Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

This question is directed toward Jim Dalton, and anybody that has knowledge in this area. It seems that Early Music ensembles are able to reconstruct period performances. To the general public, there seems to be much agreement about the general presentation. Do these groups question themselves as much as we do? This music we play here is more recent in our collective memory than music of the Baroque and earlier. What gives them the confidence they have with no recorded examples to hear?

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They certainly do question themselves as much. They've just been at it for a longer time.

I think the confidence comes from examining a GREAT DEAL of documentation. We've only scratched the surface. I'll try to add some better detail when I more wide awake and have thought about it a bit more.

By the way, what they do and what we do are not that different to be sure. They are even expanding the "early music mindset" to include the 19th century.

The minstrel era and the written music and methods that captured the music represent a pretty small window of time, as music history goes...fifty years, perhaps.  In addition, I wonder whether professional minstrels drew on the methods published by their colleagues; my sense is that the published literature was intended for an amateur audience of people wanting to learn.  Most of the players who published 19th-century banjo music were of the generation that figured it out from oral tradition sources and their own imagination, and it is apparent that there is a certain amount of making-it-up-as-they-went-along that was essential to the practice.


In contrast, the music tradition that the Early Music crowd is working with involves a lot more people over a much longer time period, and generations of professionals were trained using the methods that turn up in pedagogical materials from the Renaissance onward.  For centuries there were established organizations of professional musicians that maintained standards while the various styles came and went and, as Jim said, the result is a lot of material that scholars working for much of the last century have been able to study.  Between C. P. E. Bach, Leopold Mozart, and J. Quantz, you have basic instructions you need on how to play eighteenth-century European music, for example, that arguably go into much greater depth than any of the minstrel era methods. 

It seems to me that the gaps in our knowledge of early American vernacular music are seductive in that they have to be filled with creativity and invention, which is the spirit in which they were made.  Not so great for the scholar I guess, but a fine thing for a musician. 

Most of the people who wrote the tutors were Frank Converse.  Albert Baur wrote that the best way to get an idea of how the banjo was played is to play from the Briggs' banjo instructor (still available in the 1890s).  He follows that up with that it needs to be transposed up three half steps.

We also have pretty vivid accounts of players.  As popular music goes, it was well reviewed and criticized  in newspapers.

We also have direct links between major players and a chain of teaching... So like Jim wrote--not that much different.

Paul Ely Smith said:

The minstrel era and the written music and methods that captured the music represent a pretty small window of time, as music history goes...fifty years, perhaps.  In addition, I wonder whether professional minstrels drew on the methods published by their colleagues; my sense is that the published literature was intended for an amateur audience of people wanting to learn.  Most of the players who published 19th-century banjo music were of the generation that figured it out from oral tradition sources and their own imagination, and it is apparent that there is a certain amount of making-it-up-as-they-went-along that was essential to the practice.


In contrast, the music tradition that the Early Music crowd is working with involves a lot more people over a much longer time period, and generations of professionals were trained using the methods that turn up in pedagogical materials from the Renaissance onward.  For centuries there were established organizations of professional musicians that maintained standards while the various styles came and went and, as Jim said, the result is a lot of material that scholars working for much of the last century have been able to study.  Between C. P. E. Bach, Leopold Mozart, and J. Quantz, you have basic instructions you need on how to play eighteenth-century European music, for example, that arguably go into much greater depth than any of the minstrel era methods. 

It seems to me that the gaps in our knowledge of early American vernacular music are seductive in that they have to be filled with creativity and invention, which is the spirit in which they were made.  Not so great for the scholar I guess, but a fine thing for a musician. 

Since the methods came out after this style of play was in wide use, it would seem that the methods would relect that style of play....at least to some degree. It must have modeled and reflected some of the most desirable aspects of banjo playing.

I agree, Tim. The tutors probably reflect what at least a few of the players were doing.

Joel's comment about reviews of playing and other descriptive accounts is important too. It would be nice if we could collectively organize some of THAT material into a more easily accessible form.

Off to teach a class in late 19th and early 20th c. theater music for my American Music class. More later.

