Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

Opinions from CW Reenactors on "On-the-March" Banjo Weather Protection

First, I would like to express my very good impression of this group, which I just joined. George Wunderlich's extremely well-informed and helpful response to my query about the details of the William Sidney Mount "The Banjo Player" banjo was quick and most generous.

I have another, perhaps more exotic query. I know that a number of you are either "mainstream" or "hard-core/progressive" CW reenactors and will be able to weigh-in on the topic. I am looking for guidance on the types of banjo weather protection that would be plausible from an authenticity perspective that an infantryman might use.

My thinking is that a wooden case would not be common, especially for a field-built tackhead or nicer instrument brought from home, owing to the weight of the case. Also, it is about as difficult to build a nice coffin case for a larger instrument like a guitar or banjo as building the instrument itself. I know this, as my lutherie builds period-appropriate cases for various instruments from the late 18th C to late 19th C time period. For instance, we make a leather saddle-bag case like the one that Thomas Jefferson used for his pochette (pocket fiddle-4/4 lenght but only 3" wide) and are building our first batch of wooden coffin cases for fiddles and guitars.

My research has led me to these preliminary conclusions:
  1. There is no such thing as a standard CW period soft case for banjo, fiddle or guitar.
  2. Oilcloth is essential for the outer shell
That's about it as far as research goes. My thinking is that a craftsman making a soft banjo, fiddle or guitar case would take the following approach (this is where I really need opinions from reenactors):

A 2-part soft case consisting of...
  1. Inner rectangular flannel or blanketing fabric bag with a tie string, just large enough for the instrument.
  2. An outer torpedo-shaped bag (like some modern gig bags) of heavy duck, buttoned at the wide end. The whole bag saturated with linseed oil and dried.
  3. Leather attachment ties as appropriate to attached the case to a haversack.
Thanks in advance for opinions and/or guidance.

Don

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Dan,

Thanks for your insights.

Don

Dan'l said:
Don -

One person's view of it: Those in the reenacting hobby who care about detail are guided by "PEC" (practical/everyday/common) based on period documents or at least period accounts. The ones who "really care" about detail rightly prefer a pattern based on an actual surviving sample. They don't really like "'it could have been done that way."

So depending on your inclinations as to what's important, you could at least follow PEC to the level that suits you, in decending order from "really care" to "care."

1) home or shop-made banjos were the most practical and likely most numerous in the field, so you pattern from an surviving home or shop-made bag if you can find one, with strict attention to the fabric, seams, and coating formulas.

2) there were factory made banjos in the field as well, photos prove it (and with better construction more of them have survived compared to home or shop mades) so you pattern on a surviving factory banjo bag if you can find one, with strict attention to the fabric, seams, and coating formulas.

3) you pattern on a surviving factory guitar bag but alter the shape to fit a banjo, with strict attention to the fabric, seams, and coating formulas.

4) you design your own pattern, with strict attention to typical period fabric, seams, and coating formulas.

5) you design you own pattern, with some attention to typical period fabric, seams, and coating formulas.


After all that, I think it should be pointed out that most reenactors are not in the "care greatly" about detail category but merely the "care" about detail category.

Another thing to mention is that a bag protects only against undue moisture, which in the day was also accomplished merely by keeping the thing under a tent or wagon tarp when the weather turned bad.

Dan Wykes
psycobabble specialist
This is a good question. As a foot soldier on the march, I want things to be as light as possible. I would be tempted to carry a gourd banjo, since it is so much lighter than a hoop one. I have often thought that in Frank Vizetelly's camp picture, that the banjo Sam Sweeny is playing is a gourd, in spite of it being a war time drawing. Any other thoughts out there on that? Sweeny was Cavalry, so it would be easier for him to cart a banjo around with him.

http://www.nps.gov/archive/apco/sweeney2.htm

In any event, I would consider simply wrapping my banjo in a gum blanket or oil cloth. The weight of a case would be something that I would not want to deal with, unless I could put the instrument on a wagon of some sort.
For the campaign oriented banjo player, the contest is between weight verses protection. I want to go light, but I also don't want to wreck my tackhead. (My tackhead weighs a mere three pounds.)

