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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Thanks Rob.  I really have to get that book and read it.   I have the Gura/Bollman book and the "Half Barbaric twang" book.  thanks, i will look to ordering a used copy.

Paul -- If you're looking for independent confirmation, how can you say it even proves that it was used?

Maybe Converse wrote it down incorrectly or completely made up the story...

Sorry, you can't have it both ways. Any story like this needs some interpretation. I suppose we are both tending to interpret it in a way that fulfills our individual expectations.

THAT, I suppose, is both a benefit and a problem for this thing we do...

Books....I'm glad somebody wrote down some of the stuff others played by ear.

Ah, but Paul, WHEN do we have confirmation of it being used?

1850s?  '60s, '70s?  Or only much later, after the fact?

It seems as if a double standard is applied sometimes. I don't deny aural or oral traditions but I have trouble with the "we say they did, because you can't prove they didn't" approach that many take toward this kind of thing.

For remote time periods like this, I prefer to take documentation as a better jumping off point than speculation backwards from living traditions.

I consider oral and aural tradition much like the game telephone.  Have some one whisper something to someone, and have them pass it on.  After a while you almost can't identify the original message.  As a case in point, Angelina Baker, and Angeline the Baker.  Both a lot of fun to play.  It is pretty clear that Angeline the Baker came from Angelina Baker.  However, it has taken a life of its own.

Actually Frank reported it in 1901, not 1850. As to the mind and memories, read up on the studies done on eyewitness testimony. It has been found to be the least creditable evidence that can be cited. Far from reliable documentation. Really google it.

Paul -- You haven't said what the "earlier documentary evidence" is that supports the surviving oral traditions (of 160 years later).

Actually, we are wasting a lot of time on ONE TUNING that we all seem to agree was used by someone somewhere in the earlier days. Again, I am not denying the fact that there were oral traditions and that the players in these oral traditions LIKELY used a variety of different tunings. I am just not sure why so much energy is being expended on denigrating the validity of written sources.

Pop culture. I don't think people intentionally preserve it. They ride it. Changes are observed later.

I think the tutors and method books are terrific- and how lucky to have that surviving accurate snapshot of how some (or maybe even most) people taught, learned, and played the banjo in that time period.  It's natural to then make the 'logical' jump to conclude that there was basically only one banjo tuning in use then, because that's what the books used.  But I think it's a mistake to suggest this based on the survival of bound banjo teaching method books that were printed for the mass market.  Unfortunately we have no field recordings from that time, no collections from Alan Lomaxes, or Harry Smiths or other folklorists which might have portrayed a broader spectrum of rural banjo styles that were not written down in standard notation as formal commercially sold teaching method books.

This site is about 'Minstrel Banjo' of course, with the subtitle 'For enthusiasts of early banjo', which might include all banjo styles of the minstrel era  -if we had the documentation.  But all we have aside from the tutors are passed down aural remnants of other styles and influences, and a few scattered written mentions.

Does anyone know of any surviving paper sheets of home made banjo TABS from the 1800's?   Surely some musicians somewhere must have jotted down banjo tunes in some self-invented tab form if they couldn't read music.

Wasn't that a Dobson thing?.....I also believe Converse did a tab book.

I like tab. I use it to teach beginning guitar all the time. It makes complicated things simple.

One thing about banjo tabs.....yoiu have so much of the same notes over and over, it's really not that much of a stretch to just read the notes. You have to learn to read rhythms anyway...tab or not.

I agree.  I like both SMN and tab!  But nothing compares to actually listening to recordings to get the real flavor of a tune.  Too bad we don't have any of that for minstrel era- but a bare bones version is always better than nothing!

Is there a surviving copy of the Converse tab book?

Home made tabs are a known thing for musicians to invent for themselves and use, even singers ...so i wondered if anyone knew of any scraps of paper of banjo tunes or songs that survived in hand written tab from the minstrel era.

We WILL find that Frank Converse cylinder. Then we will know.

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