Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

So, what is your experience in playing this music in a setting that is not set up for living history? This was mine a few weeks ago. The room is fantastic on its own, but it was amplified, as that was the nature of this venue. The tunes I played were:

Buffalo Gals

A short Briggs' Stroke Medley

Walk Jaw Bone

Old Virginny Jig

Grape Vine Reel

People seemed to dig it...most had never seen a banjo like that one.


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When I was playing at the coffeehouse, people were uniformly facinated by it. When I played it for the Bluegrassers, they loved it. I think there is something about the sonorities of the low tunings that people like. Even my wife likes it... ;-)
It was not on the same level as Tim's concert, but I spent Saturday at the North Park Mall in Dallas, (it's trendy, high-end -- Rolex, etc.) with the Dallas Storytelling Guild as we participated in an arts fair. I took my Thornburg tackhead and played all day to attract people to our booth. It worked. I played/practiced a round-robin of Circus Jig, Mary Blane, Git up in the Mornin', Old Dan Tucker, Camp Meeting on the Fourth of July, Arkansas Traveler and some made-up stuff to soften them up for our Halloween ghost story concert pitch. First of all no one there had ever seen a banjo as funky looking as that tackhead. Second, they loved its sound and stayed to listen, clap their hands and tap their toes. The words "cool" and "awesome" were used more than once. A classical guitar group on the other side of our backdrop told us they were enjoying the music.

I'm a storyteller and clawhammer banjo player. I'm new to stroke style -- bought my Thornburg gourd in March, the tackhead in April. The gourd has shared performance time with my Chuck Lee banjo at every gig -- libraries, schools, retirement centers, etc -- since I bought it. The tackhead will be getting more time now that I'm on better terms with it. (Eight hours of practicing in public does wonders for your confidence.) I present the music mostly as entertainment combined with a smattering of history. From a strictly banjo point of view, clawhammer on a "modern" banjo and stroke style on a Minstrel Era, or earlier, banjo are great for performing solo. That's something Bluegrass banjo doesn't seem to handle well. Safety in numbers, I guess. :-)

I hope that wasn't too wordy.

By the way, thank you, Tim, for posting the videos. It's extremely helpful to watch your hands at work. And, thanks, too, to Joel Hooks who spent an afternoon in Dallas recently helping me out with stroke style.
Enjoyed the video Tim, more singing please on your future vieos. Have noted Juba Jig and will have a go at Tabbing it, hopefully in the next few days.
I play both my gourd banjo and bouche rim in a variety of folk song circles, and at public events. People are fascinated by them.
I've played my gourd and tackhead a couple of times at a local farmers' market, along with my open-back steel string; I'm still in early banjo repertoire-building mode so I was playing a little of everything... this is not a bluegrass/old-time region at all, so I don't think anyone really knows or noticed a distinction between styles. Somebody playing a banjo of any kind is unusual enough! However, the look and sound of the gourd & tackhead definitely turns heads.

One day I played some tunes with the inimitable Steve Brown on bones, and that really blew peoples' minds. Very nice compliments, lots of toe-tapping.
I "outed" myself on the tackhead last weekend at a concert connected with a micro brewery festival in Toronto where I was presenting "Songs of Temperance and Excess" (leaning heavily toward the latter) I mostly played guitar but used the banjo on song called "The Temperance Jubilee" - to the tune of "Tenting Tonight". (From the "Canadian Musical Fountain and Prohibition Singer" of 1871) - mighty righteous it was, too!
Years ago we did a couple of nights at the East End Cafe, a college town bar in Newark , DE. Apparently we went over real well at an open mike night and were invited back for a weekend show. This was about as far from a history theme venue as you could get, large speakers and flat black everywhere on stage. We played our usual songs and tunes and the audience, mostly students in their 20's, loved it. Free dinner, beer, and a percentage of the door. We loved it too. Dave C.
I have played at the Elementary school on a couple of different occasions. The kids seemed to enjoy it. Of course I didn't sing any of the "real" lyrics to the songs. That may have caused things to go awry.
Hmmm...non-living history settings. Tonight I had the chance to accompany a Theater major here at University of Maryland who is studying multiple traditional dance forms. I played a bunch of early banjo pieces while she improvised several types of dances. Great stuff. We should all spend more time with dancers!
I agree Greg, understanding the dances that went along with this music is key to understanding the music itself. I see all these videos and the tempos vary greatly. Many seem to be way too fast for dancing. I imagine the many arpeggios to be for jumps or kicks but how to know. Is anybody doing research in this area on what the minstrel dancers were actually doing.
I have played minstrel tunes for clogging and body percussion and would like to explore dances specific to the minstrel stage. William Henry Lane was described as doing a combination of shuffle steps and Irish step dance moves. Would love to have seen him!
I try to spend time looking at these as I am learning tunes to understand how to play them. It seems like a good resource for much of the material we play.

Re: Dance
Following up on Tim's link to the dance videos - here's another archive of dance videos.
The Digital Video Research Archive of Morris, Sword, and Clog Dancing at Boston University
This includes a number of American and English clog dances that have survived into the present through folk tradition, but are directly descended from the stage dances of the mid-19th century. Some that I recall seeing there are straight jigs, a pedestal clog, and lots of clog hornpipes, jigs and reels. The database is a little clumsy but there's some amazing stuff buried in here.

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