Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

I'm sometimes in wonder as to why I have never heard the song, or even the tune, itself, of "Jump Jim Crow" or "Jim Crow" played among minstrel banjoists.....especially since most sources seem to point to it as the genesis for the minstrel genre  I don't find the tune in any of the four early tune books (Briiggs, Rice, Buckley, or Converse) unless it is under a different title.  Same goes for "Back Side of Albany".  Both are contained in "Howe's1,000 Jigs and Reels", along with a lot of other minstrel tunes, in the section, "Ethiopian Melodies".

"Jump Jim Crow" can be found in the Lester Levy Collection with 44 verses.  Though the melody is memorable, it does not seem to roll off the banjo easily.  It is not particularly difficult, but has a certain oddity about it, (at least they way I have worked it out) the first part being in 'G' and 'C' and the second part being in 'C' and 'F'.  

Perhaps my perception is all wrong and I simply have not "been around" long enough. 

Might others offer their insights? 

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If you send me your email address, Carl, I will send you the TAB of what I do for the tune, though I would really like to see Greg's TAB.  I first learned it on the fiddle and thought it was memorable, before I even knew of its history.  It doesn't work that well on banjo.  In fact, that's what made me wonder how it started in the minstrel show.  Did Rice not dance/sing it to the banjo or fiddle, initially?  The way I tried learning the tune, is rather awkward because the B part goes into 'C' and 'F' and with the highlighted open thumb string (in the B part) it might be better to hit one of the notes in the chord, instead.  Somehow, I think the last measure of the B part (the 'G' and 'C' chords) is what makes the song/tune.

Do I perform Jump Jim Crow? Never. To perform the dance would be nothing but insensitive to both African Americans and the physically impared. Musically I just find the thing dull.  I also consider Coal Black Rose as the beginning point of minstrel music, and here is why.


Jump Jim Crow was popularized due to the dancing, mimicry,  and improvisational talents of Thomas Rice.  The many different verses came about  because he constantly adapted his performace to his audience.  


The melody of Coal Black Rose contains elements of "Juba" as recorded in later banjo instructors.  Musically it has a strong similarity to early African American music.  I've never seen any reference to anyone else successfully carrying off Jump Jim Crow other than Thomas Rice.


 In contrast, it has been suggested that the melody of Jump Jim Crow has its roots in English popular music, rather than being of American origin.


I have seen comments that African Americans of the time sang and enjoyed Coal Black Rose.  At the time, I don't think the song was considered to be particlarly racist, it was a comic song, and if you take the black references out of the song, it is still funny. 


When looking at comic music of later minstrel shows, you will find that it is much more aligned with Coal Black Rose than with Jump Jim Crow.


What I've read about "Jump Jim Crow" is that it popularized blackface performance, not necessarily the minstrel genre per se. American minstrel music incorporated blackface for many reasons, but one reason was its apparent popularity that traced back to T.D. Rice and "Jump Jim Crow." And as others have pointed out, Rice was famous more for his histrionics than any real musicality (also according to what I've read, which isn't exhaustive). I've also never seen a real association between Rice and the banjo. So the song's tie to American minstrel music seems to be mostly blackface, which, as we all know, remains one of the most offensive entertainment genres to ever originate from this country. In any case, "Jump Jim Crow" doesn't seem to really fit the minstrel genre completely. So perhaps John's suggestion of "Coal Black Rose" as the origin of minstrel music fits better.

Converse, in his Reminiscences, first looks to Sweeney As "Father of Minstrelsy" but acknowledges Daddy Rice as the first to black up his face. And he makes mention of Jim Sanford on the banjo as early as 1833 "travelling and playing solos". It may be as difficult to pinpoint a beginning for this as it would be evolving Country and R & B Styles to the beginning of Rock and Roll.   

Then, of course, you have that famous date in 1843 when the Virginia Minstrels started the "Minstrel craze"...


I heard Joe Ayers perform the piece back in august and I remember he sang some verses dealing with the comical aspects of how the white man appeared the the black man. The crowd (all white, I might add) loved it and laughed heartily!

Silas Tackitt said:

I hear a jingle in my head that a radio station played many times over : "Hits with a beat get a rapid repeat." 

I have tried several times to tab Jump Jim Crow from different original songsheets at various keys.  I have never liked the way it played.  Cannot get the melody down.  I cannot get the beat even when trying to mouth the words.  I toss my tabulations into a file with a promise to come back later.  Done that a couple times. 

I'm sure part of the problem is that I am more of an audio learner than a book learner.  I haven't heard anyone play Jim Crow.  I would very much appreciate Tim recording Jim Crow from one of the original songsheets and without any Briggs, Rice or Converse embellishments.

I had the same problem with Gumbo Chaff.  After Tim recorded it, I wondered why I even bothered trying to learn learn Gumbo Chaff.  The melody just doesn't do it for me.  Maybe I'll feel different about that one someday and try again. 

I think it's the nature of Jim Crow's melody rather than the lyrics which caused the song to fade from the usual repertoire.  The song was the hit of hits for a couple decades, but by the 1850's it's be replaced by other songs with equally bad or worse racial undertones.  If it was still popular at the height of the minstrel craze, it would have been included in Briggs, Rice or Converse.  It's exclusion shows it had lost its luster. 

Re: "Jump Jim Crow."

Despite the negative conotations surrounding the song title, I have never had a problem performing this piece.  The words in Cece Conway's book "Appalachian Echoes," are a bit comical, but not particularly horrendous.   I also was priveleged to hear Joe Ayers rendition of the piece with words mocking white people, and it was very funny.  As far as playing the melody goes, I know two basic ways to play it which are actually quite different.  One is a catchy fiddle tune I learned from a blind fiddler and the other is from Bob Flesher's instructional book.  For minstrel banjo perfrmance I prefer the Flesher version because I find performing it the kinesthetic  equivalent of a tongue twister.  In the context  of public performance, rather than finding the tune an embarrassment, I find it a good opportunity to provide a little history lesson for the audience, since that's what I'm there to do in the first place.


I'd be interested in knowing what key is used by those who play 'Jump Jim Crow'....as it doesn't really roll off the banjo easily.  I learned to play it in G, which means the 'B' part is in C and F.  What about others?

I did score the song up for my own use once upon a time.  I've attached the score I did.  It is in D. 




The version I play on my minstrel banjo is in minstrel G tuning or low bass.  It's actually called "jim Crow Jig" and has three parts.  The melody and cadence are rather disjointed and it sounds appropriate for the eccentric dancing typical of the minstrel era.  Bob Flesher dates it from the late 1830's or early 1840's.  It's taken from James Buckley's New Banjo Book.--Rob Morrison
Al Smitley said:

I'd be interested in knowing what key is used by those who play 'Jump Jim Crow'....as it doesn't really roll off the banjo easily.  I learned to play it in G, which means the 'B' part is in C and F.  What about others?

Hey...let's write some arrangements based on the sheet music....cool project.

Back in a while....



Hans Nathan in his book does a really good job of describing the development of some of the very early Minstrel tunes (1820's and 1830's) as they relate to existing English, Irish, and Scottish melodies. He suggests that in the 1840's, the genre took hold and began to really be molded into an original form.

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