Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

Hi All,

I had posted this on the old site and recently discovered that someone on Banjo Hangout referenced it.

Just in case anyone comes looking, I thought it prudent to repost it. Please excuse the redundancy if you've already read it.

Near the end of his career, Converse wrote a series of articles called "Banjo Reminiscences" for The Cadenza. In the July 1901 issue he wrote the following and included the piece in the attached pdf.

Text accompanying the early black banjo piece in Converse’s Cadenza (July 1901) article:

“The first banjo I ever heard was in the hands of a colored man--a bright mulatto--whose name I have forgotten. He frequently visited Elmira and the neighboring villages, playing and singing and passing his hat for collections. His repertoire was not very extensive, but, with his comicalities, sufficed to gain him a living. I cannot say that I learned anything from his execution, which, though amusing, was limited to the thumb and first finger,--pulling or “picking” the strings with both. He was quite conceited as to his abilities (pardonable in banjo players, I believe), and to impress his listeners with a due appreciation of them, he would announce that such a trifling circumstance as the banjo being out of tune caused him no inconvenience and so, with a seemingly careless fumbling of the pegs, he would disarrange the tuning--”fro de banjo out a’ tune,” he said--but merely pitching the second string a semitone higher.

The following morceaux, which I still recall, was his piece de resistance with the instrument fro’d out a’ tune, and thinking it may amuse your readers, I give it.”

In my transcription, I have included tab for those who don't read notes.

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Thank you for posting this again. I think your post was very interesting, especially with the background of the discussions at BanjoHangout (did the double C tuning exist before 1850). It is stuff like this that made me join the ning, and I am looking forward to more historical stuff like this.
Only three that he remembered -- but those three were pretty significant weren't they?

I hope this isn't going to be the kind of group in which every mention of note reading gets this kind of response.

Some people read notes, some people don't. I simply choose to have access to as many sources of information and tunes as possible. I don't denigrate other approaches.

I appreciated your posting the piece. I am very interested in helping people to get to know and understand the genre. Now that you have mentioned resources, I think it would be a great idea to put together a list of resources that people use in researching the instruments and music. What resources do people out there use? I know we have people here who host other sites, and research like crazy. There are things like the banjo data base, various sites on the web that post music, etc. Is there a centralized place somewhere that contains all of the various links, book titles, etc?

I find that the clubhouse is pretty complete, let's start with that as the central repository. Does anyone use resources not included there?

I think that is a great idea.

Perhaps we should start a number of different topics (i.e. period tutors, sheet music, modern books, recordings, websites, articles, images, instruments in museum collections etc.). This way we can all contribute to the lists on an ongoing basis as we stumble upon new resources and they would be somewhat organized from the outset.

I have yet to see a comprehensive list of the 19th century printed materials, for instance.

Also, the growing online resources will be easier to keep up with if we all "share the wealth."

I agree with using all helps/resources available. I need all the help I can get! Iplay mostly by ear, and don't use standard notation a lot, and tend to use tab when I first start a new piece, or when I get stuck, but it's good to have them available for those times. I never threw away my screwdriver when I bought pliers, either.
Dan'l said:
re: Jims' reply "Only three that he remembered -- but those three were pretty significant weren't they?...Some people read notes, some people don't. I simply choose to have access to as many sources of information and tunes as possible. I don't denigrate other approaches."

Jim -

I totally see and appreciate your concern. This merely was an unbiased account of conditions at the time, by a peer of both. I felt it interesting that two giants of Minstrel Banjo were mentioned together. They were Joel Sweeney and Frank Buckley. One who mastered his instrument through a black folk tradition, who played by ear; and another who mastered his instrument through trained musicianship, who played from transcript.

We are enriched by the contributions of either or both men... and each other through sites like this.


I don't see this as an either/or situation.

Frank Converse, though he was able to read and write music, obviously learned the piece in question by ear.
This kind of thing is also true of many musicians today.

You are right, however, that we are enriched by the contributions of musicians with both approaches.

Okay. I thought maybe there was one more Buckley we missed. Maybe Zeppo....
I'm one of those people who hate having to retune strings on my banjo if I don't have to. Once I get it in tune (lol) I don't like to touch it.

I finally had a chance to play through this. When playing up on the neck around 5th position, you can easily get the A by playing the third string 5th position. For those of you like me who hate retuning, this make playing this very easy.

That's right -- in fact, I used to play it that way too.

I first found that piece in an article by Lowell Schreyer -- a very interesting article about the evolution of ragtime from banjo music. Since tuning wasn't really pertinent to the topic of his article, it wasn't mentioned. So, I learned it the way you describe.

A few years later, I looked up the original Converse article and now I play it as it appears there.

It's a good piece either way. I prefer the way the old black player tuned it -- both for historical reasons and because I think it is a bit more idiomatic that way.

But it ultimately doesn't matter. Besides -- perhaps the main reason to "fro de banjo out a' tune" is to impress the incognoscenti...
Well, I'm very late responding to this post, but here goes...

I've been looking for early pieces to play on a gourd banjo, and this fits the bill perfectly. What I found interesting is that the player was using upstrokes with the index finger - well, that is my interpretation of the text, you might disagree. As my stroke playing is utterly useless, this fills me with hope!

Secondly, clearly Converse couldn't remember exactly the first piece he ever heard, so maybe there is as much Converse in the notation as there is a long-forgotten black player. One is tempted to say it has the wiff of authenticity, but how the hell would I know that? Still, it's a great little piece, which one shouldn't take too literally just because it is written down. I imagine a healthy doze of improv around it would be a good thing.

Looking forward to trying it on my gourd when it arrives in a couple of weeks...

Thanks for posting it, Jim.

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