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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Hi Tom, by “harmonica” do you mean a ten hole “Richter” (now called diatonic) harmonica like a Marine Band model?  If so then I can write with confidence that it is unlikely that any soldier in the ACW would have even known what one was.  There is evidence that there might not have even been one in North America until just post war.  

I am not sure where the false history came from that placed harmonics in the pockets of ACW soldiers but most fingers point to the Hohner Company and their “department of propaganda” (seriously).  At some point in the 20th century they began to paint this nice story of newly freed slaves picking up discarded harmonicas from battlefields and playing the blues.  It was all fake.

Sadly it has been told and retold as fact.  Movies, books, and reenactors all now believe that harmonicas were common during the ACW despite that there is no primary documentation to support it.  This is one area where people are quick to ignore the lack of evidence.

 The popularity of the harmonica in the US can be traced back to one man, Joseph K. Emmett.  Emmett created a “Tyrolean” character in the 1870s named “Fritz.”  He used Fritz in plays and on stage and the act was an instant success.  Fritz would get into all sorts of “fish out of water” gags in his lederhosen and “Tyrolean” hick routine.  He sang songs and played a mouth blown miniature version of the German accordion (Richter harmonicas are designed to, and sound just like German accordions when played as intended).  His two big hits were “Emmett’s Lullaby” and “Sweet Violets.”

 There is a lot of stuff about Emmett on the web and is worth a google.

There were even signature models of harmonicas sold with his name stamped on the covers.

 You can hear a early recording of one of his hits here (not sung by him).  You will recognize the chorus.

http://www.loc.gov/jukebox/recordings/detail/id/537

By the 1880s harmonicas became common and by the late 1890s they were super popular getting lots of real estate in catalogs.

 

As far as Minstrelsy—the harmonica never once gets mentioned.  Emmett’s act of “Fritz” was a similar type of entertainment using the vehicle of a generic “Tyrolean” in place of the southern slave.  So that is sort of like a minstrel show.

 By the 1870s the Minstrel show begins to use pit orchestras to play most of the music.  They would feature soloists on instruments (like banjo) with orchestra accompaniment.  There were still plenty of smaller acts using the older instrument combinations.  I cannot remember finding a reference to the harmonica in minstrelsy and it would have been something I would have noticed.

 As minstrelsy transitioned into vaudeville one might have seen them.  There seems to have been a musician’s union strike at some point in the late 1920s that created a huge demand for them (as they were not “instruments” the players were not union members) and also started the orchestras that we now think of with “Peg O My Heart” and Borrah Minevich.  I am going from memory for this and I may be off by a decade.

In summary, there were few if any harmonicas used during the ACW.

I was able to locate the only early (and useful) harmonica instruction book that was published before the 20th century.  As with most documents I get, I posted a scan of it on the Internet Archive.  Emmett is mentioned in the intro as well as it includes some of his tunes (I was blown away when I first saw that as I had already concluded that the popularity began with him.

Book here...

https://archive.org/details/RyansTrueHarmonicaInstructor

It is a good instruction book and even teaches to read in other keys without changing the harmonica.  As there was no music printed for harmonica the book is really teaching how to read vocal parts and vamp chord with tongue blocking.  I was surprised when I worked through it how good it was.  I've let my harmonica playing go as I now focus on banjo but at one time I could play a number of the pieces published in this book.

Thanks for the links Joel. Very interesting.

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