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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By the way I'm you haven't checked out the link in Tim's posting from yesterday, I highly recommend it!
I'm hoping to work the "Butterfly Dance" into my act, although I may have to rework it into "The Bumble Bee'.
There are a few dances on the site that the hard-core old-time crowd still do here including the "Heel & Toe Polka".


Ol' Dan Tucker said:
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.

I found a review of our performance at the bar and thought it might offer some insite into performing this music for a more general audience:

"Whatta blast it was to end up at the East End this evening and find that the Camptown Shakers were playing...

I had never heard them before, but the music they were laying down struck straight to the soul in me and in most of the people there this evening. I saw 20 year old girls sporting dreadlocks tapping their tiny twenty year old toes to the tunes these guys were whippin' out. Why is that?

It's certainly not nostagia... this IS Sixties musics, but 1860's. 150 year old tunes [and probably then some] that drive the masses wild. Why is that? Luckily I had on hand this evening a couple buddies who knew a bit about music, so I asked them that question.

Joff was no help, naturally, but, Scott Birney happened to be there and we briefly discussed what we thought was going on. We agreed that it must be some sort of primal thing. Primal to Anglo Americans (I thought to myself). The beat was 2|4 or 4|4 ... toe tappin' stuff to us Anglos. The instruments were banjo, fiddle and percussion. Evocative of what came out of the British Isles way back in yon times of yore. Scotty had a story to tell about how he once was part of a wedding that had a bagpiper as part of it's gig and the procession followed the piper rather than the bride which really pissed her off. Again, we thought, that's the fancination we feel with this music. That's why, I suppose, even as late as the 1940's, the Brits would march onto the beaches of Normandy following the bagpipes. WHOA!

So, anyway, I think there's a real Mayflower mentality that goes into the playing and appreciation of this music. Sorry if that's less than politically correct, but what ya' gonna do? I didn't see alot of ethnic peoples there this evening, as a matter of fact, my people would probably be considered the most enthic of the lot, the down-trodden Welchmen. (When I hear bagpipes, I shoot first and ask questions later!)

To be fair, Scott did mention that there was a melding of the black influence, and I must admit that they played a Steven Foster tune that dealt with the trials of separation that slaves in the South had to deal with. They do, afterall, call it minstrel music. "
So Dave, would you be explaining things as you are going, or lessen the talk and continue the set with music? I would assume you were all dressed period?
My rule of thumb (and index finger) is - if alcohol is being served, keep the talk to a minimum.

We've played some concerts at senior centers - there I try to show how these early songs might be remembered by some in the audience (songs they sang in grade school). Same thing at folk festivals - pointing out how folk songs came down through the generations and were changed and adapting the set list to include as many songs and tunes that I can that might have a connection to the audience (folk songs). I guess that's it.

Bar crowd - keep 'em drinking and dancing and do mention if the song deals with drinking, tobacco, or carousing. Other non-history venues, try to invoke a connection with the audience to the music any way I can. I see my role in these kind of performances as entertainer and leave the education to people that come up during breaks or after the show with questions. Dave Culgan.
I'm a little late following up on this thread, especially concerning the role of dancing and early banjo music. I wanted to share this passage from Dale Cockrell's 1997 book Demons of disorder: early blackface minstrels and their world, which I highly recommend. He shares the story of a dance off between two Boston prostitutes in 1842 which originally appeared in the newspaper The Libertine. Almost all of the tunes mentioned should be familiar to everyone here.

The reporter,

"noticed a crowd of females coming down under a small trot, and as we expected,
they were the rival parties, arm in arm, closely followed by Julia Carr,
Julia King, Lucy Bartlett, Miss Dunbar, Kate Hall, Harriet Morley, Elmira
Lewis, all giggling and talking as fast as woman can.

Mysteriously, each cyprien carried a broom. "However, we were soon
enlightened, for at the word of command, they all commenced sweeping
Long Wharf for a clean spot which was soon done." For music
there was a fiddler employed for just this occasion, "a half white negro
barber." Two men were selected as judges.

