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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Paul -- I wasn't implying in any way that the double C type tuning is dissonant -- nor do I think that either Converse or his subject were implying that. I think the story shows that the double C was UNUSUAL.

The guy was engaging in some busking behavior Not unlike a busker in Ireland who will (I have heard) play in the key of A flat (or something) on a key of D tinwhistle to impress the audience. It wors if there are enough around who know the usual way to play...

That is a valuable line of thinking Paul. Seeing notation to a somewhat unbroken aural tradition vs. cold reading of old notation. You have to really open your mind to the possibilities of the written page. That is part of my defense of not ragging on the tutors too hard. This community should be looking broad and wide....sometimes we have a pretty narrow view with our experimentation.

I like to play the old songs, a great many of which are covered in the tutors, in an ensemble setting which in my case means singing along to banjo, fiddle, and percussion accompaniment. I've been doing this a while and I used to question the the accuracy to a period performance a lot more than I do now. Its not that I've become complacent its just that I've seen what works over the years. Taking a song from the tutors, learning the lyrics and then playing it a lot with fiddle and tambo we arrive at an arrangement that sounds good and seems to entertain our audience. Later, after working up one of these songs I will sometimes hear other bands doing the same song, sometimes they sound similar, other times the arrangements end up being very different. Like Tim said we're trying to reconstruct the beast from a few bones. Thinking a bit more about it, I have greater performance confidence in the songs I've worked up from the tutors as opposed to ones where I've tried to come up with a good banjo part from a piano score. Dave Culgan

Jim Dalton said:

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....

I think it only implies that he knew that audience (white/urban/sophisticated?) was not used to retuning or seeing/hearing other tunings being used...that he knew they might consider it unusual.  But it really just sounds like typical musican performer 'retuning patter' so commonly used to fill up the time when retuning.  As an example, if I were performing in front of a crowd of bluegrass fans (bluegrass banjo uses the standard G tuning almost exclusively), and I went to retune into a spooky sawmill tuning or to play Reuben's Train or something, I might make exactly the same comment to keep the audience amused while I retuned - that I was now 'throwing the banjo out of tune'.  That would certainly elicit a chuckle.   Plus, I would also enjoy thus teasing the bluegrass banjo players in the audience as well, knowing full well that they can only play in one tuning.   Oldtime musician Bruce Molsky often makes such subtle amusing comments to audiences too while he retunes, like 'Now I'm going to play the fiddle the way it's not supposed to be played...'  etc....and the audience laughs along.

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."

@Jim.  Because we have no independent confirmation of this conversation between Converse and the unnamed African-American banjo player, it is pretty hard to say what exactly was going on there.  Evidently, the minstrels stuck with dGDF#A most of the time, but professional performance on stage and the tedium of tuning in front of a paying audience could be a motivating factor.  In any case, the story doesn't prove that the tuning was unusual, only that it was used.  All the evidence outside minstrelsy, and especially in the African-American musical traditions, points to the use of multiple tunings.


I have jumped into this particular hornet's nest before--I strongly feel there had to have been a parallel group of banjo players learning by ear, as were all the original white minstrel guys.  There is a book by Cece (Cecelia) Conway about the development of regional styles in the Appalachians that explores the development of early styles and repertoire.  It's called something like "African Banjo Echoes in the Appalachians."  It's a really well researched book and I believe it's still in print.--Rob Morrison

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.

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...

Jim--We have a lot of independent confirmation that this tuning was used, as it is a more common tuning in surviving "clawhammer" banjo traditions.  But, I am absolutely with you that interpreting the evidence is the fun part.


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.

Jim, You know this--Converse reported it in the 1850s, in what was a rare, indeed unique, transcription of an actual African-American banjo player, from where this quote comes and all that.  I am much less apt to question the genuine musicological research in the reported encounter than I am Converse's impressions of the interchange.  I guess I am much more hesitant to reject surviving oral tradition when it is confirmed by earlier documentary evidence. 

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