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!

 

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Clarke told me of playing at a festival back in the '70's with John Hartford...Hartford listened to Clarke and said "you play tunes I wouldn't touch with a ten foot pole."  ;^}

Thanks for the info - I'm a Shape Note Singer and always wondered what it would sound like to port some tunes over to the banjo. I'm inspired once again!
 
Bell Banjos said:

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.

 that cool , viva la differance!  the  first minsterel song I heard was Carl playing "Coon hunt Walkaround"  still love it. and I imagine , it was played " correctly" LOL

 I can see how knowing the song the same as others is helpful,,, but theres nobody to play with down here anyway. And Ive always been more of a " unaffiliated" type at reenactments and festivals.

 Its cool for us all to get the enjoyment we desire out of this music.

I love all kinds of banjo stuff... the Sacred Harp hymns, Pat Conte on his blues gourd, the Hammons family playing their fiddled, fingerpicked, and clawhammer WV repertoire down in E and F (because they didn't play with others and didn't even need to know what key they were in), Clark B. minstrel recordings, Tim's and Paul Draper's videos here (among many others I've enjoyed watching), Adam Hurt's delicate clawhammer gourding, The Little Brothers blues using big old gut banjo, Mike Seeger's recordings of various regional older styles of banjo playing...   it's a yummy and diverse buffet we have access to today!

Of course, the 'formal' banjo tutor books of minstrel tunes are an incredible resource.  That beautiful and rich repertoire was very fortunately written down in a precise manner that survived to re-inspire banjo players in our times.  Those surviving books, and the talented passionate folk who teach and play from them today, enable historically accurate playing of that particular banjo genre and time.  I love that!

where do you live Steve? It is the same out here, though a gentleman here in town just contacted me and who is just getting into this style. Were getting together Sunday. I really want to go to the EABG just to finally see these people that have influenced me and listen and learn from what everyone's experiences bring to the music.

Gonna have to wait until next year. Saving my $$ for the epic trip. What I have heard from you sounds great..looky there no reading of notes or nuthin! I'm trying to find a decent camera with a higher recording ability that the one I have, then I will post something. Really would like to get some honest feed back from my peers.


Steve Jeter said:

 that cool , viva la differance!  the  first minsterel song I heard was Carl playing "Coon hunt Walkaround"  still love it. and I imagine , it was played " correctly" LOL

 I can see how knowing the song the same as others is helpful,,, but theres nobody to play with down here anyway. And Ive always been more of a " unaffiliated" type at reenactments and festivals.

 Its cool for us all to get the enjoyment we desire out of this music.

lol  Man I wish I could read notes!  but , I guess Im too lazy at this point to want to learn. .  I wish Id have learned as a young guy,but all my heroes didnt read , Stevie Ray  BB etc.

 I live just south of Houston TX,  I guess the closest player is Dan in Dallas.

   I have a flip camera, I know not tech, but Im not either. Its  EASY to operate ok for 100 bucks
 
Nicholas A Bechtel said:

where do you live Steve? It is the same out here, though a gentleman here in town just contacted me and who is just getting into this style. Were getting together Sunday. I really want to go to the EABG just to finally see these people that have influenced me and listen and learn from what everyone's experiences bring to the music.

Gonna have to wait until next year. Saving my $$ for the epic trip. What I have heard from you sounds great..looky there no reading of notes or nuthin! I'm trying to find a decent camera with a higher recording ability that the one I have, then I will post something. Really would like to get some honest feed back from my peers.


Steve Jeter said:

 that cool , viva la differance!  the  first minsterel song I heard was Carl playing "Coon hunt Walkaround"  still love it. and I imagine , it was played " correctly" LOL

 I can see how knowing the song the same as others is helpful,,, but theres nobody to play with down here anyway. And Ive always been more of a " unaffiliated" type at reenactments and festivals.

 Its cool for us all to get the enjoyment we desire out of this music.

I wanted to make a quick point about reading music and using the tutors. I totally agree about the power and value of oral transmission. With a lot of this material, we have a broken chain. The books are a way to jump back and pick up music at a fixed point. You get many of the important elements...pitch and duration. It lacks the unspoken element of feel. This is speculative.

One of the big goals I had in playing all the music from the tutors was not to entertain, but to create some sort of record of the music as it is presented by the ink on the paper. I may not get points for creativity on a lot of them, but at least it provides a "jumping off" point for others. From what I play, it was nothing before, but becomes something that people can either copy, or interpret on their own. Once that basic representation of the tune is out there, individual creativity and interpretation should take over.

Some of the interesting ones are the tunes that have survived and morphed. To compare them to the root tune is interesting. Once again, we will never know exactly what things sounded like, but I bet it's pretty close. Tempos and interpretating them remains the single most challengeing and interesting thing to me with this music. A slightly different feel, and you've transformed the music completely. I have been attracted to the idea that many of the tempos may have been slower than we could imagine. I believe that based on the annunciation needed to present this stuff unamplified, the response and quality of earlier instruments, and a study of dance tempos from the period.

All in all, fascinating......and never ending. Love it. 

And what a lobar of love. It is just that a... reference point. And Thank you. I am a slow reader of music and when I see the written music..I start hearing it and getting an idea how the song flows, being able to go and do a quick reference makes all the difference in the world.

Tim, I very much agree that tempos may very well have been slower then than what we interpret now.  For example, old-time fiddle tunes, which were originally played for dances, are often now played at speeds impossibly fast to dance to...what we call 'festival speed'.  I like to play slower (and lower) than most banjo players I know.  I really appreciate the 'enjoyable' tempos I hear in most of your videos.  The faster one plays, the less time there is for any one note to sound or resonate.  This can have an overall detrimental effect on the music and how it is enjoyed.

Yes, I suppose the dance steps of various periods which are easy to document, would help to determine the tempo for dance tunes.  I don't know if I'm getting old or what but I prefer tunes played considerably slower than what I often hear.......which is good for me because I can't play fast, anyway.  If I hear a dance tune going too fast, it makes me feel uncomfortable, even if all I'm doing is listening.  Hornpipes were always my favorite because of the lilt.  If they are played as a reel, they considerably lose their appeal to my ears.  Bluegrass hurts my head and raises my blood pressure......and I'm not sure what physical harm I might suffer if I forced myself to listen all the way through a complete selection.

I agree! 

The tutors are not the Prime Movers. Think of them as transcribing moments in time.

Whatever they convey, it was not invented there. I think they were a reflection.

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