Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

This is a follow up on Curtis' comment in the chat room. We are both interested in learning if harmonicas were used by minstrel performers. I took some to the Sweeny event last year and played them during jam sessions in the evening, but not in front of the public. I know they were around during the Civil War and a lot of soldiers on both sides carried them because they were small and easy to carry. I am working on some tunes for the event in September this year.

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Hmm.  I know I've seen seen that before and it never registered.

Not to worry Tom, I don't consider it picking on me.   My only interest is to not present a false impression when I do living history events.   What I will assert is that I see a big difference in claiming I play minstrel music and minstrel style music.  In my way of looking at it, by qualifying Minstrel as a style of music, I am not claiming to be playing actual period minstrel.   I also don't do blackface, which if you are really playing minstrel music and not minstrel style music, would that not also confuse everyone?   Am I correct that minstrel music was always done in blackface?    I find everyone in this discussion having very interesting points of view.  Thanks for taking the time to respond Tom Berghan and everyone else as well.  This community is a blessing for those of us attempting to understand that period of time better, thanks once again for all your efforts everyone. 

Curtis writes: "I play minstrel style but in the camp life of a soldier . . . "  There is that term "Minstrel" again . . . and we, on this forum, get tripped up a lot by that term that we have created (the collective "we").  I am not picking on you Curtis, I am speaking to the general forum.  If one of us says "I play early banjo minstrel style," most of us would infer that to mean stroke style . . . but to be technically correct, it could also include "guitar-style."  And if one of us says "I play Minstrel Music" then most of us might well think of an actual mid 19th century Minstrel Show, which, in all likelihood would not have included guitars or mouth organs.  It would be out of the norm as real mid century minstrel performers presented themselves as providing an Authentic "Ethiopian" Recreation (in the jargon of the day).  (Which of course they were not, but so what)  But, if one of us says "I play American popular music from the mid 19th century and I perform in Civil War reenactments," then that is entirely different, and a much broader range of instrumentation is appropriate. Example: A Minstrel Show performance of Oh! Susanna would appropriately be accompanied with early banjo and percussion such as bones and jawbone ... and, to a mid 19th century audience, that would pass muster as an authentic Ethiopian performance (so they would think).  But "Oh Susanna" played by a group of amateurs from the mid 19th century ... just for their own enjoyment and entertainment ... that ensemble could have any available instrument that was available during the period, and then it is simply amateurs enjoying a popular song (as might have occurred in a Civil War camp) . . . it is not a Minstrel Show.  In short, we are the cause of this confusion. I guess we are stuck with it now ... but in general I am personally dropping the term.  It is too problematic.

I have begun telling folks who ask me what instrument I am playing that it is a reproduction of an early banjo of the type commonly seen during the mid-19th century. I guess I will keep practicing on my harps as well. This discussion thread has been great. Thanks to all who dug out all this information.

Tom,

I've been lobbying from the beginning for the use of "early banjo style" and never use "minstrel banjo" myself.  The style itself far predates the popular form of northern, urban, theatrical entertainment now called the "Minstrel Show" that emerged in the early 1840's.  One of the reasons I call my website "Early Banjo Traditions" is to entertain a more inclusive musical paradigm.

Hi Curtis, From your description, what you are doing sounds really perfect to me. However, slight twist ... since you a reenactor, consider that a banjoist in a camp (on either side), say in 1863, would probably NOT have called it Minstrel Music, and certainly would not have called it a Minstrel Banjo. You'd just be a guy who knew some good songs that were popular with the boys and some good tunes that most everyone had grown up with and you'd just call it a banjo! So ... it might be more accurate to just say that you are playing music that was really popular in America leading up to, and during the Civil War on that extremely popular "American instrument," the Banjo! You don't know anything about SS Stewart, or Bacon & Day, or Gibson banjos, you don't know anything about Uncle Dave Macon or Earl Scruggs. None it exists yet ... not for you!
Tom T. and Mark W. - I totally agree with you guys - I'm pickin' up what yer puttin' down!

By 1863 the 5 string banjo as we currently know it would have been exclusively associated with minstrelsy.  I will quietly disagree with calling it "early banjo" as all the "recorded" music that we can document that was written for or is directly associated with the 5 string banjo as we know it was put on paper by musicians who's occupation was playing banjo in minstrel shows.

Tom Briggs (by way of young Frank Converse's hand)-- Minstrel

Phil Rice (also likely by the hand of FBC) -- Minstrel

Frank Converse-- Minstrel

Buckley (various)-- minstrels

Dobsons-- made their names with cork on

etc., etc.


Tom Berghan said:

Hi Curtis, From your description, what you are doing sounds really perfect to me. However, slight twist ... since you a reenactor, consider that a banjoist in a camp (on either side), say in 1863, would probably NOT have called it Minstrel Music, and certainly would not have called it a Minstrel Banjo. You'd just be a guy who knew some good songs that were popular with the boys and some good tunes that most everyone had grown up with and you'd just call it a banjo! So ... it might be more accurate to just say that you are playing music that was really popular in America leading up to, and during the Civil War on that extremely popular "American instrument," the Banjo! You don't know anything about SS Stewart, or Bacon & Day, or Gibson banjos, you don't know anything about Uncle Dave Macon or Earl Scruggs. None it exists yet ... not for you!

This is a great lead!  Chris Bathman made a name for himself claiming that he played with Jenny Lind's show in Europe.  He was discovered by P.T. Barnum.

A quick google search found some good information...

Here is a nice article in the Music Trade Review about him.  Worth reading.

http://mtr.arcade-museum.com/MTR-1911-53-18/MTR-1911-53-18-112.pdf

Checking his claims, the dates seem to add up.  He is also listed on the roster of the 44th New York as serving.

I did not go so far as to check his association with Matt Peel but he claimed to play in minstrel groups early on, at least as a solo act.  He also claimed to have played in the war.  He is not listed in Monarchs of Minstrelsy.

So, the question still remains, what was he playing?  He certainly was not playing in "cross harp" as there is consensus as to when that first started being done and it was after his lifetime.

Also, what did his "mouth organ" look like exactly?  There are no confirmed and documented examples of harmonicas from that time-- so what were they playing?  That is a big piece of the puzzle missing.

This also could be a case of forcing our self interest to conform to historical justification.  A big example of this is the mandolin.  There is no doubt in my mind that anyone serving in the ACW knowing what one was would have been extremely rare.  The mandolin's popularity in the US is extremely well documented and can be traced back to one touring group called "The Spanish Students."  Even though there little if any chance that a mandolin would have been in the ACW, they are still used by reenactors.

As far as the instrument.  There are many extant banjos that date to the ACW and before, where are all the harmonicas?

Wes Merchant said:

Here are a couple of clippings from the 1860's you might find interesting, Chicago tribune., November 27, 1865


Perhaps they are all hanging out at a music party somewhere with all the extant gourd banjo's that have been found in the U.S.?

Joel Hooks said:


As far as the instrument.  There are many extant banjos that date to the ACW and before, where are all the harmonicas?

Joel asked where all the pre Civil War mouth organs were. Oh ... pick me, pick me! I can answer this! They are in The National Music Museum, which is located at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion.

Triangle!   Now officially acceptable for minstrel show genre!     =8-D

I myself find that people these days often think of 'renaissance type wandering minstrels' i.e. lute playing gentle balladeers in tights... when they hear the description "minstrel".  I usually just say I'm playing American popular and banjo music from the mid to late 1800s.  they always seem to 'get' that.

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