Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

Does anybody think there is any money to be made in this small and precious corner of the musical world we occupy?

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What do you mean?

Buy thimbles and do it at www.banjothimble.com 

Mark Weems said:

Oh Joel. You've such a gift for sarcasm. I suppose one could also have a website selling tailpieces and thimbles and touting them as the "only way to get “that old time sound.”

Most people won't dress period at the AEBG.  They probably don't always (or ever) dress period playing for the public.  Or maybe just wear a vest or a hat for a *rustic* look.  That's fine, to each his own.  Personally I love to dress in period duds, and have spent alot of money for top-notch stuff, even when portraying an over-the-hill down-and-outer who pissed away what little money he made.

Besides the usual reenactments and historic venues my band plays, I've been getting some gigs playing for summer day-camps around my area.  They usually have adults come in an do presentations and the history/music thing works well there.  And I try and work in some of the race thing when talking to the kids.  The banjo/Africa connection is important, and the kids like hearing the gourd.

Tim Twiss said:

Does anybody not dress up to do this stuff? Or edit the material enough to present it without overexplaining what it is? 


Most of the venues I play at are state historic sites where they expect you to dress in period costume.  In terms of commercial potential, North Carolina is so broke right now they practically expect you to pay them.  You might get gas money if you're lucky.  The public reception to this music is, I have found, quite enthusiastic.  I dress in costume at AEBC on Saturday for the concert.--Rob Morrison

 It would help me to be able to describe the type music Im playing ,,, as something different than  " Minsterel Period Banjo"    Im not joking here.


Many of us struggle with that one, Steve.  At various times I've considered, "Extreme Banjo" -  "Goatskin Thrash Music" - Ususally I cop out and stick with boring (and vague) "19th Century-style Banjo" I occaisionally throw a tune on the tackhead into my regular shows of folkie stuff, but only in performances I don't have to worry about taking a little extra time to tune - and to change musical gears. I find it difficult to instantly switch over to a 19th century touch and musical headspace when I've been just been playing more contemporary (relatively speaking) music.

If you want to avoid the stigma of race, characterizing the style as "Early American Banjo" does the trick.  The fact that the method was first used by African Americans, and then learned from them by white players, the fact that American music has its roots in combined African and European musical traditions, and all of that history that gets interesting is covered over.  I'm not really fond of throwing the baby out with the bath water, but modern "sensibilites" seem to require us to do so.

Unfortunately, modern people do not give us the opportunity to really discuss the complexities of this music.  If you tell them it is "Minstrel Era Music,"  their preconceived ideas kick in.  Many of them do not want to take the time to understand what that really means.


I simply use dates. People seem to understand that. "This tune is from 1855" Most audiences haven't a clue about the specifics and technical terms seem to confuse them. If I'm down at the coffee-house (or retirement home), they seem to understand "pre CW" and "post CW" but unless I'm specifically giving a history lesson, I keep it to the name of the tune and maybe the date.

I tried using "Early Banjo" but as they have no frame of reference, it meant nothing. My favorite lead in is "Here's what the banjo sounded like in the 1850's..."

More and more I look for opportunities to lay the cards on the table.  "This music was predominatly played by white men in blackface makeup."  This isn't appropriate everywhere, but reenactments, Living Histories, definitely.  There is something liberating about fessin' up to the whole thing.  Even better when it sparks a conversation.

I am also thinking of how to stretch the context of the music....yet stay true to the core. New instruments involved with it...arranging things beyond what we normally do, cool vocal parts, pump up the rhythm and experiment with the funky options this offers. Guess i got nothing to show for it, but I'm thinkin'. Perhaps soon....

My response was tongue in cheek, but the fact is.. it's history.

If you want to "make it big" it's got to be fresh.  The small bit of notice that the banjo (in general) is getting today is based on the new, fresh "old time" music.  Also the amazing Steve Martin, a celebrity who's status allows it to be OK to play the banjo, and also like "banjo music."

What we do here is history.  Tubby old fashioned banjos playing dusty old music.

They first thing you'll need to do is drop the Boucher type banjo-- it will always need explanation.  A grotesquely odd instrument that is not identified as a banjo (after all, that's the reason they are popular among our tiny community).

I rarely have to explain that my Wunderlich banjo is just that, a banjo.  At the most I get asked "I thought the banjo was fretted?"  That gets a quick and simple answer... "Yes, raised frets became common about 1880."

Most folks want to be included in the knowledge pool, so they talk about Steve Martin.  I'm much more happy talking about Steve Martin than "Dueling Banjos."  Martin is thought of as a musician, the other a joke.

After moving to New England, I've noticed a completely different attitude concerning the tub than what I got in Texas.  Here it is just a banjo.  There it was "A Banjer" (insert goofy southern accent).

Tim you should stretch the context of the music... arranging things beyond what we normally do... but I covered that sarcastically in my other post.  Sharper clearer tone, greater octave range, sustain... sounds like a Masterclone and Hawaiian guitar picks are in the works.

The museum aspect appeals to me, I like the funny clothing, the old books, reading notes-- it's all good.

One avenue would be to exploit the "Steam Punk" thing.  It's got to be hip to sell.

The guitar is hip and popular, how many people make good living with that... and I don't mean selling equipment.

If there was a wide and strong prospect for making money with early style banjo, you can bet that you could get them at Guitar Center.  Yet the guys that make the goods, work at home shops.

Pure virtuosity does not seem to play the bills for more than a few.  "The Arts" depend on tax dollars to exist. The labor pool for "The Arts" is provided by tax dollars through public schools.  I'll not get political.

I'd love to make more than a few bucks playing banjo, but with how I play, it will likely be a history lesson.

BTW, they were even doing "The History of the Banjo" shows in the late 19th-early 20th century.  E. M. Hall was noted for it.  Seems that history lesson has always been a part of banjo performance.

I like to hear how new players, wanna-be players, and brand new listening musicians (real musicians, thank you) jump in and DO stretch 'our' music. Good musicians have the instinct and the patience to let the MINSTREL through, while adding new life, some new excitement, and new sounds. It's a big world of instruments out there and an even bigger banjo past full of gaps, holes, and shadows. I absolutely love the sound of my banjo or any other solo banjo performance. I've had a lot of fun too, playing with other banjos, fiddles, whistles, trumpets, drums of all kinds, bouzoukis, mandolins, pianos, even electronic stuff.

And on the subject of what to call a 'Minstrel Banjo,'  I like to say I play the banjo.

Minstrel is the original rap music.  Think about it.  White guys portraying an exaggerated view of blacks, but presenting the true black sound and experience.  Vanilla Ice acted like he was the first musician to play in the true black style, but Cool White predates him by a hundred years.  And before him were Thomas Rice, Joel Sweeney, Dan Emmett and a host of other great musicians. 

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