Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

Ok, so I may be jumping the gun, being that I'm just getting into this and admittedly haven't read all the books on early banjos that are out there, only what is available on line.  But I've been thinking a lot due to Tim's recent post dipping hard into the relm of defining what we all as individual's or in groups want to, or attempt to convey when we play our banjos. 

 

If you Google "Minstrel" or "Minstrel Banjo" you'll get different results from Googling "Early Banjo" or "19th-Century Banjo".  "Minstrel" immediately brings up results linking to black face performance and all its connotations - mostly negative towards African Americans.  "Early Banjo" tends to bring up histories of the banjo as an instrument, removing human emotions, focusing on where it came from and how it got to become what it is today - in addition to how the music came to be. 

 

So, that being said, when I finally feel confident with my palying ability to dress up in my civilian, iron worker or farmer impression I've done at events from time to time or even if I'm not dressed up in my, I hesitate to say "I'm a 'Minstrel' Banjo player" to people.  I see myself more as: A guy who plays the banjo for his and his family and friend's enjoyment. 

 

If I'm dressed up in my impression,the questions I will need to answer and gap I need to fill are the "how and why"s;  "How did I get a banjo? hear of a banjo?  Why the banjo?"  The answer can vary from "I heard one/saw one once and built one of my own" to "I saw an add for them and bought one from Boucher...".  We know the instructions were out there to purchase (e.g. Briggs) for the individual to learn on their own.  I ask these questions in my head as I look at 19th century images of people obviously NOT dressed to perform black-face minstrel shows, but posing with a banjo in their normal attire.  I like to thinkg the people they knew would simply take the player at face value: a dude, or dad or their neighbor playing a banjo and catchy tune (or maybe not catchy to their ears), not a true performing minstrel. 

 

Out of my impression it gets easier, or does it?:  

 

I'm "a guy who plays a banjo that is made like it would have been made around mid-19th century - one adapted from an even earlier style that finds it's roots in Africa.  Sure it was used in minstrel shows, but I like it because it's darn cool and has a different sound in addition to a great history as an instrument." 

 

Fact is, race is still a sensitive issue.  I would be terribly embarassed if I broke out in song, belting out the first few lines of "Keemo Kimo" and an African American walks in, friend or not.  (If they're a friend they'd probably roll their eyes since they know the dorky history guy I am)  For me I feel much more comfortable singing any period song in my 19th-century garb at a Civil War event or place I was asked to play period tunes at.  It all adds context immediately and a sense of teaching history.  At home is at home and again, my wife knows the history dork I am! 

 

I'm going to compare it to my beard:  people at work see it and say "Growin that for reenacting?".  The fact is, I like the way I look in a beard, but apparently out of my garb it doesn't make sense to most people or people just make assumptions.  So to say I'm a "minstrel banjo player" just doesn't ring right for me, especially out of my garb.  I don't want a coworker to get curious and Google "Minstrel banjo", get the results I got and start questioning me about my black-face performance, or worse yet, not ask me questions and assume I support all those negative connotations that come with it, in or out of my impression.             

 

Maybe I'm sounding paranoid or over thinking it (I do that)?  ;)  Anyhow, just some thoughts, no insults meant to or directed at anyone!  Everyone on here shares in a common niche in music and I think that's just an awesome thing all its own!

 

Views: 799

Reply to This

Replies to This Discussion

Well, I'm glad I didn't reignite any "war" or great debate or the like in posting my thoughts.  I've sat back and read all the responses as they came in.  At times I thought that yes, indeed, I put too much thought into my little rant and actually avoided the site for a bit, just to practice and not worry bout anything else, especially if my post did end up starting bad blood up!  I didn't want to be "that guy" who disturbed a tranquil pond because he was thinking one day.