For dry events, I'm not at all worried about toting my banjo without any form of covering. However, for wet / humid events, I want some form of covering. For these events, the banjo doesn't stay in tune unless I'm camped out at someone's fire. The benefits of having a banjo are outweighed by burdens of protecting a virtually unplayable instrument.

At my last event, a living history at the Vicksburg Nat'l Battlefield Park, it was cold and wet. I was able to keep the banjo in tune in the low forties / upper thirties temps, but my fingers were too frozen to play triplets. For the couple times I was slightly able to play, I should have just left the banjo in the vehicle and not bothered.

At night, I tuck the banjo into my blanket. I do my best to keep the drum inside my minimal covers.

Here's a link to a photo of me at a military living history held at Chickamauga a few years ago.

http://www.kcll.org/images/tackitt_modern.bmp

I took the sling from my musket as a sling for the banjo. I used the looped portion of the sling to attach inside the drum on the rod. I ran the sling over my shoulder and attached the musket sling's hook to the leather which holds the tailpiece. It's a simple mechanism which works rather well. (I tried inserting the photo into my post with mixed success so I have included a simple link.)

There is a video on utube which has the infantry marching down a road. I am visible for a moment or so. If you look carefully, the neck and head of the banjo can just barely be seen dangling off my left side. Since the video is taken from the right, there's no way to see how well the drum rides on my back. That little can be seen is part of the point of mentioning it. It's not a big deal to tote on my back even with all my gear. The video isn't very exciting, but here's the link :

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V_TgSHUev5k" target="_blank

I enter the picture at 52 seconds. I'm wearing the same uniform as pictured below and am speaking to an officer wearing a light frock coat.

I'll be at the Kirby Smith: In the Van campaign event this August in Eastern Tennessee. I am being very much encouraged by the event organizer to have a case which can be placed in one of the wagons. I'll be making a coffin case from 3/4" pine. I think Jim Moffett posted some photos on this forum of a pine case he saw in some museum. My greater concern isn't having the case at the event. It's getting it and my musket to the event as I must fly. (It's only 2500 miles between here and East Tennessee.) The cost of bringing both onto a plane or shipping one of them makes bringing a banjo a real pain.

Added to the transportation issue is that I take the banjo as a carry-on. I play banjo while waiting for flights as it's a great way to make time pass. I've received many complements on the soft sound of the gut strings tuned down. So, I'd be paying $25 per flight for the privilege of carting a pine box which doesn't hold very much stuff.

So, you can see I really don't want to make a coffin case as it's going to be a hassle at the event and getting it to the event. Small price to pay to play ...

- Silas Tackitt
Silas,

Thanks very much for your information-rich reply. I really appreciate it.

Don

Silas Tackitt said:
For the campaign oriented banjo player, the contest is between weight verses protection. I want to go light, but I also don't want to wreck my tackhead. (My tackhead weighs a mere three pounds.)

For dry events, I'm not at all worried about toting my banjo without any form of covering. However, for wet / humid events, I want some form of covering. For these events, the banjo doesn't stay in tune unless I'm camped out at someone's fire. The benefits of having a banjo are outweighed by burdens of protecting a virtually unplayable instrument.

At my last event, a living history at the Vicksburg Nat'l Battlefield Park, it was cold and wet. I was able to keep the banjo in tune in the low forties / upper thirties temps, but my fingers were too frozen to play triplets. For the couple times I was slightly able to play, I should have just left the banjo in the vehicle and not bothered.

At night, I tuck the banjo into my blanket. I do my best to keep the drum inside my minimal covers.

Here's a link to a photo of me at a military living history held at Chickamauga a few years ago.

http://www.kcll.org/images/tackitt_modern.bmp

I took the sling from my musket as a sling for the banjo. I used the looped portion of the sling to attach inside the drum on the rod. I ran the sling over my shoulder and attached the musket sling's hook to the leather which holds the tailpiece. It's a simple mechanism which works rather well. (I tried inserting the photo into my post with mixed success so I have included a simple link.)

