Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

Just read this in Laurent Dubois' book, "The Banjo, America's African Instrument".
Frank Converse, who published two influential banjo tutors in 1865, stated;
"The first banjo I ever heard was in the hands of a colored man. I cannot say I learned anything from his execution, which, though amusing, was limited to the thumb and first finger, pulling or 'picking' the strings with both."
Interesting very early description of banjo fingering style. Does this mean non-stroke style? Did this style predate the common stroke style promoted by the early tutor books?
Any thoughts?

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Hi Richard,

I've not read that book.  I have been told by reputable people (and shown small segments) about some pretty big problems that it has.

I recommend reading the Converse letters directly (you can get them on my site).

A huge amount of focus has been placed on that one letter.  While it may or may not be an accurate telling ( I have gone through all these letters and checked dates and places and can find newspaper ads and playbills that support it-- it is all very accurate), I think the motive of the story is actually very different than what most people think.

To me, this is just a good old fashioned "back in my day" story, not a ethnomusicology study.  More of a "back in my day banjos and banjoists were so rare we only got to listen to this guy that came to town once a year."

What I find fascinating is the description of scordatura and the way it is presented.  The banjoist describes that "such a trifling of circumstances as the banjo being out of tune caused him no inconvenience."  This was a performance gag or stunt.  What is really interesting is that the manner of which this was presented is very much (if not exactly like) the same way "alternate tuning" was introduced in performance in the 1950s as "authentic mountain man" banjo playing technique.  

This became evident when I was watching a performance film featuring Buell Kazee.  Kazee introduces scordatura by saying something like "the mountain man is not very smart, he will try to play as many notes as he can open" while he was throwing the banjo out of tune.  The is no reason to doubt that the referenced unnamed "not very smart" mountain man altered the pitch of his banjo at some time/somewhere, but the same sort of stage gag is used in both cases.

I don't know if I am getting my point across.

Regardless of the possible inaccuracies of the book, are you saying that this statement of Converse's is inaccurate? I have read this statement in other places as well. It seems to me that he described what he saw. I can't imagine why he would distort the facts of what he observed or are you saying that someone else changed his story? If so, for what purpose?
All I am trying to ascertain is if there is evidence that multiple styles of fingerings were used by early black players and why the stroke style became predominant in the tutors written by white banjo players. Did they feel the stroke style was more efficient, or perhaps more rhythmic, in some way than thumb lead up picking?
Not sure what scordatura has to do with his description of right hand picking style.

No, I'm not saying that.  The point I am trying to make is that a man, in 1901, is telling an "old man" story about " back in his day."  A story that he witnessed as a preteen child.  Then, not having a banjo (because the only one he had seen was being used by the subject of the story), he went home and worked out what he heard on the piano (what he played at the time).

How is your memory of a performer you saw when you were 12 doing something you were seeing for the first time?

But you are correct, that does not matter.  

RE: Stroke style.  I have for a long time believed that the "African rhythm" pieces in the early collections were the fantasies of professional musicians who were writing in a characteristic style rather than a true reflection of slave music.  Sort of like when someone makes "ching chong" noises pretending to speak Chinese.

Guitar style is a natural way to play.  Plucking with the index and thumb also makes sense.

Let's look at the facts.

The man described was a free man, traveling around and making his living playing banjo.  He was playing in Elmira, NY.  This is not quite the same thing as a deep south plantation salve playing a three string gourd proto banjo.

Scordatura has everything to do with that letter-- read the original.  I'll make it easy...

Go here and scroll down.  Then read all his letters.


One of the major points of the story was when the man "fro 'de banjo out a' tune."  This is often pointed to as documentation of "alternate turnings" pre "old time" banjo.

He was a pro with a polished routine.  This was not the playing of an abused slave working cotton fields all day.

Right. Thanks for your explanation.
So.... if Guitar style is a natural way to play and plucking with the index and thumb also makes sense, then why was stroke style adopted by the writers of the tutors?
Why didn't the other style become predominant?
Maybe we will never know.

I think we have to consider the possibility of regional differences in the way people played. Banjos were scattered all over the U.S.  There is a distinct possibility that different people played the instrument differently.  The early instructors (Briggs, Rice, Buckley) all reflect one school of thought. It is possible that there was a ghost writer behind or involved with all of these (Converse). However, the stroke style is the style that was documented, and considering that it was documented by major performers of the instrument we have to consider that it was a predominant antebellum style of playing. 

I might add that performers had to get the sound of the instrument out to an audience. Stroke style has an advantage that you can get a lot of energy into a strike on the strings. Once the technology of building the instruments improved perhaps this became less of an issue.

My $0.02...

The fad of the banjo was distributed primarily by white musicians as a form of 'mass entertainment'. In order to sell themselves in the market they took any aspect they could and produced a comic-hyperbolic scenario. Everything was exaggerated and the oddities set to the forefront. Add a playing style which was otherwise unknown and well suited to wild 'abnormal' movements...you get a perfect storm to attract customers (paying ones). That this crash-bang playing style evolved into something wonderful and attractive and full of subtle variation is truly a great thing.

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