What I figured in the end is that, like many things I do, I want foremost to be true to not only the original banjo players of old and their music but to myself, my character and my style, once it develops.  I know "that's too deep man!  It's a freakin BANJO".  And I tend to be with many if not everything I do in life.  There are so many cliche one-line words of wisdom that can come from that statement, my favorite would be to the effect of:  Anything worth doing, is worth doing right.  I try to instill this in my employees and will with my son. 

I'll add my thanks to all those who came before me, doing the tough, but I'd suppose rewarding jobs of researching, tabbing out, manufacturing the instruments, etc etc.  Also to all the amazing musicians who are nice enough to share their talents with us all.  I'm still thrilled that a niche like this exists!  

I'd be willing to bet that 'most' string musicians (more than 50%) learned music by ear from others during the 1700's and 1800's, rather than by reading sheet music or tab/tutor instructional books.  This guess would obviously be near impossible to prove though.  An exception I'd think, might be piano and organ, since there were always extensive hymn music books distributed to churches for religious purposes.

There was (is) a kind of 'scrawl' in the Irish tradition for fiddlers that resembles written tab. Something like "23 24 10 23" Second string - third finger, second string - fourth finger. I forgot where I saw this. Not having any sheet music, or not wanting any led them to creating this system. Who could catch all those eigth notes? They even wrote in some ornaments. I wonder if the old minstrels were passing papers like this around?

There's plenty of documentation that banjo teachers were giving regular lessons to students in the 1850's and  beyond.  It's a mistake to graft our twenty-first century opinions and prejudices on an era so unlike our own.  A foundation of the re-created "minstrel banjo" style is documentation.  Frank Converse set up banjo schools in Memphis, St. Louis, and New York City, all before 1860.  He had so many students that he had to hire an extra teacher to handle the load.  Charles Morrell (in San Franscisco) wrote of the day when he had banjo students lined up around the block, and how putting notes on paper was a part of his assembly-line teaching method. James Buckley ran a banjo school in New York.  The documentation is there.  Sure, ear-learning is always the chief method of dis-seminating popular music, but note-reading existed in a significant way.

As Dan'l points out, however, none of this affects the fact that  "the tutors are really the excellent way to accomplish and enjoy Minstrel banjo."

With regards to church music, it was felt that reading music might be too difficult, so the whole shaped note method for defining music was developed.  The goal was to teach people relative pitch.  There are some really great shaped note hymns.  I recorded one last Christmas  - Brightest and Best. 

Strumelia said:

I'd be willing to bet that 'most' string musicians (more than 50%) learned music by ear from others during the 1700's and 1800's, rather than by reading sheet music or tab/tutor instructional books.  This guess would obviously be near impossible to prove though.  An exception I'd think, might be piano and organ, since there were always extensive hymn music books distributed to churches for religious purposes.

Yes, shape note singing!  In fact, we just had a Sacred Harp Sing at our fiddlers' reunion this past weekend here near Albany.  We do this every year.  If you scroll to the last part of the page, you can see pix of our Sacred harp sing here:

http://www.oldsongs.org/blackcreek/2012/2012.html



John Masciale said:

With regards to church music, it was felt that reading music might be too difficult, so the whole shaped note method for defining music was developed.  The goal was to teach people relative pitch.  There are some really great shaped note hymns.  I recorded one last Christmas  - Brightest and Best.  

Yes, I hear you Carl.  :)   But it does seem to me that most of this 'formal banjo school' activity was (logically) centered in cities.  i'm sure there was a whole different (and sparsely recorded/documented) music sharing scene going on in the vast rural areas. 