P.S. I recently co-wrote an article "Historical/Period Performance Practice" (with my wife, Maggi) for the forthcoming Music in American Life: An Encyclopedia of the Songs, Styles, Stars, and Stories that Shaped Our Culture  to be published by ABC-CLIO.  So, I've been thinking about this kind of thing quite a bit recently.

I didn't mean to suggest that Converse, et al, are inaccurate in their portrayal of minstrel music; I believe you guys are absolutely right that the tutors reflect "what at least a few of the players were doing."  I don't think there is too much evidence for Joel's suggestion of a "chain of teaching," though.  A link or two, for sure.  Tim's original inquiry was in comparison to the "early music" community recreating performances of European classical music, however, and I hope I didn't offend in suggesting that the body of evidence from which early music aficionados work explains the difference in the level of confidence.  The methods are not much different--that is certainly true.

One point I sometimes wonder about is this-

The tutors were written in standard music notation.  Obviously then, they were aimed at an audience of banjo students who could read sheet music.

Today, most banjo 'tutors'/books are written in banjo TAB, because 'most' banjo students today don't read standard notation.

Doesn't the general population today have a higher degree of education than was true in the 1860's?

I wonder what percentage of total banjo players players back then actually read sheet music and standard notation?    Do you think a higher percentage of them read music in those days as opposed to today?   I personally suspect that larger numbers of banjo players learned/played by ear or in person back then rather than bought and studied banjo tutor books and/or took formal lessons in urban environments.  Hard to know.

What we do know is that the tutors were aimed at an audience that was educated enough to read music and hopefully well heeled enough to take lessons.  To me that represents one segment of all players, as is also true today.

All this suggests to me merely that it would be wise to view the tutors as representing a certain portion or category of banjo playing audience at the time, and that it might make sense to assume there were also other regional styles also active then, but not documented in the formal way that has enabled us to see surviving instructional method books.  After all, we do know there have been many distinct regional American styles of banjo playing existing right up until recently, as demonstrated in recordings like Mike Seeger's Southern Banjo Sounds and Black Banjo Songsters and others.  I feel it may be all too easy to come to view the tutors as representing the whole picture of how banjos were played at the time.

Tablature in various forms was around at the time the instructors were written.  I believe the fact that they were not written in TAB was done for a conscious choice.  Perhaps it was to lend credence to the fact that the banjo was a serious instrument?  I doubt it.  I think that there was basically 1 tuning for the banjo, whereas today, within one modern instructor I have 4 or 5 tunings.  Reading standard notation with that many tunings can get confusing.  I think modern banjo instructors are written in TAB  to account for the fact that all of these different tunings are used.

Your point is widely shared in the popular music community.  It is also easy to see the logic behind it.  Thus I feel that a hijack is in order.

Point one, "Obviously then, they were aimed at an audience of banjo students who could read sheet music."

Every one of those books have one thing in common--they are designed to teach the banjo.  They all began with "The Elementary Principles of Music."  We will use the "Green" Converse for example.  The header on page three begins as stated and continues to page six.  That is all the information you need to understand how notation works in that book.  It is followed up by banjo specific information and how the notes are found on the fingerboard, key signatures and the way to handle embellishments on the banjo.

The fact is that 65 Converse will teach you everything that you need to learn to read the music in that book.  The book, as well as the others were 100% aimed at teaching people how to read music.

It works, I know, I used it to learn to read.

The goal was not pretension, that came in the 1890s with A. A. Farland.

One point I sometimes wonder about is why will people read the instructions on how to use TAB, but claim that notation is too hard.  The most difficult part is note duration and that cannot be avoided with TAB.

As to the regional styles-- have you met RD Lunceford?

Strumelia said:

One point I sometimes wonder about is this-

The tutors were written in standard music notation.  Obviously then, they were aimed at an audience of banjo students who could read sheet music.

Today, most banjo 'tutors'/books are written in banjo TAB, because 'most' banjo students today don't read standard notation.

Doesn't the general population today have a higher degree of education than was true in the 1860's?

I wonder what percentage of total banjo players players back then actually read sheet music and standard notation?    Do you think a higher percentage of them read music in those days as opposed to today?   I personally suspect that larger numbers of banjo players learned/played by ear or in person back then rather than bought and studied banjo tutor books and/or took formal lessons in urban environments.  Hard to know.

