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:

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.

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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