V7 of V (the dominant of V -- G7 is the dominant in C) but no modulations. In this paradigm, all of the chords could be labeled i, I, vi, V or V of V.

It is odd to be talking about banjo music in the way, isn't it?

But we do have to remember that American music didn't exist in a vacuum or spring full-grown from the head of Zeus (or Foster, Gottschalk or Billings...)

As for Raging Canal being a parody of a Sea Shanty. I had that thought, too -- it certainly seems likely. It could also be a parody of other stage/parlor genres of sea related songs. I'm not sure yet but will be looking at a huge collection of 19th century sea-related music over the next few months--planning for concerts in Gloucester, Salem and New Bedford. I do live at the coast... I'll let you know if anything turns up.
Jim, I kind of agree with your assessement of the song.

It follows along with Young Edwin in the Lowlands Low. You can sing one set of lyrics to the other's melody.


Even if it is not a parody of Edwin, you can see how it aligns with a sea chanty of the era. The minor mode modulates with a major, etc.
Perhaps there were not great dangers on a canal ride, but none the less, it was a struggle. Here is an exerpt from Ron Vasile "The Canal and the Corridor"


As one canal historian put it, “On a canal boat everybody was continually in the company of almost everybody else.” Every cough, sneeze and snore was audible to all. “The innocuous routine of life on board suited people of calm and adjustable temperament, but vexed those who preferred more animation, less enforced togetherness. . . On deck at night an imaginative traveler could en! joy the quiet charm of darkness twinkling with fireflies, the bow lantern casting a yellow glow ahead, the clop of hooves on the towpath, the soft swish of the towline dipping in the water, the muted songs, gay and plaintive, of the lonesome steersman.”

Every square inch of the packet was put to use, it was a miniature craft but scrupulously clean. People commented on the neatness and comfort of the packets, leading one observer to conclude that a “can be very well endured.” As night fell the passengers had to stand around while shelves were put up for their sleeping accommodation. A double tier of hammocks three deep were fashioned from the shelves and people drew their bunk assignments based on their ticket number, although strangers were often given first choice. One English traveler noted that this courtesy had been extended to him, but he complained that “the selection was difficult indeed, where all appeared equally uncomfortable.”

We tend to forget how things smelled “in the good old days,” especially in confined spaces like canal packet boats. Men smoked cigars and cigarettes; the privy was a seat with a hole in it and a bucket beneath. People didn’t wear deodorant and bathed infrequently, making body odor a serious issue. The stench emanating from the cabin was palpable, and no wonders that many awoke with a headache or worse.

Adults snored, babies cried, mosquitoes and flies bit, and the boat rocked back and forth going through locks. Windows had to stay closed, for fear of bad air that could cause malaria and other diseases. There was no private place to wash up in the morning, with only a single bucket and a comb attached to a string for all to use. (Throughout much of the 19th century the ritual of getting washed up, dressed, and ready to face the world, was referred to as performing ones toilet.)

Clearly, the sleeping arrangements aboard packets left a great deal to be desired. Women seemed to dislike packet travel more than men. Sarah Norris took a trip from LaSalle to Chicago that took 22 and a half hours, after which she said “I can’t tell you how pleased I was to leave the canal boat, a little, low, crowded place, moving along at a snail’s pace in comparison with steamboats.” Thus, we can conclude that travel on packet boats was something of a Jekyll and Hyde experience: pleasant during the day, much less so at night.

I still think it is a poor piano part from which to judge the song. I would use the strength of the melody and not rely on the treatment of the harmony. I really don't think of this as something related to European song form. Picardy third needs a little more time to develop to have an effect. It seems like a simple tune and an interpretation of an accompaniment as was needed to publish it.
PS>>>>Who was P. Morris?
Tim -- thanks for the excerpt about the canals. I always enjoy reading that kind of thing. I once read a similar description of early rail travel (including the smells) that also featured the possibility of catching fire from burning embers emanating from the engine. Yikes!

Regarding the song again:

I respectfully disagree about the influence of European song and harmony in general. This is a song and not a fiddle or banjo piece per se. It would be very much influenced by other songs.

But even setting that all aside, my reading of the melody alone would give me the same analysis (lacking only the shift between the major and minor tonic chord.).

So -- first phrase -- clearly in f minor
--second and third phrases -- clearly tonicizing C (or in C major, if you like)
--last phrase again, clearly in f minor (a literal repetition of the first phrase

Incidentally, he structure of the tune is a b b1 a. This is a very typical structure for strophic (repetitive verse) songs in both the U.S. and Europe.

I also find the accompaniment to be about the same quality of much of the 19th c. American repertoire and perhaps a bit more interesting than most. (I have performed hundreds of 19th c. American song accompaniments on both guitar, piano and banjo and can attest to the quality or lack thereof.) The modal shifting between i and I gives a bit more interest than the banal i V i that most composers would have used.

We'll probably never know if the accompaniment was written at the same time as the melody or later.

P. Morris? I have know idea except that his name is on the sheet music :

"Written and sung by the Celebrated comic singer P. Morris and dedicated to his friends in his native city New York."

Of course, knowing the nature of music publishing at the time, this proves nothing...

P.S. Tim-- all of my analysis -- and I do stand by it -- of course, in no way invalidates other readings and approaches to accompaniment. It can either be made simpler or more complex without changing its period style.
Thanks Jim, for all your insight and thought you put into this.
I agree with your idea re: harmony. (i V7/V V ). That minor to major at beginning and end still feels weird. Are there other sources or references for this song? I would hate to use this version as our only source. I have heard some guys do it with no minor chord at all. Sounds fine that way. Tempos vary also.
Can't wait to hear your version when you put it up.

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