Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

This is a busy time for me and my fiddler friend Norm Boggs.  We just had three public performances in four days at historic sites in North Carolina.  The engagement last night was one we will always treasure.  We were privileged to give  a presentation to  an organization called the Raleigh Civil War Round Table, a group of Civil War enthusiasts and historians, inside the old North Carolina State House chamber, in the state capital building.  We performed from the dais while the members occupied the chamber seats.  The setting and acoustics were ideal, as was the audience.  We will always remember that particular performance, as our hobby provided us with this once in a lifetime experience.

     However wonderful those conditions were, the weather here has been anything but wonderful.  It has been constantly raining now for several days.  As a result, the heads on all of my period instruments are their usual soggy selves. Because all my minstrel banjos are period pieces that I have restored, I have a longstanding policy to use real skin heads rather than a synthetic material.  I think that aside from the historical accuracy, I also put so much of my own time and  industry into these that I wanted them to sound as much like the original as was humanly possible.  For the same reason I string them all with gut.  Also, I just really do think they sound better.

   Because of my heretofore inflexible policy on this matter, and mostly because I live in such a humid place, my instruments have tended to, at times let us say, underperform. In anticipation of the crummy weather which always seems to come at the worst possible time, I made an executive decision to bite the bullet and fit one of my period banjos with a Fiberskyn head.  Even though it took a day and a half to accomplish (I recently retired and my time is my own now), the result was well worth it.  I sailed through the monsoon conditions of the past several days with no problem whatsoever.

   I've only made the switch for the one banjo, and I don't intend to change any others.  If I lived in the Southwest or some place where it's dry most of the time, or if I Just collected banjos to look at them, I'd leave them all with skin heads, as I do prefer the original sound.   But for any of you, who, like me, have to perform for an audience of more than one and live in a humid climate, my new advice after all these years is to bend a little and try a synthetic head.--Rob Morrison

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Rob, as someone living in Chapel Hill. NC, I can sympathize with the effects of weather on skin banjo heads.  As for authenticity, my take (and this is just the personal opinion of a non-expert) is that, depending on the goal of the performance, either playing the flabby skin head or the tighter Fiberskyn might be appropriate.  Certainly, if the goal is primarily to give people a taste of the music of the war era at its best, then a loose, damp head seems like it would detract from achieving that outcome.  On the other hand, if the goal is to point out what musicians of the era had to contend with, then the looser head would serve that purpose.  Imagining myself in the audience, I might enjoy hearing both, with the point made that the tight head gives a better sense of how the music ideally would sound but that the natural head is what people would have actually used then, with all of its inherent shortcomings when the weather is damp.  That way, as an audience member, I could appreciate both the music and the hardship of the historical period without either stepping on the other's toes, so to speak. 

Rob! Glad you are back on! You have much to offer this site. Nice to bump shoulders at Duke Homestead and Stagville.

Bob--In  the performance last night I actually did bring a banjo with a less than crisp skin head and the newly fitted one with the synthetic head and demonstrated the difference. At times it is virtually impossible to play the skin head at all, as  those of us who attend the Antietam gathering can attest.  Glad to hear there's somebody else from  Chapel Hill in the mix.--Rob Morrison
 
Bob DeVellis said:

Rob, as someone living in Chapel Hill. NC, I can sympathize with the effects of weather on skin banjo heads.  As for authenticity, my take (and this is just the personal opinion of a non-expert) is that, depending on the goal of the performance, either playing the flabby skin head or the tighter Fiberskyn might be appropriate.  Certainly, if the goal is primarily to give people a taste of the music of the war era at its best, then a loose, damp head seems like it would detract from achieving that outcome.  On the other hand, if the goal is to point out what musicians of the era had to contend with, then the looser head would serve that purpose.  Imagining myself in the audience, I might enjoy hearing both, with the point made that the tight head gives a better sense of how the music ideally would sound but that the natural head is what people would have actually used then, with all of its inherent shortcomings when the weather is damp.  That way, as an audience member, I could appreciate both the music and the hardship of the historical period without either stepping on the other's toes, so to speak. 

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