I guess the best documentation we have of that are the many recorded interviews from the 1960's or so, of elderly 80-odd-yrs old fiddlers and banjo players telling stories about how they learned their repertoire from their uncles, grandfathers, etc.  That only directly (first/second generation accounts) traces back to about 1880 or a bit earlier, but in the interviews it's pretty clear they were learning their repertoire by ear from their elders.  Lots of stories about how they 'caught' tunes from each other at dances, fiddling competitions, etc.   There was a bit of friendly regional competing and protectiveness going on as to who played the best versions of things, who was most inventive.  None of those interviewed old-time southern mountain musicians could read music, none or few of them had higher education. (except maybe Jean Ritchie)   I know we are talking about two distinct music genres and social groups here.  But some of the minstrel tunes did evolve and leak into the Appalachian repertoire, and perhaps vice versa as well.   So much rich heritage to share!



Carl Anderton said:

There's plenty of documentation that banjo teachers were giving regular lessons to students in the 1850's and  beyond.  It's a mistake to graft our twenty-first century opinions and prejudices on an era so unlike our own.  A foundation of the re-created "minstrel banjo" style is documentation.  Frank Converse set up banjo schools in Memphis, St. Louis, and New York City, all before 1860.  He had so many students that he had to hire an extra teacher to handle the load.  Charles Morrell (in San Franscisco) wrote of the day when he had banjo students lined up around the block, and how putting notes on paper was a part of his assembly-line teaching method. James Buckley ran a banjo school in New York.  The documentation is there.  Sure, ear-learning is always the chief method of dis-seminating popular music, but note-reading existed in a significant way.

There are enough surviving 19th century manuscript tune books up here (in Ontario) to suggest that lots of "folk" musicians here were  musically literate — at least as much as they needed to be. Like many of us, I think they could read and write a jig or reel but would probably have a problem if someone showed them some Debussy. Some of those old books have tunes written in several hands, suggesting that players sometimes jotted down tunes in friends' books.

I have come across a phenomenon since I started playing music. People who read and those who don't. Some people have incredible pitch, but having perfect pitch is rare. Some people are always flat or maybe sharp and some are somewhere in the Key of Z..lol. I have learned to read music, couldn't get around it when learning the fiddle. Being able to read music enabels me to pick up most anything and be able to begin to play it much quicker than guessing at it. Tablature is one of the easiest ways to learn a song if you don't read. But there is something to knowing how to interpret the music written as it was intended to be played. Some people get defensive when you sit down with them,..."Well I don't read music...never have I can figure it out by ear....great! amazing the difference sometimes when you compare the song to someone who is reading it and someone that picked it up by ear. My personal experience is that one is a little off.  The Minstrel Songs that appear in the Instructor Books and which we here a lot of here on this site...they have a unique sound, and when interpreted as they were written you hear those inflections of the notes played correctly and that is what gives this music its unique feel, of course and along the manner in which the notes are played. What Tim did was awesome..you hear the song as they were meant to be played. Songs that are done by ear sound real close but if you compared the two you might hear the difference. Bot saying that the later is less desirable,..just different. When two people are on the same page it sounds awesome. less like a cart with three wheels round and one square. 

 I watched 3 videos yesterday of Kick up de debble. Tims,, Ian B, and Paul Draper.  They were all good , and all different.  I was drawn to one in particular.  Was that one "right" or "wrong"  .

 Yes Yes ,,, if your desire is to exactly preserve what was written in books, maybe one was "correct"   and theres  nothing   wrong with  that.       I would get bored quickly if I felt I had to " follow rules" and tow the mark.   But thats just me,    , as Forrest mother said "we are all different"

 That said , if we didnt have the tutors,, and didnt have someone like Tim to play and intrepret them for us,  Im guessing I would never had a chance to hear any of them,,, they sure arent playing them on the radio
 
Nicholas A Bechtel said:

