Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

 As a folk/blues player of guitar for many years I got into minstrelsy and banjo because of early Hokum blues/medicine show and jug band music- Gus Cannon, Daddy Stovepipe, Uncle Dave Macon etc. I picked up a minstrel banjo because I used to hear gut strung banjos on old records from the 1920's and before quite frequently- did a google search and found this page and fell in love with the music and the beautiful looking and sounding instruments.

 

To cut a long story short I guess Im asking whether people here consider it appropriate or "period" correct to be playing older american folk songs, hokum, very early blues roots etc on these instruments or do you prefer the more certain songs from the books and banjo instructors of the period. I have no doubt that some of the songs I play date back much further than the minstrel era, most back to British and European folk songs much older.

 

I would like to get others opinions on this!

 

Thanks

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Music is a living thing - play what you want on what you want. If 19th century musicians had been hide-bound about not mixing styles this type of Afro-European fusion music and the instruments it has been played on would never have developed in the first place. I think this horse is already way out of the barn...if there ever was a barn. (If there wasn't we probably shouldn't build one now)

That said, I think it's best to actually know and understand the musical traditions an instrument grew out of if only to get the most out the instrument and make it speak to its full potential. I guess it also depends on what you say you're "representing". An excellent can of worms - I'm sure others will have lots of opinions about this too.

Another Old Folksinger
Ian Bell said:
Music is a living thing - play what you want on what you want. If 19th century musicians had been hide-bound about not mixing styles this type of Afro-European fusion music and the instruments it has been played on would never have developed in the first place. I think this horse is already way out of the barn...if there ever was a barn. (If there wasn't we probably shouldn't build one now)

That said, I think it's best to actually know and understand the musical traditions an instrument grew out of if only to get the most out the instrument and make it speak to its full potential. I guess it also depends on what you say you're "representing". An excellent can of worms - I'm sure others will have lots of opinions about this too.

Another Old Folksinger

Thank you- that is pretty much my opinion on it. Minstrel banjo is probably the first kind of music I have ever studied "classically" by that I mean I have never been able to read music, I can just about read guitar tab, and because of the age of this music it became necessary to at least pick up the basics of music. I think I just feel a tad constrained by it all I suppose, it's like boxing it in- play it this way or its not right.

Then there is the whole other issue of whether your average farmer or African American at the time was able to read music? I have heard quite frequently from interviews with blues and folk players from a much later period that they could not even read or write let alone read music- its just something you feel.

Your right its a big can of worms- sorry for being the newbie to open it

:-)
Speaking as one who actually got a PhD in folklore (dumb career move, let me tell you), I'd have to say this battle has been fought way more times than necessary. But it's always a draw, so I suppose somebody will keep finding reasons to fight it again.

Wearing the folklorist garb, I'd say you probably aren't a tradition bearer, particularly when you learn to play some such instrument as the "minstrel" banjo, and pick tunes out of a book by some member of the Lomax family, who also wasn't a tradition bearer. So, if it were still my job to pick talent for the Festival of American Folklife (or some similar venue with at least the pretense of academically respectable standards of authenticity), I wouldn't pick you. I'd pick some old farmer from Lascassas, TN who learned the same tune from his ole grandpappy -- though he probably doesn't play it nearly as well as you do. And his banjo may even have frets, eeew.

Happily for this hobby, there are fewer people left wearing folklorist garb with each passing year, and most "folk" festivals have almost no standards of authenticity, as such. Most of them are quite reasonably concerned with their attendance figures (ticket sales) and other practicalities; and their selection criteria, if any, are aesthetic (not folkloristic) in nature.

On the other hand, the dark shadows of Tom Briggs, Phil Rice, Frank Converse and that crowd loom over our every move. (Especially of the right hand, as Greg kept reminding me last weekend in Harpers Ferry.) The Authentic Campaigner mentality is about as hard on the folk process, such as it is, as were the Ballet Folklorico de Anyplace; the Tamburitzans at Duquesne U.; or the Necheporenko school of balalaika technique.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pavel_Necheporenko

There will always be those who feel that one specific way of doing something (usually, some virtuoso performer's way) is best, and therefore correct. Some of those people end up on the panels that review your grant applications, etc. Don't look for a lot of encouragement of a career as a "folk" performer of the recently resurrected minstrel banjo tradition. But it's kind of fun, it's a niche -- and especially from now until 2005, there should be a lot of gigs for "correct" musicians at CW reenactments: the 150th anniversaries of everything that happened.

