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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I have some questions for experienced minstrel fiddlers regarding these tunes, specifically related to the best key and tuning for tunes. When I'm trying to share the minstrel tunes I've learned with the fiddlers in the groups I play in, it's hard to decide what key to put the tune in.

Scenario: I learn "Alabama Joe." I don't know what key Briggs put it in, but let's say it's written in the key of A: Do I really want to record it for the fiddler in A? Wouldn't it play better in D on the fiddle?

Right now, I have to just get down the fiddle and try to play the tune on it and see if it seems harder to me in D or in A. It might even lay better in G tuning on the fiddle... So it's trial and error. Are there any principles one can follow?

A real example of this happened to me with "Dance, Boatman, Dance." The fiddler couldn't get it right for two years. Then one day for some reason, probably accidental, I played it tuned way low in D. The fiddler found that she could suddenly play it in D tuning. All that time, she was trying to play it in G--following me.

It seems like knowing what the open strings are and somehow relating that to the drone might help, but I'm in my infancy on thinking this issue through.... Has anyone else run across this and come up with a solution or rule of thumb?

My fiddlers have three basic tunings (which I don't have memorized) for G, A, and D. Is there any record of how minstrel fiddlers tuned their fiddles? Did they have A, G, and D tunings (and tunes) like a present-day old-time fiddler or did they have one standard tuning, like a present-day bluegrasser or a violinist?
Couple o' thoughts ... I think you have to think about what key the tune fits best on the banjo, and then the fiddler can follow suit. Some tunes will drop off the bottom end of the banjo's range if you switch from G to D or visa versa, or get too high to play comfortably. I know you virtuosi out there can play way up the neck, but some tunes just won't lay as well on the banjo if you try a major key change. Any decent fiddler should be able to play the usual banjo keys of G, D, A, and E without too much trouble. Basically, I think that if the tune lays well on the banjo and/or the fiddle with a choice of keys, then go with the flow and pick whever one the group likes best. Of course, then there's the singer's best key to consider!

Regarding keys in general, I have (with Greg Adam's assistance) collected a fair number of minstrel era viloin/fiddle tutors. "Alabama Joe," for example, is in the key of Bb (!) in Gumbo Chaff's/Elias Howe's c.1848 "The Ethiopian Violin Instructor (Containing Full and Complete Instructions with all the Popular Negro Melodies of the Day including those of the CHRISTY MINSTRELS.)" "Boatman's Dance" is in G in that book. "Old Dan Tucker" is in D. The same tunes will be found in other books in different keys, so there is no "right key."

Regarding different fiddle tunings, I don't see much if any evidence of that in violin/fiddle books of the period that I'm focusing on (1830s - 1860s). I haven't combed through all of them looking specifically for that, so I'll take another look in the days ahead. Of course, maybe it just wasn't written down in the tutors which might be focusing on a more "standard" style. Still, that's our primary source material just as are the banjo tutors. There's also not much fiddle retuning that goes on in the Irish/Scottish/Brittish Isles fiddle traditon that American fiddling was just beginning to evolve from. That's where my background is (Scottish & Irish), and I play everyting in standard G-D-A-E violin tuning. I know cross tuning is common in "modern" Old Time fiddling, but I don't see it as much in the "ancestor" styles. (A lot less double stopping and droning, too.) Does anybody have more thoughts on fiddle tunings?
Chuck, do you have the ability to record yourself (audio or video) and post in this forum? If so, I would like to choose some tunes from the fiddle repertoire and compare interpretations between banjo and fiddle. It will be interesting to look at tempo, phrasing, articulation, and dynamics. I have a great interest in seeing how the banjo leans into the fiddle style, as much as seeing how the fiddle fits into the Minstrel scene. In your talk at the banjo gathering, you mentioned having the Buckley Fiddle Tutor. I would like to look at a few of those, as well as some from Ryan's. Also, what do you know of Skinner's music for fiddle?
Hear, hear! I would love to hear Chuck's interpretations on fiddle. There is a unique bond between 'em that works so well and I think we can really benefit from hearing these tunes from another perspective.

Oh, and welcome to the forum, Chuck!
Mt. T. - At the moment I don't have a way to record my playing for uploads. I'll work on that, though!

The fiddle/banjo interplay is a great topic! I'll work on uploading some of my parallel settings of transcriptions from the bano and fiddle tutors. Sometimes they mesh well, and sometimes they clash a little. That's usually due to a difference in harmonic structure - meaning different chords are used.

Any specific tunes from Fred Buckley's 1863 fiddle tutor that you'd like to see? I have digital photos of each page and it would be tough to upload without doing each one individually. Lot o' work to do it that way! I attached a photo of the cover and a spreadsheet of the contents to whet your appetite!

Tim Twiss said:
Chuck, do you have the ability to record yourself (audio or video) and post in this forum? If so, I would like to choose some tunes from the fiddle repertoire and compare interpretations between banjo and fiddle. It will be interesting to look at tempo, phrasing, articulation, and dynamics. I have a great interest in seeing how the banjo leans into the fiddle style, as much as seeing how the fiddle fits into the Minstrel scene. In your talk at the banjo gathering, you mentioned having the Buckley Fiddle Tutor. I would like to look at a few of those, as well as some from Ryan's. Also, what do you know of Skinner's music for fiddle?
Attachments:
Chuck,

I have Adobe Acrobat Pro and can convert your photos to a .pdf file w/no problem. Let me know if you want to do that...you would just need to send me the pix or put them out somewhere were I can access them.
BTW, Tim, I don't think I am familiar with Skinner's fiddle music. This isn't Scott Skinner the Scottish fiddler, is it?

A lot of opera stuff in that Buckley's 1863. Just goes to show the popularity of the genre and how easy it would be for that stuff to creep into the minstrel shows as parodies.
Yes, that is the Skinner. There is a great website for him.

Chuck Krepley said:
BTW, Tim, I don't think I am familiar with Skinner's fiddle music. This isn't Scott Skinner the Scottish fiddler, is it?

A lot of opera stuff in that Buckley's 1863. Just goes to show the popularity of the genre and how easy it would be for that stuff to creep into the minstrel shows as parodies.
Images of those tutor pages average about 250K each. There would be 96 of them for Buckley alone. What would be the best way to get them to you without attaching one or two each to a whole bunch of e-mails?

Trapdoor2 said:
Chuck,

I have Adobe Acrobat Pro and can convert your photos to a .pdf file w/no problem. Let me know if you want to do that...you would just need to send me the pix or put them out somewhere were I can access them.
I know him well! Well, not personally, though. What's the website?

Tim Twiss said:
Yes, that is the Skinner. There is a great website for him.

Chuck Krepley said:
BTW, Tim, I don't think I am familiar with Skinner's fiddle music. This isn't Scott Skinner the Scottish fiddler, is it?

A lot of opera stuff in that Buckley's 1863. Just goes to show the popularity of the genre and how easy it would be for that stuff to creep into the minstrel shows as parodies.
http://abdn.ac.uk/scottskinner/index.shtml

Chuck Krepley said:
I know him well! Well, not personally, though. What's the website?

Tim Twiss said:
Yes, that is the Skinner. There is a great website for him.

Chuck Krepley said:
BTW, Tim, I don't think I am familiar with Skinner's fiddle music. This isn't Scott Skinner the Scottish fiddler, is it?

A lot of opera stuff in that Buckley's 1863. Just goes to show the popularity of the genre and how easy it would be for that stuff to creep into the minstrel shows as parodies.
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.

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