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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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.

Comparing oral tradition to the telephone game ignores the extensive research documenting the stability of oral tradition.  Schliemann found Troy using the transcription of epic oral poetry already five hundred years old when it was written down.  Africans coming to this country, as well as Europeans who came from vibrant vernacular music traditions, were highly skilled in the acquisition of authentic music by ear, and the Africans in particular were surrounded by cultures in which professional master musician-poets had used sophisticated techniques to remember a vast repertoire of music and poetry.  Schoolkids may stumble over the memory of a simple phrase, but a jeli can recite 500 years of genealogy.  Now, it is true that individual expression is highly prized among most of these traditions (provided you have mastered the tradition according to your elders), there was a vast amount of disruption in the lives of enslaved Africans and immigrant Europeans, and it is from that process that we get the transformation of music as it is handed down...precise mechanical preservation is the product of an industrial culture...but you really don't know that Angeline the Baker isn't closer to the original, whatever that might be.  It depends whether your transcriber was closer to John Hammond or Vanilla Ice.  Ultimately you have to pick the one you like.  And I think Frank got it right on the double-C tuning.  

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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