If your heart is in reenacting the French and Indian War (Chuck Krepley has suffered from that), or something that happened even longer ago than that -- maybe on the other side of the Atlantic -- this just isn't really the right instrument.
razyn said:
Speaking as one who actually got a PhD in folklore (dumb career move, let me tell you), I'd have to say this battle has been fought way more times than necessary. But it's always a draw, so I suppose somebody will keep finding reasons to fight it again.

Wearing the folklorist garb, I'd say you probably aren't a tradition bearer, particularly when you learn to play some such instrument as the "minstrel" banjo, and pick tunes out of a book by some member of the Lomax family, who also wasn't a tradition bearer. So, if it were still my job to pick talent for the Festival of American Folklife (or some similar venue with at least the pretense of academically respectable standards of authenticity), I wouldn't pick you. I'd pick some old farmer from Lascassas, TN who learned the same tune from his ole grandpappy -- though he probably doesn't play it nearly as well as you do. And his banjo may even have frets, eeew.

Happily for this hobby, there are fewer people left wearing folklorist garb with each passing year, and most "folk" festivals have almost no standards of authenticity, as such. Most of them are quite reasonably concerned with their attendance figures (ticket sales) and other practicalities; and their selection criteria, if any, are aesthetic (not folkloristic) in nature.

On the other hand, the dark shadows of Tom Briggs, Phil Rice, Frank Converse and that crowd loom over our every move. (Especially of the right hand, as Greg kept reminding me last weekend in Harpers Ferry.) The Authentic Campaigner mentality is about as hard on the folk process, such as it is, as were the Ballet Folklorico de Anyplace; the Tamburitzans at Duquesne U.; or the Necheporenko school of balalaika technique.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pavel_Necheporenko

There will always be those who feel that one specific way of doing something (usually, some virtuoso performer's way) is best, and therefore correct. Some of those people end up on the panels that review your grant applications, etc. Don't look for a lot of encouragement of a career as a "folk" performer of the recently resurrected minstrel banjo tradition. But it's kind of fun, it's a niche -- and especially from now until 2005, there should be a lot of gigs for "correct" musicians at CW reenactments: the 150th anniversaries of everything that happened.

If your heart is in reenacting the French and Indian War (Chuck Krepley has suffered from that), or something that happened even longer ago than that -- maybe on the other side of the Atlantic -- this just isn't really the right instrument.

Very interesting point, you have managed to put into words what I have been trying to put into words for a long time thank you. Folk music and folklore is not often learned out of books- its a very oral tradition- good image of the farmer learning from his grandad. For that reason, and because of a MASSIVE money driven music industry folk music of today is not the folk music of the time. Stalemate situation as you said, on one hand the modern folklorist should be applauded for keeping the tradition going and keeping these beautiful songs from dissapearing, on the other hand the modern folklorist learned it out of a book and has never worked a farm in his life. Tricky situation. It's almost like everytime a folk record is released or noted down it is set in stone how the song is to be performed- as evident by the number of folk revivalists and blues musicians today who just copy lick for lick the exact song by some obscure artist from the twenties. In some ways that is fantastic and in some ways you just think "I could of just listened to the original record"

Tricky situation and a big can of worms but I'm currently off work sick and bored so I want a discussion :-)
razyn said:
from now until 2005, there should be a lot of gigs

oops, I meant 2015... I'm a little out of it, but do still know what year it is. Typo, I have to hope.
I'd like to chime in here and point out that I don't play folk music. In fact, I don't play folk instruments. I play popular music from a given era, on the popular instrument of that time.

"Period correct" insinuates that it can be supported by documentation from the "period" represented and not reminisces.

Memory, as well as "oral tradition" are so incredible inaccurate and corrupted that it is silly. I always point out the current string of exonerations from rape cases in Dallas. These are men who were convicted of rape and imprisoned based almost always on eyewitness testimony. Yet, turns out they were innocent. Their lives ruined by the "memory" of the victim.

Google "eyewitness accuracy" to read just how worthless it is.

As to the Lomax family, John produced a great collection of cowboy poetry, later added music to some of the pieces, thus setting off a series of anachronisms constantly perpetuated by so called authentic "cowboy bands" attempting to pass off country music as late 19th century PEC entertainment.

The folk music recorded and documented by AlanLomax is a perfect record of the folk music as played at the moment when it was recorded, no earlier. Of course it is completely out of the realm of possibility that the people being recorded really put on the folksiness thick so to give the people what they expect, thus altering the accuracy of the presentation.

When the argument comes up that reading music was not common place, or reading words for that matter, I always ask, what the heck did they do with their one day off? Watch the plaster peel?

