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!



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I think my question has been answered to be honest but this debate is interesting feel free to continue lol :) The conclusion I have come to is that most people here seem to be very much into the re-enacting and that the only source material we have from that time is the printed sheet music and banjo instructors so that is the best way to re-enact the sounds of the minstrel show/civil war era. Folk songs, oral tradition, old timey stuff etc are not strictly out of the question but without the written evidence as proof it is a bit sketchy to perform these songs when re-enacting. That is fair enough I suppose!!

Minstrelsy was certainly carried on until much later in many froms- It went well into the vaudeville era and into Hollywood as an extension of the more "fancy" middle class minstrel shows of the late 1800's in music halls, theatres etc. It also remained at its rough roots through the travelling medicine shows and jug bands. It's the connection between the two I find difficult to place.

People on this board are obviously a lot better at articulating their points than me, I know what I mean in my head but Im struggling to get it into words!
As reenactors, most of us try very hard to document what we present as historical. In the area of music, this is somewhat spotty at best. I have seen a great deal of bluegrass, John Prine, and other non authentic music presented around the campfire at pre 1840 events. I have participated in a fair amount of it myself, before I started to get further into the hobby. Researching period correct pieces to play, and the instruments to use, is really not too difficult. Researching the playing styles is much more difficult. My 20th century banjo will be staying home, once I make a neck for this calabash I have waiting. I may build a more correct dulcimer as well, if I find documentation of Mountain dulcimers at least as far back as 1840. Playing styles I am at a loss for. I know the stroke style & so-called guitar style of banjo playing are referenced in period writings, so that's how I intend to play. Without period recordings, we may have to accept what we think constitutes "guitar" and "stroke" style. We don't drink from the nearest creek any more, either, or shoot something every time we get hungry. Some authenticity has to be sacrificed to either the laws currently in effect, health issues that may not have existed in 1840, or a lack of recordings made before the era ended. We can count every thread in our clothing, but at some point we have to decide how far is close enough. To exclude music because we can't document how the banjo was played is to ignore the importance home made music had in an era before radio & etc was available. In the Taverns of Colonial Williamsburg, patrons are expected to join in the singing, when a musician is present. It was done that way "back then," and it still is done there today. Diners didn't go to a tavern simply to eat and leave, they participated in games, music and contests of skill and/or luck. I suspect the people in the back woods had less opportunity for such entertainments, but for that reason I suspect they made the most of those opportunities. Pierre Cruzatte took his fiddle along with the Corps of Discovery in 1803, and Lewis & Clarks journals contain a number of passages about dancing to Cruzatte's fiddlle, sometimes mentioning the amusement of local Native tribes. No mention was made of banjo, so there's no help there with playing styles. There is also reference to fiddle playing in Moses Cleaveland's journal to survey what later became Cleveland, Ohio. At least one member of his party brought a fiddle with him, in 1796. They encountered hostile Indians, who allowed the party to continue after the party gave them gifts. Knowing their mission was to survey and establish a city in a wild land, there still was a fiddle brought with them. Music was an important part of life. Many people who could not read or write learned to play music. I feel that we need to present, to the best of our ability and knowledge, period music to our reenactment audiences. A slice of life should contain a bit of all that was put into the whole pie.
Paul Certo said:
I may build a more correct dulcimer as well, if I find documentation of Mountain dulcimers at least as far back as 1840.

There are a few eighteenth century examples of the German-American zitter, or "scheitholt" form of the instrument -- one of the best, btw, being at Colonial Williamsburg (in the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller folk art museum). I just mention that, since you consider CW accessible. Anyway, the largest assemblage of historic dulcimers that I know of (maybe, the largest ever) is going on display in a few weeks, at Ferrum College. A signed and dated 1832 example (regular dulcimer, not scheitholt) is one of the seventy or so instruments included. There are also 19th and early 20th century photos in this exhibition of people holding dulcimers (in some, they are also holding the bow with which it was so often played). I don't think any of them are in CW uniforms, from either side... but some are in camps. Here's some advance propaganda about the Ferrum (Blue Ridge Institute) exhibition on The Dulcimer in Virginia:


I don't think the case has been proven that a dulcimer made in the now-popular double-bouted or "hourglass" shape was traditional by the time of the Civil War. One example from the vicinity of present Huntington, WV may date from about 1861-63. Another, from Louisa KY, has been dated 1849 (by somebody who wrote on it), but I'm skeptical about that date.

The only place I know of that uses dulcimers in a "period-correct" historical context around 1840 is the Conner Prairie Interactive History Park, near Indianapolis. They use the "scheitholt" (I think, in the Zimmerman Farm area of the park), and call it that. There may be others, that I don't know about.

And here was me talking about this thread's having strayed off its stated topic...
Some of what I have found indicates that the earliest Mt. Dulcimers were rectangular in shape. That's what I would probably go with, plus fiddle pegs and partial or no frets.After I get some house related projects done,and the gourd banjo built. Thanks for the heads up on the Ferrum Exhibition. I'll take a look at that. We now return you to your regularly scheduled topic.
The "Pearls Before Swine" cartoon in today's paper deals with CW reenactors, addressing the closely related question of a cell phone ringtone that is period-appropriate. (The rat in the cartoon has a Hip-Hop ringtone that is pretty obviously anachronistic; also, he's a Confederate.) A more correct ringtone could perhaps be downloaded from this site. I wonder idly whether anybody has done that; it seems fairly likely.

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