There is a video on utube which has the infantry marching down a road. I am visible for a moment or so. If you look carefully, the neck and head of the banjo can just barely be seen dangling off my left side. Since the video is taken from the right, there's no way to see how well the drum rides on my back. That little can be seen is part of the point of mentioning it. It's not a big deal to tote on my back even with all my gear. The video isn't very exciting, but here's the link :

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V_TgSHUev5k" target="_blank

I enter the picture at 52 seconds. I'm wearing the same uniform as pictured below and am speaking to an officer wearing a light frock coat.

I'll be at the Kirby Smith: In the Van campaign event this August in Eastern Tennessee. I am being very much encouraged by the event organizer to have a case which can be placed in one of the wagons. I'll be making a coffin case from 3/4" pine. I think Jim Moffett posted some photos on this forum of a pine case he saw in some museum. My greater concern isn't having the case at the event. It's getting it and my musket to the event as I must fly. (It's only 2500 miles between here and East Tennessee.) The cost of bringing both onto a plane or shipping one of them makes bringing a banjo a real pain.

Added to the transportation issue is that I take the banjo as a carry-on. I play banjo while waiting for flights as it's a great way to make time pass. I've received many complements on the soft sound of the gut strings tuned down. So, I'd be paying $25 per flight for the privilege of carting a pine box which doesn't hold very much stuff.

So, you can see I really don't want to make a coffin case as it's going to be a hassle at the event and getting it to the event. Small price to pay to play ...

- Silas Tackitt
John,

Thanks very much for your helpful reply. I am honored that I got a response, and a well-reasoned one to boot, from you!

Don

John Masciale said:
This is a good question. As a foot soldier on the march, I want things to be as light as possible. I would be tempted to carry a gourd banjo, since it is so much lighter than a hoop one. I have often thought that in Frank Vizetelly's camp picture, that the banjo Sam Sweeny is playing is a gourd, in spite of it being a war time drawing. Any other thoughts out there on that? Sweeny was Cavalry, so it would be easier for him to cart a banjo around with him.

http://www.nps.gov/archive/apco/sweeney2.htm

In any event, I would consider simply wrapping my banjo in a gum blanket or oil cloth. The weight of a case would be something that I would not want to deal with, unless I could put the instrument on a wagon of some sort.
Dan'l

OK, I'll bite...what is the right answer in specific terms?

Don

Dan'l said:
Don, John, Silas -

Back to PEC, a real soldier on campaign, particularly an infantryman also carrying his gun and all - wouldn't typically carry anything bigger than a harmonica or jaw harp, and lots of them did. As reenactors we can tramp around with banjos etc., and we do, but is that PEC?

Cavalry (ala banjo player Sam Sweeney) and Artillery had at least forage wagons because of the horses, and maybe a staff wagon, if you could talk some non-com or commissioned into letting you throw a stringed instrument aboard for the ride. Even Infantry had supply wagons in the rear unless they were on quick march.

Winter camp or extended duty to protect bridges etc. a different matter, but you didn't need a case for your instrument in that event.
Another solution is to join the growing ranks of civilian reenactors. The benefits include more time to play the ol' cremona, and less time spent guarding the firewood; no two am picket duty; and more time spent with charming female living historians.
Good idea!

Carl Anderton said:
Another solution is to join the growing ranks of civilian reenactors. The benefits include more time to play the ol' cremona, and less time spent guarding the firewood; no two am picket duty; and more time spent with charming female living historians.
When in a campaign scenario, I don't bring the banjo (we are infantry). I also portray a colporteur, a civilian chaplain. This allows me time in both military and civilian camps. I'm with Carl, it is getting more and more tempting to spend time on the Civilian side. However, it also presents a Jeckyl and Hyde role, minister and banjo player. These are two completely separate roles.