It is amazing that of the hundreds of thousands+ of pieces of sheet music published in the 19th century, only a few people could read them. Seems strange that publishers would bother printing all those copies of music if only a few could read.

Sorry I don't buy it.

To the subject at hand...

Play what you like, it is yours. Keep in mind that when someone asks "is that how it sounded in the 18--?" you are now the educator, like it or not. If you say yes, you have knowingly lied. If you reply that you are just playing "folk music" not depicting a specific time period then no harm.

There is also the question of what is an "old American folk song?" Many people think that Stephen Fosters body of work are "folk songs," they ain't.


Are they still "folk" songs of they have been performed for money? Published in sheet music (tab, whatever) form? Recorded and sold for money? Do all of those not break the folk tradition?
I'll second that, Joel.

- Silas Tackitt
Guess you dont buy into folklore romance then!! Good the hear from the other side of the discussion. Indeed many people (myself included) fall victim to this over romanticising of music, whether its the man on his porch playing his banjo or moaning blues at midnight selling your soul. I think you are right about pop music of the era, thats what these original "folk" players were doing, playing songs that were popular at local juke houses or parties whether learned from sheet music or from another player. It was essentially pop music of its day.

Im still not convinced by the idea of reading music, I think certainly in the north of America and the more middle class southern people may of learnt but I honestly dont think your average farmer and certainly not the black Americans of the south could of read much music- maybe the basics. There are plenty of references to later musicians not being able to read music. Did you ever hear of the jug band the Mississippi Sheiks? They were considered super important and influential and gained much respect from other musicians at the time because of their ability to read music, it was taught to them by the son of the platation owner where they lived and worked. They went on to massively influence the early blues music from mississippi, teaching other local players their tunes and charging a few dollars. I believe a similar sort of thing has happened for generations not just in America but all over the world in all different traditional musics- you get a few people in a community who understand how music works and can read, they teach popular tunes and the basics of music to local musicians and the songs spread out and you get all different versions turn up.

Is it always necessary to have a record of something? I mean i'm not a re-enactor as such, but if I was and I was playing some kind of early ragtime, or "folk" music and someone asked me "is that how it was played in 18--?" and I was to reply "well sort of, this kind of stuff" would that be lying- or being just a really rubbish teacher?
I mean, there are many old folk songs that have been around for a couple of hundred years that turn up in American banjo repertoires that came from European music so somewhere along the line these must of been played by a fair few people to keep it going so it seems more than reasonable that this sort of stuff was played in 18--?

Is it not the same as me picking up the basics of a tune from a video on this site without any kind of written record of it owned by myself, but I really like the song, I keep playing it and maybe a week later the video gets pulled and I have no reference whatsoever, but I like the song, so I keep playing it thinking I have it down in my head, maybe I even put down a bit of tab on paper, then a year later the video is re-posted and my version is recognisably the same song but very different?- Is that a bad situation??

Anyway its not for me to say, I'm an English white boy, I dont claim to be an original or authentic player of folk/traditionl music- because if I did I would either be a liar or a morris dancer :p

I just love the music, the history and the traditions, either side of the ocean, I play what I want to play how I want to play it- maybe that answers my question I dont know.
Very well-expressed Joel

I've worked on both sides of the tracks - as a folk revivalist and as a purveyor of historical music. I guess I'd also consider myself to be part of a living tradition too at least when it comes to Ontario grassroots fiddle/dance culture. They'll all things I love dearly but even though they're all clearly separate in my head, it sure is hard to get a casual listener to understand the differences sometimes.

In recent years I've tried very hard not to wear period drag in performance unless I'm in a "theatrical" setting (re-enactments etc.) doing something I consider historical music (from appropriate documented sources on original instruments) because it sends such a powerful visual message that "this is the way it was". (I don't always succeed)

By the same token I don't like it when performers "dress up" to play "old-time" music from a living tradition, sinceit seems to relegate to the past something that is actually a contemporary artform (even if the some of the tunes are old) Hmmm... I seem to be taking about clothes now. I'd better stop. Good forum topic. - I haven't engaged in this paricular discussion for a while. I've found it interesting reading others' opinions.






deuceswilde said:
I'd like to chime in here and point out that I don't play folk music. In fact, I don't play folk instruments. I play popular music from a given era, on the popular instrument of that time.

"Period correct" insinuates that it can be supported by documentation from the "period" represented and not reminisces.

Memory, as well as "oral tradition" are so incredible inaccurate and corrupted that it is silly. I always point out the current string of exonerations from rape cases in Dallas. These are men who were convicted of rape and imprisoned based almost always on eyewitness testimony. Yet, turns out they were innocent. Their lives ruined by the "memory" of the victim.