The first dance on the list was a hornpipe, and the one who took the most
steps was to come off victor. It was Bryant's first turn, and as she entered the
ring, she made three courtesies to the spectators who formed three sides about
her. The word was given; the negro fiddler struck up Fisher's Hornpipe, and
Susan commenced - and the way she put in the big licks was a “sin to Moses.”
Shouts of applause rent the air, whenever she changed a step. Every move was
grace, her limbs moved as if guided by machinery. She now came to the heel
and toe business - and done it to a nail, with which she wound up the hornpipe.

There was general admiration of her performance, when a voice was
heard.

"Make way for old Nance, she'll make some of you howl." "Yes, indeed,
hoss," cried she as she entered. "Come," she said, funnily clapping Bryant on
the shoulder, "get off the floor, and see how soon I will make the grease come
- and give us some chalk, for see how wet Suse has made it. Why old gal you
have sweat a gallon; I guess you over-fed yourself. Come strike up, white n*****."

"What tune?" enquired Cuffey.

"Why, the same to be: sure, I ain't going to give that gal any advantage,"
quoth Nance.

"Well, I only thought you were goin to put in your fancy licks on de Elssler music."

"No, no, keep them back," said she, "so here goes."

And so it did. As soon as the music struck the air, Holmes struck the
wharf, and the way she made her body move was a caution to French bed steads.
Every step the Bryant took Nance repeated - and all [conceded] that it
would be hip and thigh between them, which is a tie. "'If the Holmes can only
last," cried one of the idlers, and as the words fell on our ears, she dropped,
not flat, no indeed, but in a position which looked much like a squat - when
she was forced to take the step which was to decide all, and which was no
more or less than the famous "Taylor's Hop," and that did decide all. Every
time Holmes struck out that leg, the old wharf shook again. "Quit, Holmes,
quit," cried her friends; but it was no go; all h_ll couldn't stop her, and the
only way it was effected was by Jule King and Carr rushing in and seizing her
under the arm pit, and raising her up, they carried her in the fresh air, she
shouting, "Go away old gal, you can't take this child's time, no how."

After the performance by Holmes, there were general refreshments
passed around – “gin and round hearts" - and everyone was set for the
finishing dance, a "Virginia breakdown," in which the women would
dance against each other, one-on-one. After the participants had been
sponged off, they began..

The negro struck up the Camptown Hornpipe and the gals struck the wharf.
It was hard to decide who was to come off victor notwithstanding that the
knowing odds were offered in favor of Bryant. From the Camptown the tune
was changed to the Grape Vine; yet both went it, as the change had no effect
on them. From this they changed to "'Take Jour time Miss Lucy,"
and the way they went it was a caution - even the change to
"W'here did you come from, knock a n***** down,"
and "Jenny get your hoe cake done my lady," did not affect them - the sweat
run down their faces, as if all within was on fire; perhaps occasioned by the
gin taken in the recess. But now came the tug of war- the tune was changed
to one of Sandford's jigs - "Go it Nance," "Go it Suse," came in from all
sides. They danced - the sweat poured, and now the fatigue of the delicate
Nance became apparent, but amid the cheer of her friends she yet kept pace
with the Bryant; but she couldn't stand it much longer, and after one of the
closest contested dances on record Nance Holmes gave out, and the Bryant
came off victorious! Nance was carried home on a cart, procured for the purpose,
while Suse footed it, amid shouts of joy from her friends."

Nothing that exciting ever happens in Boston these days!

Brian
Attachments:
Wow - What great musical details! - what scary women!
I know most of those tunes! Thanks for posting. Is the rest of the book that good?




Brian Welch said:
I'm a little late following up on this thread, especially concerning the role of dancing and early banjo music. I wanted to share this passage from Dale Cockrell's 1997 book Demons of disorder: early blackface minstrels and their world, which I highly recommend. He shares the story of a dance off between two Boston prostitutes in 1842 which originally appeared in the newspaper The Libertine. Almost all of the tunes mentioned should be familiar to everyone here.

