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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Joel Hooks said:

Every one of those books have one thing in common-... They all began with "The Elementary Principles of Music." ....

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.

Good point!  Thanks.

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.

I find that understanding note duration is one of the easiest parts of reading standard notation.  I have more trouble with the key signatures/sharps/flats than anything else.  I can read both, but i have much more trouble learning/reading standard notation than tab, even though I read standard notation as a child and only learned tab 30 years later.  I guess everyone's brain is different!

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

Joel, you asked me that same question last year...

Permalink Reply by Joel Hooks on September 12, 2011 at 6:36pm

Have you met R.D. Lunceford?

...and I asked you back then why you asked that, but you never answered me.  Can you please explain to me now why you keep asking me if I've met that gentleman?  I don't know him.  Is this some sort of joke that I'm not in on?



Carl Anderton said:

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.

Carl, that's a great explanation.  I'm glad to know the door is still open concerning the possible existence of and discovering documentation of other tunings being used back then.  Wonderful to think we may someday discover more material that surprises us!

The books being what they are...if you did not have them and their meticulous notation, we would have next to nothing. These, taken literally, are at least a link to early playing styles. Why would anybody take the trouble to write this stuff down so damn well?? Play them...play them all....then judge their value. Play them in different contexts...different tempos....with original type instruments. Reconstruct the beast from a few bones. Have some imagination...then put it forth for the community to judge. This stuff has to go beyond words.  

Here's a chart of all the tunings in the tutors up to 1868:

Wise words Tim, thank you.

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?

My mother was passionate about early music, from medieval to Bach.  I remember as a child my mother becoming amazed and beside herself when there became available LP recordings of early music consorts that were using reproductions of period instruments to play early music.  It seemed to me from how she was talking that this was not common then, and my mother was very excited and talked about what a wonderful thing it was.  I recall noting that it sounded more 'scratchy', textured, and slightly out of tune to me than the other records- I was about 5-8 or so.   So I'm thinking that before the late 50's, most musicians playing 'early music' may have simply been playing it on their modern instruments and weren't really thinking too deeply about the accuracy of the sound.  Or maybe they just didn't have all the resources to create period instruments that folks have now?



Strumelia said:

"My mother was passionate about early music, from medieval to Bach.  I remember as a child my mother becoming amazed and beside herself when there became available LP recordings of early music consorts that were using reproductions of period instruments to play early music.  It seemed to me from how she was talking that this was not common then, and my mother was very excited and talked about what a wonderful thing it was.  I recall noting that it sounded more 'scratchy', textured, and slightly out of tune to me than the other records- I was about 5-8 or so.   So I'm thinking that before the late 50's, most musicians playing 'early music' may have simply been playing it on their modern instruments and weren't really thinking too deeply about the accuracy of the sound.  Or maybe they just didn't have all the resources to create period instruments that folks have now?"

They've gotten much better at it after a few decades of both research and practice. People found out, among other things, that they needed to work as hard at playing the early instruments as the pros and virtuosi of modern instruments do.

Let's not confuse tuning for pitch.



Jim Dalton said:

People found out, among other things, that they needed to work as hard at playing the early instruments as the pros and virtuosi of modern instruments do.

Lol!

Thanks for the tunings chart Jim- that's really really helpful to me!

Of course not, Joel.

But notice that there is the minor key tuning (at several different pitches) in Briggs, the weird "Lon Moriss' Jig" tuning in the 1868 Buckley and the fact that several of the tutors include the raised bass tuning.  

Pitch is also an issue but not the main point.



Joel Hooks said:

Let's not confuse tuning for pitch.


A thought about the "double C" type of tuning that Converse heard:

Recall that he said that the African-American player who used it told his audience that he was "throwing the banjo out of tune." That implies at least a couple of things: 1) that he considered it unusual and, more importantly, 2) that his audience would have found it unusual.

My "take away" from this is that the standard arrangement of intervals in the two main pitch levels of the tutors was already recognized as standard at that time.

For reference, here is the Converse quote:

 "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."

Carl Anderton said:

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.

It is hard to believe to anyone who actually uses the so-called "double-C" tuning that it would be perceived as being out of tune in any way.  That makes no sense at all.  If this guy actually said that, then he may have been being sarcastic or otherwise misleading to Converse, who seems not to have had too much doubt about his own superiority and may have elicited a caustic response.  In fact, I find the standard "minstrel" tuning to sound more dissonant because of the major seventh, and in my own playing I have abandoned it for all but a few tunes.  I think the evidence is shaky for the assumption that (what we call) "clawhammer" evolved out of minstrel banjo style and one of the lingering proofs of this is the common use of multiple tunings, a practice found throughout West Africa plucked lute performance practice, a practice that clearly survives into African-American blues musicians' adoption of the European guitar and the use of various tunings not part of European practice.  While I have no doubt that the minstrels preserved an authentic style, the evidence is not there to support the assumption that what survives is all or even most of what banjo playing was in this period. 

An interesting parallel example to the problems in deriving authentic performances of minstrel music and interpreting the examples we have of 19th-c banjo music is in traditional Irish music.  In this case, we have a living tradition that has certainly evolved since the late nineteenth century but it is a continuous unbroken tradition (the thing we lack for the minstrels, though not really for banjo music as a whole), but we also have documents such as the venerable O'Neill's "Music of Ireland" which capture a vast repertoire of Irish music of the late 1800s.  If you compare the playing of modern Irish fiddle masters to this notated music, you can perceive the connection, but if you listen to a classical violinist trying to make sense of it from just the notation, you can hear and see how much information does not get into the notation.  They always want to play vibrato, and they push down the strings to the fingerboard when doing ornaments, and the bowing...well, it isn't right.  Without the oral tradition, it's a mess.   

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