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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There are a number of "coulda beens" ....Gumbo Chaff, Coal Black Rose, Long Tail Blue....no reason we can't go back and treat them as such. Some editor had to pick what was going in, and most likely reflected current popular tunes, or some in recent memory. These tunes (Jim Crow included) were like 20 + years before Briggs'.

For the first time, (after sending my question) I took the time to go back and review all of the topics of discussion on this site.  I saw that the topic of "Jump Jim Crow" has come up before, so I apologize for my redundant inquiry.

However, I still wonder why "Jump Jim Crow" (and others which Tim cited) seems to be absent from most of our repertoires. 

Could their absence in our current music communities relate to reservations in how to also represent the song's underlying (or blatant) association with racial categories/racism (past vs present)? I know it's given me pause in my own performance of these pieces.

Yes, that could be.....and for good reason, although with 44 verses, one could surely find enough to avoid the discomfort, although, perhaps the chorus, alone, should give pause as I have read recently that the term "Jim Crow", in itself, is derogatory.   On the "America Singing: Nineteenth-Century Song Sheets" site, you can find one entitled, "New Jim Crow, About Darkies and the War".  Many of the verses illustrate the absurdity of the many southern justifications for the institution of slavery.   The chorus is the same as the original, but it could be a good one for some presentations in which context is included. 

I think, also, that "Jump Jim Crow" and "Back Side of Albany" have good enough melodies to be played without verses, if they make us too uncomfortable.  We all play a lot of selections like that.

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. 

I have redone several of these old ones in banjo style, as well as putting up the arrangements. Either they totally sucked, or nobody noticed / cared..or both. 

Just because people don't applaud doesn't mean we're not noticing.  For example, I have been learning Philisee Charcoal.  Pretty simple tune.  A little too repetative for me, but I like the melody.  Great lyrics, too. 

I was excited when I saw Gumbo Chaff - until I heard it.  What a let down that was.  The fault was in the tune, not in the player. 

In the case of Jump Jim Crow, remember that is was not necessarily a banjo tune-- it was a tune popularized by a stage actor with lots of dancing and topical comedy.  There are lots of elements to minstrel entertainment, and many of them not banjo-oriented.


BTW, I heard Greg play Jump Jim Crow instrumentally at an AEBG a few years ago, and it sounded pretty darn good.  I'd like to have a tab of your version, Greg. 

With great respect, might I opine that that could apply to virtually every song in the minstrel book?  And if the underlying racism isn't blatant, then it's "stealthy," which is potentially just as bad?  


There are certainly some songs that are un-doable because of uncomfortable lyrics.  Try singing Alabama Joe without the n-word-- it can't be done.  Same for Gettin' Up Stairs, although we're going to try that one here soon.  I guess I just never included Jump Jim Crow and Gumbo Chaff into the "so embarrassing it's un-doable" category.  Singing basically racist songs is something we just have to deal with in this strange little genre. 

Greg Adams said:

Could their absence in our current music communities relate to reservations in how to also represent the song's underlying (or blatant) association with racial categories/racism (past vs present)? I know it's given me pause in my own performance of these pieces.

If the story of how Jump Jim Crow came about is at all true, it is the smoking gun for what is the worst part of all of this...not even thinking there was something wrong with this kind of humiliation. Makes me pretty much want to avoid that one anyway...even instrumentally.

Not every song has to be sung.  Unfortunately, not all instrumentals stand well on their own due to the repetative nature of a song.  Lyrics really help those repetative songs.  Philisee Charcoal, Coal Black Rose being a couple examples.  

Playing a repetative song instrumentally then following it with a second repetative instrumental would help. 

You have described most of the Briggs' Book...less the Jigs, Reels, and other dance titles.  

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