Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

Perhaps we should seek out some fiddle players to join our group. It would be most beneficial to hear them play these tunes, and listen to how they are treated. I'm sure that those which came before us spent a lot of time around fiddlers hearing this music. Maybe Chuck Krepley would be interested in adding to our genre? It would be a whole new dimension to our Friday Post Series. The more I play these tunes, the more I become aware of the close relationship of Minstrel banjo and fiddle.

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Absolutely true, John! That's always been one of the questions in my mind. Did minstrel ensembles tend to play in unison or did they harmonize their instruments? Did it vary band by band? Since we seem to be lacking original "scores" it's hard to answer with historical proof. I'll often base harmonies on original piano sheet music so that I'm at least getting a period take on it.

John Masciale said:
Bonaparte Crossing the Rhine.MIDThere is another avenue to explore which is that the fiddle and banjo do not have to be playing the same part. I have written a number of counterpoint parts for fiddle tunes so that I can play along. The advantage here is that I am in a comfortable range and the fiddler is also in a comfortable range. It can also make the music more interesting when you do this. I've attached a midi example of Bonaparte Crossing the Rhine.
That's a nice bit John, and a good thing to explore. I bet fiddlers are quite good at counter lines and melodies.
Perhaps we can define some topics for a forum discussion. One which I would like to chase after is fiddle as source material for the banjo. How did 19th Century fiddle styles and repertoire influence the development of the banjo? Hearing period interpretations of fiddle music should give us some insight. I'm sure early banjo players copied fiddlers...they were there first. Since much of the repertoire of the banjo is directly lifted from this material, a whole lot of stuff that followed were tunes written much in that same style, but adapting "banjoistic" characteristics that use the thumb string to a greater advantage. I would like to get a better understanding of these styles...and listen to the phrasing, timing, and tempos of the music. Chuck, would it be fair to say that somehow, there is an unbroken linage of fiddle music somewhere, unlike the banjo?
I think if we look at the vocal arrangements from the minstrel era, you can see a lot of harmony. (As an aside, there are arrangements similar to barbershop in nature, where the melody line is not the highest line in the arrangement. ) I would be surprised if this did not apply to instrumental music as well.

Don't forget that Dan Emmett was a fiddle player before he was a banjo player. I think that this explains the nature of some of those arrangements in the Nathan book.
Tim - I think it's safe to say that there is a long unbroken tradition of publishing fiddle music. What's harder to get at is STYLE. Fiddlers rarely "play it like it's wrote." Ornaments and stylizations are rarely written into published fiddle music. "Soldier's Joy" looks pretty much the same in a 1780s collection as it does in the 1850s or a modern book of fiddle tunes. You can bet it's played and sounds differently, though! Somewhere along the line things morphed from the Celtic/British Isles styles we enjoyed in the colonies to the "American" styles we recognize today in Bluegrass, Old Time, etc. Since the birth of distinctly American music is intertwined in the development of Minstrelsy, I'd bet that the changeover began sometime between the 1820s and 1840s, about the time white folks were learning to play the banjo. Was there cross pollenization going on? I bet there was! All the more reason to study banjo/fiddle interplay during the antebellum minstrel era. I think fiddlers got excited by the syncopations going on in the banjo styles, and that helped propel a change in fiddle styles. That's exactly what I'm trying to get at in my own research.
John - Where DID Hans Nathan come up with those arrangements anyway? Does anybody out there in banjoland know? Gumbo Chaff's Ethiopian Glee Book is a great place to start looking at harmonizations.
Chuck,
To my knowledge, the arrangements in the Nathan book are directly from the archives and manuscripts of Dan Emmett. I have heard a rumor or two that Bob Winans is working on publishing a set of these manuscripts.
Courtesy of Bob Winans I'm fortunate (!) to have a copy of Emmett's manuscript book, circa approx 1860. It's a collection of GREAT tunes with a lot of wonderfully syncopated stuff. Although they're playable on the banjo, they look more like fiddle settings to me. (I'd like to get Greg Adam's take on that, since we've played through the book together.) Anyway, there are no multiple parts like the Nathan arrangements. I wonder if Bob has more of Emmett's material that might shed light on the Hans Nathan arrangements.

Elaine Masciale said:
Chuck,
To my knowledge, the arrangements in the Nathan book are directly from the archives and manuscripts of Dan Emmett. I have heard a rumor or two that Bob Winans is working on publishing a set of these manuscripts.
Chuck, does anything really differ from the Hans Nathan Book? Re: arrangements from that book, isn't "Nebber Do To Gib It Up So" the only piece actually arranged for the book? (the Minstrel ensemble). If you have copies of the manuscript, on those non-vocal tunes, is there ever an indication of it being for fiddle or banjo...or possibly fife? This also brings about the idea of "interchangeability" in this early music. Early banjo players must have read fiddle scores directly.
By the way, "Grape Vine Twist" from Ryan's might be fun to compare (page 117) with fiddle and banjo interpretations . This is not the traditional banjo version.
Chuck Krepley said:
Gumbo Chaff's Ethiopian Glee Book is a great place to start looking at harmonizations.

I have that glee book, if somebody wants to see how some tune that's in the Nathan book is (chorally) harmonized in it. I have no idea what's in the Nathan book, but I posted the Index page of the Ethiopian Glee Book on the Gumbo Chaff thread here, March 10. I think there may have been smaller variant editions of it; don't know if there were also larger ones.