Google "eyewitness accuracy" to read just how worthless it is.

As to the Lomax family, John produced a great collection of cowboy poetry, later added music to some of the pieces, thus setting off a series of anachronisms constantly perpetuated by so called authentic "cowboy bands" attempting to pass off country music as late 19th century PEC entertainment.

The folk music recorded and documented by AlanLomax is a perfect record of the folk music as played at the moment when it was recorded, no earlier. Of course it is completely out of the realm of possibility that the people being recorded really put on the folksiness thick so to give the people what they expect, thus altering the accuracy of the presentation.

When the argument comes up that reading music was not common place, or reading words for that matter, I always ask, what the heck did they do with their one day off? Watch the plaster peel?

It is amazing that of the hundreds of thousands+ of pieces of sheet music published in the 19th century, only a few people could read them. Seems strange that publishers would bother printing all those copies of music if only a few could read.

Sorry I don't buy it.

To the subject at hand...

Play what you like, it is yours. Keep in mind that when someone asks "is that how it sounded in the 18--?" you are now the educator, like it or not. If you say yes, you have knowingly lied. If you reply that you are just playing "folk music" not depicting a specific time period then no harm.

There is also the question of what is an "old American folk song?" Many people think that Stephen Fosters body of work are "folk songs," they ain't.


Are they still "folk" songs of they have been performed for money? Published in sheet music (tab, whatever) form? Recorded and sold for money? Do all of those not break the folk tradition?
It's nice to see a calm, dispassionate yet interesting discussion of this sometimes touchy subject. I guess I come down on Joel's side on this but there is always much to learn. I'm sure we'll hash this all out at AEBG III.
Here is an article referring to banjo still taught by Tom Briggs' method in 1890

http://books.google.com/books?id=Q-gEAAAAMAAJ&pg=PA16&dq=br...

second section on the right side of the page.

Then there is this ad from 1865...

http://books.google.com/books?id=usAkAQAAIAAJ&pg=RA1-PA70&d...

The Briggs book was in continual publication until around 1900. Based on the theory that few copies were bought or used it makes perfect sense that a publisher of note like Ditson would just poor money down the drain for 45 years.

There are loads more of ads, just take a list of tutors and search google books, Converse comes up a lot.

That is a lot of advertising over a long period of time for something that does not sell well. After a year of ads, If I did not sell enough product to make it worth while, I'd stop paying for them.

Dan'l said:
Documented sources, particularly the period tutors in our case, are the best we have if our goal is to authentically re-create what we know some people in those times played and heard.
But playing by rote from the tutors isn't especially more certain than playing the tunes from other, far more common and numerous sheet music available at the time, since there's no indication the tutors were widely purchased and used. Other music was written for other instruments and voice but the melody and inflection are in there, if not finger placements and other specific techniques.
The aural tradition is worthwhile in context with the tutors or other printed music. Far from being worthless, it's standard musicology fare. Early recordings are also worthwhile in context with the tutors and other printed music. In our case many of these early recordings were made well within the lifespans of the Minstrel era performers and their publics, and some of the recordings were specifically marketed to that age segment, veterans of the Civil War for one, to be played at G.A.R. (Imagine a Vietnam vet being satisfied with a poor cover of All Along the Watchtower by Hendrix).

If the goal is to have a definitive answer, you have no choice but to take the hard line. There is no other source than the tutors. Human behaviors such as the oral tradition, other more popular sheet music and artifacts of early recordings are not to be factored in. It's a comfortable place.

For others, period players were not some sort of automotons in a Disney diorama of the 19th century, programmed by their little tutors. Of course they learned in many other ways, oral tradition and raw reckoning included (mimicking stage minstrels). And however they learned and played, the sounds they made were as different from each other at the time as they were from later players. That's not a comfortable place but I feel more authentic.

Dan Wykes
This thread seems to have less and less to do with folk music, as it rolls along... anyway, I have a quibble on one detail, to wit:
Dan'l said:
some of the recordings were specifically marketed to that age segment, veterans of the Civil War for one, to be played at G.A.R.
I would just add, there was also UCV. Within living memory the two organizations and their members were so much alike, their commemorative postage stamps (UCV in 1949, GAR in 1951) used the same picture. Anyway, my folks in Middle Tennessee didn't do GAR -- but they did sing this stuff, and played it on banjo, among other instruments.

It was with very few exceptions pop music -- at whatever latitude, and in whichever century. Perfectly OK, but not what the heading suggests this thread is about.

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