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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I was going to reply but I'm too busy playing banjo jigs on Google's virtual Moog synthesizer (doodle posted today in honor of Robert Moog's birthday).

Dan - I think you've hit the nail on the head!

Quick, Carl - When is Frank Converse's Birthday?

All we need to do is get a playable Ashborn Doodle on the Google page. Thousands will become instantly hooked and fall easily into our clutches.

 Trapdoor ...  I like the dating that you do.  I will go with that. I usually end up saying this is how the banjo souned in 1850ish.

 Minsterel Period banjo, sounds the same as  Menstral Period Banjo,   at least the way I say it.   Thats what I have to stop saying completely.  It puts a bad image before I can give it a good one. 

I'm not so sure we should assume that the general public has negative racial associations with the word 'minstrel' anymore.  Certainly they might with the phrase 'black face' (especially after the recent hoopla over Billy Crystal portraying Sammy Davis Jr at the Oscars...lol!...what was he thinking with the black makeup??). 

But consider that a majority of average non-musician folks nowadays probably don't even know who people like Dave Macon, W.C. Fields, Al Jolson, or Leadbelly were...should we assume they know about minstrel era things at all ...unless they were southern history buffs?  Heck, I know a 35 yr old woman newspaper reporter/social studies teacher who doesn't even know who Paul McCartney  is!  Additionally, some people associate the word minstrel with 'wandering minstrel' as in medieval lute days.

Weren't black musicians performing minstrel music and minstrel shows before white folk began imitating and parodying  them in blackface?  If so, then why not give some credit for the genre where credit is due?- to the African Americans who gave birth to the early banjo and helped create minstrel shows in the first place.

Whenever I play my gourd banjo in public and anyone asks about what it is, I always tell them about the fact that African slaves brought or made gourd banjo instruments way before the Civil War and that our modern banjo evolved from the African instrument and African rhythms.  Everyone is always amazed to hear about that.  This kind of info should be made known, not disguised for fear of some occasional person's negative associations.  Speaking frankly and with respect concerning the African origin of much of this music helps to dispel such automatically negative associations.  I say let's fling the windows open and be part of a positive step forward.   Just my opinion.

As most of us know, The Carolina Chocolate Drops are a wonderful and popular black old-time group that is now performing original black minstrel show material- it's marvelous stuff!  I wouldn't doubt that they, along with the rest of us, might be avoiding the material that is truly racially offensive parody.  I can't imagine anyone wanting to perform hateful offensive material on stage anyway.

Hey Steve-  Huh?-  you make 'menstrual period banjo' sound like a bad thing!    LOL!    ;D

 I have a sign I made out of a cedar shake, I painted   "The unkorked minsterel"  people always laugh,  I think the cork they are thinkin of was from a bottle,  like Im tipsy.     Ivew use it at re-enactments, no neg . comments.

and yes , people are very surprised to find out the banjo is from Africa.  seems most people think of the banjo as the    rapid fire pink plink plink,,,, that SOME bg,ers sound like 


A couple years ago at AEBG there was a general discussion about what the approach to the music from the minstrel stage should be vis a vis the general public.  I said I had presented this music, in period costume, since 1994 and I found it to be an easy subject to broach.  I was immediately drowned out by loud voices of disapproval, mainly criticizing me for my supposed insensitive and callous attitude toward such an important issue.  First of all I live in North Carolina and have a pretty good idea of what race relations are like in the South.  Secondly, roughly half the people I have made presentations to have been African American.  Thirdly, I stand by my statement that this topic is not all that difficult to broach.  I present minstrel banjo playing and banjos in general as a part of the proud heritage of the music of African Americans and of America in general.  During those 18 years so far no one has registered a complaint.--Rob Morrison









Joel, I've often thought that an innovative person could get something going on the steampunk scene; write some new lyrics about steam-powered automata and start a sensation!   We're already halfway there with the fancy clothes and a Boucher peghead would fit the "ostentatiously old-fashioned" bill.   Professor Elemental's tongue in cheek chap-hop has been adopted by the steampunk set (at least enough for him to perform at a gathering last year):

..but I'm really not in that scene and don't know if someone has already made up rules about what's "authentic steampunk music."

But steampunk is as much of a niche as living history/reenactment.  I have to agree that mainstream commercial potential is limited.  I've had a couple of paying gigs thanks to this unique niche I find myself in, but both were historical in nature: one CW reenactment, one "Lost arts festival".  My wife and I have a table at our local farmer's market and I usually have an early style banjo with me to help pass the time.  Depending on the weather I may do the period dress thing or not.   Here in New England I find that a lot of people barely recognize my instrument as a banjo given the lack of frets and the deep plunky tone... and if or when they do recognize it the inevitable question is "can you play Foggy Mountain Breakdown?" When I say 'no' and start explaining about 'minstrel banjo,' 'early banjo,' or '19th century banjo' the eyes usually glaze over and away they wander.  

RE: the term "Minstrel" specifically, very few people in my neck of the woods make any kind of connection (maybe they hear 'minstrel' and think Renaissance fair?) until I mention the word 'blackface', and even then a lot of people don't know what I'm talking about.   I suppose that's neither here nor there in terms of commercial potential, but if someone were actively trying to cultivate a new audience for this style that would be something to take into account.

June 17, 1837.

Ian Bell said:

Quick, Carl - When is Frank Converse's Birthday?

June 17? That's my birthday as well! 

Carl Anderton said:

June 17, 1837.

Ian Bell said:

Quick, Carl - When is Frank Converse's Birthday?

And that's my unbirthday!

Greg Adams said:

June 17? That's my birthday as well! 

Carl Anderton said:

June 17, 1837.

Ian Bell said:

Quick, Carl - When is Frank Converse's Birthday?

 Your right , I like that statement better myself.

Dan'l said:

Steve - Repectfully, to use the sound bite "the banjo is from Africa" is a disservice to the ingenuity of African-Americans and other Americans who invented the banjo.

     Before the banjo was first imported to Africa by some performer or instrument seller, banjo academics tell us there was no instrument from Africa called by the English language word banjo, nor any instrument that had the combined characteristics of banjo, nor any African in Africa who had made or even held a banjo.

     How about "The banjo is an American instrument evolved from Africa." That's a true statement.




Funny thing today, on the way to work I had the radio on a college station and our own Minstrel Banjo Ning member Rhiannon Giddens and her group, The Carolina Chocolate Drops were getting some air time and low and behold, I  heard a minstrel banjo playing in the background!! Perhaps there is a way to make this banjo style pay after all? I checked out(and purchased) their new album and realized that Rhiannon played her Minstrel Banjo on several of their new songs! I recall meeting Rhiannon at the Minstrel banjo and Bones weekend at Harpers Ferry in November when she took home her new Hartel Banjo. It seems she managed to put it to good work for the new album. Maybe we can take a note from her book and try to incorporate the Minstrel Banjo into modern music and ultimately, educate the public at large about its history? Are there other members here who have managed to crossover with their minstrel playing into mainstream music?? Just a little food for thought.

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