Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

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We really don't "know" these things Dan'l. They have been assumed. The pictorial record shows the opposite and photographic "proof" doesn't occur until the very late 40's.
Dan'l said:

Do you think that Hans Nathan actually meant that 4 string banjos were the dominant type in the 1840s ?   After all that's when the Minstrel era first flowered and when we know 5 string banjos were the preferred professional's type.  It also is known that 4 string banjos up to that time, including gourd banjos, were primarily 3 longs and a short string.  Sweeney merely popularized an added bass string, not an added short string.

    BTW although four-course and four-stringed "guitars" were known up to the 1840s the 6 string "Spanish" guitar type was the popular one in the U.S. In the Minstrel era.  There were no 4 string tenor guitars in existence until after the first tenor banjos much later near the turn of the century.

This may have no bearing whatsoever, but that was one of the things I found intriguing about this photo, if you blow it up you can clearly see the 5th string was added almost as an after thought.


Dan'l, actually, there is no evidence that 5 string banjo's were commonly played in the 1840's. But please refer to all my postings about this subject in the past. This horse is dead and I feel silly beating him.

Dan'l said:

Well, there's looking at evidence the way you want to look at evidence* and there's looking at evidence the way you find it....   -- they want it to be so.

Well one could probably say such things about anything one disagrees with.  It's a fancy way of stating the other person is wrong.    ;)

Well ok then, I'm pompous if you say so.    :)

Yes thanks, I'm supremely happy this week actually, but not because of internet stuff. 

What's made you happy, Strumelia?  New banjo?

I would think that the non-minstrel music of the day would be an indication of the instrument it would probably be played on. It seems that most contemporary non-military period music was written for the parlor piano, and the piano has a wide range of possible keys. The guitar was just becoming the instrument we know today as has been discussed in this forum and might not have the availability for wide adoption. The piano was a major market for composers and musicians. What period did the banjo enter the parlor? Were banjos constructed to accompany the piano? We know it is difficult to accompany other instruments with the minstrel tunings without a capo. When did capos become available to the public? The studies that might be done on the music might not prove the yes/no issue, but might be instructive none the less. Whether some handy person built banjos for that parlor market can only be proved by accounts in the written documentations of families, music groups, schools, communities, or other historical records. Even better would be examples those instruments with documentation. As we all know that documentation is only slightly better than non-existant

Joseph's post touches on this aspect.

Another huge factor is... what social groups of people are we talking about when we make generalizations about the popular music of the time?   Are we basing all our conclusions on published instructional books written for a literate middle and upper class market, and on accounts by writers describing the musical practices of classes that they were not actually a part of from a (naturally) slanted viewpoint ?  

Since the poorer classes had little formal representation other than providing musical fodder for mockery and comedic interpretations by the social classes above them, and since there were no audio recordings or films,  --most of what remains for us as 'proof' of what was generally practiced musically during that time are accounts in the form of instructional tutors, newspaper clippings and articles, professional performer show posters and ads, and photos (the photos consisting largely of professional stage performers).

This site/network does indeed have a focus of "minstrel banjo music"- i.e. banjo performance on the minstrel stage.   Yet there is another focus running tandem on this site-  that of "Early banjo"- which may encompass the evolution of the instrument, and its playing by slaves and poor working and isolated rural people- people who were not attending the large touring minstrel theatre shows.  That subject is also welcomed in discussions on this site, and doesn't necessarily have to be forced through the 'minstrel performance filter'.  

There is a danger in assuming that the instructional material and all the minstrel stage performer norms and material give us a complete overview of the popular music of the time.  When we are discussing minstrel stage music and professional minstrel players this is certainly true.  But I feel it's a mistake to not allow that there was likely a large and varied body of music styles, instruments, and cultural repertoire that was additionally practiced during those times amongst other social classes and cultures- throughout the very same time and regions.  That body of material was much less documented, described at the time mostly as amusing curiosity, to be gleaned from and reinterpreted in a patronizing manner for other people's purposes.

It appears to me that these two general historic musical subjects on this site (professional minstrel stage material, techniques, and banjos, ...and less documented music practices, instruments, and cultural repertoire of the poor, slave, and working classes) have much overlap but don't necessarily each separately represent the entirely of what was happening on the banjo in American during the 1800s.  Therein lies the danger in talking about what was played/how it was played "during the minstrel era".  It's good to keep this in mind I think.

Joseph, your posting furthers my confusion about keys and octaves.  I like to explore non-minstrel music of the day, which would include a lot of polkas, schottisches, and waltzes and music for social orchestras published in sheet music, obviously for piano/piano forte.  The keys and octaves are often impossible for me on fiddle or banjo, with notes going far, far above anything in the fifth position.  I once felt an obligation to learn the tunes in the keys/octaves given in the sheet music, but I wonder if it's really an obligation I should adhere to.  I acknowledge that the keys are not as problematic as the octaves, and in those cases, I feel less as though I'm copping out.

Strumella, Thank you. Your post addresses the weakness we have almost or over 200 years later. I suspect no one will ever know many or any of the ways a banjo style instrument was used by the average slave, common worker, local dance musician, etc... Today we have as documented history only the playing styles and instruments that were recorded as a result of certain instruments and musicians becoming popular and therefor receiving press attention. A thesis I read recently discussed the black street community playing the banjo and bones on the street corners of major cities in the east. According to this paper (I'll look for the link and post it later) the novelty of the minstrel banjo was the fact that the white performers were playing that same music or at least a similar repertoire. Even to this day in Washington there are street musicians playing buckets, horns, and other instruments on the street corners, and there are white musicians on other street corners playing the same things. Excuse the digression. The point is that a concept is a concept is a concept. The hide head over a turtle shell (this goes back to ancient Greece), gourd, cheese box, hat box, or any other object, can take any form and tuning the individual builder has the resources and ability to construct. We only know about the codified variations on the theme. Were there three, four, five, or more strings on banjo style instruments? I suspect the variations of style and instruments would boggle the mind and (if we knew) really expand our appreciation of the instrument. It is an instrument that almost anyone can build with a dead possum hide(supper), can be diddled with a little and get a tune, and about all the supplies you need to build it are in the garden, the wood yard, or the kitchen.

Dan'l I do see some of your points, and I don't disagree with some of what you are saying.  I think our viewpoints can depend on how we each approach the subject, and on how we've been previously influenced or educated.

You are correct that the term "complete overview" is not good word smithing- the name for that is redundant.  Sorry, I will try harder.

With regards to keys, the banjoists had no problem changing the keys for their instruments.  Having compiled a book of music for the era I found that there were significant differences between the published piano sheet music and the keys in the banjo instructors.  There was also an additional consideration that we still see today amongst ourselves, which is vocal range.  There have been times when different people here have taken a piece of music and worked it up on the banjo.  Some of us ended up playing in a lower register, and some in a higher.

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