The reporter,

"noticed a crowd of females coming down under a small trot, and as we expected,
they were the rival parties, arm in arm, closely followed by Julia Carr,
Julia King, Lucy Bartlett, Miss Dunbar, Kate Hall, Harriet Morley, Elmira
Lewis, all giggling and talking as fast as woman can.

Mysteriously, each cyprien carried a broom. "However, we were soon
enlightened, for at the word of command, they all commenced sweeping
Long Wharf for a clean spot which was soon done." For music
there was a fiddler employed for just this occasion, "a half white negro
barber." Two men were selected as judges.

The first dance on the list was a hornpipe, and the one who took the most
steps was to come off victor. It was Bryant's first turn, and as she entered the
ring, she made three courtesies to the spectators who formed three sides about
her. The word was given; the negro fiddler struck up Fisher's Hornpipe, and
Susan commenced - and the way she put in the big licks was a “sin to Moses.”
Shouts of applause rent the air, whenever she changed a step. Every move was
grace, her limbs moved as if guided by machinery. She now came to the heel
and toe business - and done it to a nail, with which she wound up the hornpipe.

There was general admiration of her performance, when a voice was
heard.

"Make way for old Nance, she'll make some of you howl." "Yes, indeed,
hoss," cried she as she entered. "Come," she said, funnily clapping Bryant on
the shoulder, "get off the floor, and see how soon I will make the grease come
- and give us some chalk, for see how wet Suse has made it. Why old gal you
have sweat a gallon; I guess you over-fed yourself. Come strike up, white n*****."

"What tune?" enquired Cuffey.

"Why, the same to be: sure, I ain't going to give that gal any advantage,"
quoth Nance.

"Well, I only thought you were goin to put in your fancy licks on de Elssler music."

"No, no, keep them back," said she, "so here goes."

And so it did. As soon as the music struck the air, Holmes struck the
wharf, and the way she made her body move was a caution to French bed steads.
Every step the Bryant took Nance repeated - and all [conceded] that it
would be hip and thigh between them, which is a tie. "'If the Holmes can only
last," cried one of the idlers, and as the words fell on our ears, she dropped,
not flat, no indeed, but in a position which looked much like a squat - when
she was forced to take the step which was to decide all, and which was no
more or less than the famous "Taylor's Hop," and that did decide all. Every
time Holmes struck out that leg, the old wharf shook again. "Quit, Holmes,
quit," cried her friends; but it was no go; all h_ll couldn't stop her, and the
only way it was effected was by Jule King and Carr rushing in and seizing her
under the arm pit, and raising her up, they carried her in the fresh air, she
shouting, "Go away old gal, you can't take this child's time, no how."

After the performance by Holmes, there were general refreshments
passed around – “gin and round hearts" - and everyone was set for the
finishing dance, a "Virginia breakdown," in which the women would
dance against each other, one-on-one. After the participants had been
sponged off, they began..

The negro struck up the Camptown Hornpipe and the gals struck the wharf.
It was hard to decide who was to come off victor notwithstanding that the
knowing odds were offered in favor of Bryant. From the Camptown the tune
was changed to the Grape Vine; yet both went it, as the change had no effect
on them. From this they changed to "'Take Jour time Miss Lucy,"
and the way they went it was a caution - even the change to
"W'here did you come from, knock a n***** down,"
and "Jenny get your hoe cake done my lady," did not affect them - the sweat
run down their faces, as if all within was on fire; perhaps occasioned by the
gin taken in the recess. But now came the tug of war- the tune was changed
to one of Sandford's jigs - "Go it Nance," "Go it Suse," came in from all
sides. They danced - the sweat poured, and now the fatigue of the delicate
Nance became apparent, but amid the cheer of her friends she yet kept pace
with the Bryant; but she couldn't stand it much longer, and after one of the
closest contested dances on record Nance Holmes gave out, and the Bryant
came off victorious! Nance was carried home on a cart, procured for the purpose,
while Suse footed it, amid shouts of joy from her friends."

Nothing that exciting ever happens in Boston these days!

Brian

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