I have come across a phenomenon since I started playing music. People who read and those who don't. Some people have incredible pitch, but having perfect pitch is rare. Some people are always flat or maybe sharp and some are somewhere in the Key of Z..lol. I have learned to read music, couldn't get around it when learning the fiddle. Being able to read music enabels me to pick up most anything and be able to begin to play it much quicker than guessing at it. Tablature is one of the easiest ways to learn a song if you don't read. But there is something to knowing how to interpret the music written as it was intended to be played. Some people get defensive when you sit down with them,..."Well I don't read music...never have I can figure it out by ear....great! amazing the difference sometimes when you compare the song to someone who is reading it and someone that picked it up by ear. My personal experience is that one is a little off.  The Minstrel Songs that appear in the Instructor Books and which we here a lot of here on this site...they have a unique sound, and when interpreted as they were written you hear those inflections of the notes played correctly and that is what gives this music its unique feel, of course and along the manner in which the notes are played. What Tim did was awesome..you hear the song as they were meant to be played. Songs that are done by ear sound real close but if you compared the two you might hear the difference. Bot saying that the later is less desirable,..just different. When two people are on the same page it sounds awesome. less like a cart with three wheels round and one square. 

There is a difference... and it is all about ones own taste.  and nope, you don't hear this music on the radio. It seems like a select group that pursues this music. I think it is so very cool that a commercially successful band like the C C Drops incorporate the instrument into their music, and the music into their repertoire of songs and style.

It is what it is. You know how and do what you do or you don't know how and do what you do. I chose to learn music theory and reading because I want to sit in with whomever and and be able to fall in which ever key they are in. I didn't start really trying to read until I was 40...I'm 47 now.  Again who really cares. each ear is different. Seems like were going down a different road. Bottom line...glad guys like Clark Buehling, Joe Ayres, Carl Anderton, Tim Twiss, Greg Adams and bunch of others that are studying at the Alter and interpret the music as it was written. Gives us an ability to hear it the way it might have been played by those that help make this music what it is. And yep I want to try and interpret the same way. Again....that's me!

Steve Jeter said:

 I watched 3 videos yesterday of Kick up de debble. Tims,, Ian B, and Paul Draper.  They were all good , and all different.  I was drawn to one in particular.  Was that one "right" or "wrong"  .

 Yes Yes ,,, if your desire is to exactly preserve what was written in books, maybe one was "correct"   and theres  nothing   wrong with  that.       I would get bored quickly if I felt I had to " follow rules" and tow the mark.   But thats just me,    , as Forrest mother said "we are all different"

 That said , if we didnt have the tutors,, and didnt have someone like Tim to play and intrepret them for us,  Im guessing I would never had a chance to hear any of them,,, they sure arent playing them on the radio
 
Nicholas A Bechtel said:

I have come across a phenomenon since I started playing music. People who read and those who don't. Some people have incredible pitch, but having perfect pitch is rare. Some people are always flat or maybe sharp and some are somewhere in the Key of Z..lol. I have learned to read music, couldn't get around it when learning the fiddle. Being able to read music enabels me to pick up most anything and be able to begin to play it much quicker than guessing at it. Tablature is one of the easiest ways to learn a song if you don't read. But there is something to knowing how to interpret the music written as it was intended to be played. Some people get defensive when you sit down with them,..."Well I don't read music...never have I can figure it out by ear....great! amazing the difference sometimes when you compare the song to someone who is reading it and someone that picked it up by ear. My personal experience is that one is a little off.  The Minstrel Songs that appear in the Instructor Books and which we here a lot of here on this site...they have a unique sound, and when interpreted as they were written you hear those inflections of the notes played correctly and that is what gives this music its unique feel, of course and along the manner in which the notes are played. What Tim did was awesome..you hear the song as they were meant to be played. Songs that are done by ear sound real close but if you compared the two you might hear the difference. Bot saying that the later is less desirable,..just different. When two people are on the same page it sounds awesome. less like a cart with three wheels round and one square. 

Regarding the shape note style, there are two wonderful clawhammerers/singers on YouTube who divide the parts up between 2 voices and two banjos. Pretty unique, nowdays AND them days. Look for 'banjoape' at YouTube.

Reply to Discussion

RSS

About

John Masciale created this Ning Network.

© 2022   Created by John Masciale.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service