Some of the older fiddle tutors were published for two fiddles, I have at least one like that. So there's harmony in those, it's just not very full. I've heard rumors that the second fiddle part used to be important, but not many fiddlers in the last century or so have wanted to learn it -- thereby relegating themselves to a sort of "Second Fiddle" role. The Tonto of fiddlers. I don't know what truth, if any, underlies such rumors.

Dick Hulan
Nathan includes 14 of the 48 tunes from Emmett's manuscript. All are fiddle/banjo jigs in 2/4 meter, and none are harmonized. Twleve of them are identical to the Emmett manuscript arrangements, including weird little technique markings of unknown meaning such as what appears to be a lower case "t" above the staff. (I think this is where de banjo player would stop to "t"ighten his banjo head!) The other two tunes come from published sources; both Boston, c. 1845. The published tunes differ from the manuscript tunes in very small ways, such as a triplet added or lost here or a rest changed there. Anyway, Hans Nathan's book is a great place to get a flavor for Emmett's manuscript until Bob Winans publishes his book. The tunes in Nathan taken directly from the manuscript are appropriately marked "(manuscript)"

For the "Score for an Early Minstrel Band" for "Twill Nebber Do to Gib It Up So," Nathan says he created the piece from piano sheet music, c. 1843. He gives the fiddle the melody. The banjo part "has been reconstructed in the style of accompaniments as published in banjo methods, such as Phil. Rice's ... 1858. Measures nine through sixteen have been borrowed from a version of the tune in in Frank B. Converse ... 1865. Both books represent an earlier practice." "The parts of the tambourine and bones are mere skeletons ..." There! All we had to do was ask Hans where it came from! It's probably been a while since many of us have read that book.

Tim Twiss said:
Chuck, does anything really differ from the Hans Nathan Book? Re: arrangements from that book, isn't "Nebber Do To Gib It Up So" the only piece actually arranged for the book? (the Minstrel ensemble). If you have copies of the manuscript, on those non-vocal tunes, is there ever an indication of it being for fiddle or banjo...or possibly fife? This also brings about the idea of "interchangeability" in this early music. Early banjo players must have read fiddle scores directly.
By the way, "Grape Vine Twist" from Ryan's might be fun to compare (page 117) with fiddle and banjo interpretations . This is not the traditional banjo version.
Dick - All of the vocal tunes in Nathan have appear to be taken from the original piano sheet music. Unfortunately there don't seem to be any useable vocal harmonies. The notes below the melody are typical piano stuff - broken chords, arpeggios, bass note with chord, etc. They don't appear to be singable unless you're an operatic gymnast who sings in arpeggios and chord interval leaps. That takes us back to the Ethiopian Glee book as a good source for harmonies.

I have an London-published Christy's Minstrels songbook in front of me. There is no publication date as is typical of the English stuff, but the owner's name is written on the front piece with the hand written note, "Quebec, 1862." It contains some vocal harmonies along with the vocal lines and piano staves. I'd bet some of the original sheet music of the period has harmonies, too. I'll have to dig into my minstrel box when I have time. So much to do, and so little time!

razyn said:
Chuck Krepley said:
Gumbo Chaff's Ethiopian Glee Book is a great place to start looking at harmonizations.

I have that glee book, if somebody wants to see how some tune that's in the Nathan book is (chorally) harmonized in it. I have no idea what's in the Nathan book, but I posted the Index page of the Ethiopian Glee Book on the Gumbo Chaff thread here, March 10. I think there may have been smaller variant editions of it; don't know if there were also larger ones.

Some of the older fiddle tutors were published for two fiddles, I have at least one like that. So there's harmony in those, it's just not very full. I've heard rumors that the second fiddle part used to be important, but not many fiddlers in the last century or so have wanted to learn it -- thereby relegating themselves to a sort of "Second Fiddle" role. The Tonto of fiddlers. I don't know what truth, if any, underlies such rumors.

Dick Hulan
There is no indication of what instrument the Emmett manuscript is written for. It's just straight melody. There are no characteristically banjoistic things that I can see (I do play banjo too), such as obvious 1st string - 5th string patterns a la Briggs "Old Dan Tucker." If Emmett played these tunes on banjo he was certainly a melody man and not a "Dan Tucker" thumper. Regarding fife, I have a copy of Emmett's fife book somewhere. I guess I need to find that to make some comparisons. (Some of my music has gone "underground" since I moved last November. I wonder which box it's in!) Anyway, all of the tunes lie in the two-and-a-third octave, first-position fiddle range from G on the bottom to B on the top. Which means they are also playable on the banjo.
(There is one high-C in the Eelam Moore Jig, which is in Hans Nathan's book. This is easily reachable for a 1st position fiddler with a pinky stretch.) There are also several tunes written in the keys of F, Bb, Am and what appears to be A modal, and possibly a Bm tune.

So what do some of you banjoists think about the Emmett manuscript? (Are you listening, Greg Adams?) Is it written for the fiddle, banjo, or fife?

Tim Twiss said:
Chuck, does anything really differ from the Hans Nathan Book? Re: arrangements from that book, isn't "Nebber Do To Gib It Up So" the only piece actually arranged for the book? (the Minstrel ensemble). If you have copies of the manuscript, on those non-vocal tunes, is there ever an indication of it being for fiddle or banjo...or possibly fife? This also brings about the idea of "interchangeability" in this early music. Early banjo players must have read fiddle scores directly.
By the way, "Grape Vine Twist" from Ryan's might be fun to compare (page 117) with fiddle and banjo interpretations . This is not the traditional banjo version.

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