What we do know is that the tutors were aimed at an audience that was educated enough to read music and hopefully well heeled enough to take lessons.  To me that represents one segment of all players, as is also true today.

All this suggests to me merely that it would be wise to view the tutors as representing a certain portion or category of banjo playing audience at the time, and that it might make sense to assume there were also other regional styles also active then, but not documented in the formal way that has enabled us to see surviving instructional method books.  After all, we do know there have been many distinct regional American styles of banjo playing existing right up until recently, as demonstrated in recordings like Mike Seeger's Southern Banjo Sounds and Black Banjo Songsters and others.  I feel it may be all too easy to come to view the tutors as representing the whole picture of how banjos were played at the time.

One difference I do see between the early music and minstrel music worlds is that minstrel music was a primarily oral tradition that was accompanied by the transcription into European music notation, while the early music people are dealing with documents that are themselves the primary medium for reproducing the music.  There is no other option for Bach than reading the music.  The result is that issues of interpretation (just when do you use what kind of vibrato in that Mozart?) are inside a very complicated system that is a living tradition of passing on music, even if styles have changed.  Minstrel music on the other hand, left everything open to interpretation.  What made it thrilling was the performer brought to it, and that wasn't written down.  But something was written down, and it sure sounds like most of what I have heard on this site has got to be darn close to what that sounded like.  Maybe being a little unsure is not a bad artistic conundrum to have. 

John Masciale said:

Tablature in various forms was around at the time the instructors were written.  I believe the fact that they were not written in TAB was done for a conscious choice.  Perhaps it was to lend credence to the fact that the banjo was a serious instrument?  I doubt it.  I think that there was basically 1 tuning for the banjo, whereas today, within one modern instructor I have 4 or 5 tunings.  Reading standard notation with that many tunings can get confusing.  I think modern banjo instructors are written in TAB  to account for the fact that all of these different tunings are used.

That makes a lot of sense John!  Hard to write standard notation for varied tunings. 

But... when there are 1960's recorded or written interviews of  banjo player who were in their 70's and 80's at that time, some born in the 1800's, and they used various tunings since boyhood, talking about how they learned their tunes and learned how to play from their fathers, uncles, and even great uncles, well weren't those people they learned from playing their tunes and using the associated tunings in the 1800's?

I'm genuinely curious as to how it has been established that there was only one commonly used banjo tuning in the minstrel time period?  It doesn't make sense to me that the Hammons of WV for example would have learned their rich repertoire of both fiddle and banjo tunes from their father and uncle, making in depth use of very specific tunings, if it is said there was only one banjo tuning in use around 1860.  I don't mean to cause problems, just that I'm puzzled by a lot of these things.

There were actually two common tunings during the early minstrel period that are documented.  That doesn't mean that other tunings weren't used; Converse claimed hearing a "double C" type of tuning in the early 1850's.  I think the point is the dearth of documentation in the early minstrel period for the rich variety of banjo tunings that became common later as the clawhammer style evolved out of the minstrel style.

Strumelia said:

John Masciale said:

Tablature in various forms was around at the time the instructors were written.  I believe the fact that they were not written in TAB was done for a conscious choice.  Perhaps it was to lend credence to the fact that the banjo was a serious instrument?  I doubt it.  I think that there was basically 1 tuning for the banjo, whereas today, within one modern instructor I have 4 or 5 tunings.  Reading standard notation with that many tunings can get confusing.  I think modern banjo instructors are written in TAB  to account for the fact that all of these different tunings are used.

That makes a lot of sense John!  Hard to write standard notation for varied tunings. 

But... when there are 1960's recorded or written interviews of  banjo player who were in their 70's and 80's at that time, some born in the 1800's, and they used various tunings since boyhood, talking about how they learned their tunes and learned how to play from their fathers, uncles, and even great uncles, well weren't those people they learned from playing their tunes and using the associated tunings in the 1800's?

I'm genuinely curious as to how it has been established that there was only one commonly used banjo tuning in the minstrel time period?  It doesn't make sense to me that the Hammons of WV for example would have learned their rich repertoire of both fiddle and banjo tunes from their father and uncle, making in depth use of very specific tunings, if it is said there was only one banjo tuning in use around 1860.  I don't mean to cause problems, just that I'm puzzled by a lot of these things.

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