Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

John Masciale has posted one tune from this collection, learned from a recording; but the collection itself has yet to be discussed here. I was thinking about it during our discussion of potential "18th century" banjo music sources -- particularly when I brought up Sy Gilliat, subject of the painting (at Richmond's Valentine Museum), The Banjo Player. What would he have played, on either a banjo or a violin?

That thread ended up being more about Riley's flute songs, not in itself an 18th century document, but of course containing a lot of material at least that old. Recalling the publication in which Knauff was brought to the attention of a broader community interested in Virginia culture (past and present), I dug it up, and have gotten the author's permission to post a few paragraphs here. This is from Alan Jabbour, "Folk Music," Arts in Virginia 12:1 (Fall, 1971), p. 19:
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Aside from scattered allusions in travel journals, local publications, and a few interesting manuscript sources, there is not much documentary evidence with which to piece together the fabric of secular folk music in early Virginia. The urban centers of the North had flourishing popular presses, but secular folk music in the South seldom found its way into print before the mid-nineteenth century. One fascinating publication, however, offers a glimpse into traditional dance music in Southside Virginia. In 1832 George P. Knauff appeared in Farmville, married a local girl (who perhaps attracted him to the town in the first place), and established a "Music and Fancy Store" which, among other things, sold locally manufactured pianos. Knauff advertised in the Richmond Enquirer that his piano manufactory in Farmville produced instruments of high quality at the lower price made possible by cheaper labor in the South.
In 1839 Knauff published a little collection called Virginia Reels through Geo. Willig, Jr., the Baltimore music publisher. The collection consists for the most part of traditional fiddle tunes transcribed for piano and presumably intended for young ladies in Southside Virginia to use in their piano practice. Over half the tunes have turned up in the repertory of twentieth-century Virginia fiddlers, and the publication serves to demonstrate that the same tunes were being played at local dances in the early nineteenth century.

Knauff's Virginia Reels are redolent of early America; they include a number of tunes which originated in Great Britain, but the titles show them already comfortably ensconced in an American setting. Peter Francisco celebrates a Virginia Revolutionary hero of mysterious origins, mythic proportions, and titanic strength, while 22nd of February (Washington's birthday) and Colonel Crocket lend a more immediate political flavor. Natchez on the Hill, Mississippi Sawyer, Ohio River, and perhaps Forked Deer (a river in Tennessee) reflect the impact of river travel on the popular imagination, just as trains, cars, and planes caught the fancy of later generations. Sich a Gittin Up Stars, Lady of the Lake, and The Two Sisters evoke old popular dances. The collection is altogether a rich and valuable document of traditional dance music in early Virginia.

A fascinating added attraction of Knauff's publication is the small shaft of light it throws upon the origins of the music played on the nineteenth-century minstrel stage. Historians of the minstrel stage have generally concluded that the minstrels developed their art by a combination of adapting Negro music and musical styles to the exigencies of popular entertainment and composing new songs in the pseudo-Negro style which had emerged by the 1840s. Virginia contributed considerably to the minstrel vogue of the 1840s and after: aside from the sentimental or farcical focus of so many songs upon "Old Virginny," a number of famous blackface minstrels hailed from the Old Dominion. But Knauff's 1839 printing of Ohio River and Midnight Serenade, later known as Boatman's Dance and Buffalo Gals, proves that two songs heretofore thought to be minstrel compositions of the 1840s were actually in traditional circulation among white Southerners well before their vogue among the minstrel entertainers. This and other evidence suggests that white as well as Negro folk music made an important imprint upon the minstrel stage of the nineteenth century. The minstrel stage in turn, it may be said in passing, had more than a little impact upon later norms in American popular music, from vaudeville to jazz to Nashville and beyond.
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That's from 1971, remember -- so if the references to scholarship on the minstrel stage are a little out of date, it's to be expected. A much fuller discussion of the Knauff series of Virginia Reels may be found in Chris Goertzen and Alan Jabbour, "George P. Knauff's Virginia Reels and Fiddling in the Antebellum South," American Music 5: 2 (Summer 1987), 121-44. This article is available in many libraries, and may be ordered via JSTOR. The reels themselves may be examined online, at least in the Levy Collection and at the Library of Congress' American Memory site; perhaps elsewhere. They were issued in several numbers -- and a different number contains a different group of tunes -- so one might profit by looking at more than one site.

Dick Hulan

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Dick,

I'm looking at a print out of "Billy in the Lowground" from Knauf's Virginia reels that I got online from the Library of Congress. It looks like a piano score to me-it has three sharps and a bass cleft and a treble cleft. I never was any good at reading notation so I don't know what key that would put it in. I found a copy of Riley's Flute Melodies and will scan and post the music to a bunch of songs with familiar titles. Riley's four volumes cover the time period between 1814 and 1826 so the tunes would necessarily predate or be from that time period.
Brent W Browning said:
Dick,

It looks like a piano score to me... I don't know what key that would put it in.
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Well, as Alan's article said, "The collection consists for the most part of traditional fiddle tunes transcribed for piano and presumably intended for young ladies in Southside Virginia to use in their piano practice." He wasn't marketing to banjo pickers of the future. (No tab, &c.) Also, Knauff manufactured pianos.

It's in the key of A, unless it goes minor at about the third measure (some versions do, haven't looked at this one) -- in which case it's F# minor, for a while. But if you're only playing the melody, that's of "minor" importance anyway.
I really like this collection. The only problem is that it seems that 4 books were published, and I can only find 2, and some extracts from a third.
As evidence that this was "intended for young ladies in Southside Virginia to use in their piano practice," I read somewhere that the reason that "Natchez Under the Hill" (precursor to Old Zip Coon / Turkey in the Straw) is called "Natchez On the Hill" in Knauff is that Natchez under the hill was the part of Natchez right on the Mississippi where the bars and brothels (and banjo players!) could be found, whereas Natchez on the Hill was the respectable part of town up on the hill.

Hey guys and gals--  Long time no see.  Like some of the rest of you, I have a long musical history, and part of it is that I play classical guitar.  I had a gig this past December where my fiddler friend and I were supposed to play Victorian parlor music.  I had plenty of lead time, so my friend, Norm Boggs, suggested I play parlor guitar.  So I practiced every day for four months and got my chops back.  In the course of preparing for the performance, Norm introduced me to Knauff's  1839 Virginia Reels, transcribed from piano to guitar by Joseph Weidlich, the same fellow that did the minstrel banjo books.  I know some of you play guitar and wonder about how to accompany the 19th century music.  Well, this is one way. The transcriptions are of the melody with annotated chords.  It's easy to play both simultaneously.  Many of the tunes are familiar, but are also interesting variations of current interpretations.  If you want to be "authentic," at least melodically, this is one way to go.  The book comes with a CD of all 35 tunes, representing all four volumes of the original publication.  The book is available from Centerstream Publishing.

Greetings Robaire...!   :)

Hey Lisa--Whassup?

Rob,   :)

I didn't know you played classical guitar! 

That Joe W. is a busy fellow, huh.  I'm very glad to have his banjo books.

Aside from the usual oldtime and minstrel mini-sessons at home, I'm also learning to play simple medieval tunes on my Cretan lyra these days.  Bowing is a whole nother universe of challenge, for sure!  But being able to make early music sounds in some way...is worth the pain.    :)

I'm glad to hear you busted your chops to get your chops back on classical guitar- that's a good feeling, isn't it?- to work hard and see real results to show for it.

So tell us how your parlor gig went, anyway...?

Lisa--The parlor tunes (fiddle and guitar)  were worth all the effort.  I played Bach (Jesu Joy of Man's desiring), Tchaikovsy (Dance of the Reed Flutes), a few Spanish tunes, some classical tunes by Carulli, Aguado, and Carcassi , and a lot of 17th, 18th, and 19th century fiddle-guitars duets of traditional Christmas music.  An old Welsh song, All through the night, makes a beautiful fiddle-guitar duet.  We also played three Turlough O'Carolan duets--Sheebeg Sheemore, Beauty in Tears (The Ashgrove  on steroids), and Planxty Irwin.  Our next project is to take on the 1839 Virginia reels.. One discovery I already made is that the first tune in the collection, called Killie Krankie, is practically identical to the version of Money Musk that I put on the website from the 1860 Buckley book.  Hope you're doing well, and thanks for the interest.  I haven't given up the banjo, but I have taken up the bones. 

Rob, please post a video of some of the music you describe.  Though I enjoy the 'minstrel' repertoire, I have also been drawn to the repertoire of the mid-19th C social orchestra, which seems as though it might fall somewhere between the minstrel and classical in style. 

Thanks Al.  I'll put that on my list of stuff to do in the new year.

I second that- make some videos of you playing some of this Rob!

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