I use modern cases to hold my banjos. I have yet to find a decent case for my gourd banjo, and have been contemplating making one.
I own highly-respected lutherie that has supplied primarily bowed instruments to world famous contemporary musicians as well as enthusiasts of various "period" genres, including CW and late 18th C. We have been testing the water in the banjo arena. Several musician reenactors have asked us to develop a reasonable banjo case alternative to a modern gig bag or hard-shell banjo case. I would say that my customers want a case that is functional and authentic enough to NOT attract disapproval. They really care a LOT more about the music.

I run into this kind of thing all the time in the violin/fiddle, mandolin and guitar worlds...arguments about varnish, neck angle, size, bracing, etc. I am used to it. I always end up developing great instruments and accessories, because I ask the kinds of questions I ask and I do my other research.

Don

Dan'l said:
Sorry, can't answer your question - only you can answer that depending on your priority. What is your purpose in designing and providing these cases?

If it helps, I would estimate that most reenactor, living history, or just early instrument musicians concerned about authenticity are practical enough to appreciate a case of a style and construction that could have been made back in the day. John, Silas and myself made our own banjos so probably are in that category (fellas?). Banjos and cases were never gov't issue.

I would guess most of the posters here aren't reenactors and are wondering what this post is all about. Playing and studying Minstrel music is where it's at.

Still, there will be some reenactors who are very concerned about authenticity who would need to see a case patterned off an actual surviving example and made of documented material and coating formula. Museum docents and instrument collectors same thing.
I started playing because I know I won't always be able to do infantry due to age and health, but these factors won't prevent me from doing civilian.

Regarding Carl's comment, I'll make sure not to tell Mrs. Silas about increased exposure to ladies while I am in the field. (Carl, are you coming to Kirby Smith? Please advise.)

Regarding Dan'l's comments, I'm not sure how much stock I can put can put into them because he doesn't campaign. He heavy camps. There, a space can be found for a case, be it period or otherwise. I campaign, and while on campaign, conditions are different.

I'm not sure what "documented material and coating formula" is supposed to mean. On page nine of the forum photos is a case Moffett uploaded. It might be pine which would be a "documented material." Moffett sent me another photo of a case which was made from half inch pine and generally conformed to the contours of the banjo. (I had hoped it was posted here, but it's not.) Think hexigon shape to cover the drum. "Coating forumula" is going to mean construction of a lighter case with a skin. Something like that isn't going to survive the rigors of a wagon where the contents therein are pounded by the unevenness of the road and smashed by other wooden boxes as they shift from side to side or just come crashing down.

Any box is going to break eventually. A new one would need to be fashioned. The most available lumber for a new one is going to be ammo boxes, hardtack boxes, rifle crates and the like. I'm thinking a box intended for wagons ought to be constructed from these sources.

On campaign, all the branches of service had wagons. However, available space in the wagons was extremely limited. Personal items were generally not allowed. It's going to take bribes or favors to get a musical instrument carried in a wagon. Then, there's the great possibility that the wagons may not be seen for days or weeks at a time.

I don't think there is one answer to what is appropriate. It's all about time, place manner. A professionally made box might be fine, but for how long? A box constructed in the field is going to be coarse, but might be just the thing. Sometimes no container would be appropriate because there may not have been time to replace a broken or smashed box.

Sometimes the answer is a smaller banjo. I've toyed with the idea of a shorter instrument which has a cigar box instead of a drum head. The need for a protective cover is much less because a smaller instrument would withstand the rigors of the field better than a larger one. Problem is that the sound just wouldn't compare to that of a drum head with longer strings.

Problems, problems ...

Back to speculation ...
I'm gonna' use the purified linseed oil that dries with the most non-oily residue. I'll get back to you after some experimentation with different linseed oils on different weight canvases.

Dan'l said:
Don -

Re: "Several musician reenactors have asked us to develop a reasonable banjo case alternative to a modern gig bag or hard-shell banjo case. I would say that my customers want a case that is functional and authentic enough to NOT attract disapproval."

Pretty clear your purpose then, hope we helped.

I've gone campaign style reenacting as well, but I think you've made a good call in addressing the needs of musician reenactors generally. With the effort you're putting into it, you'd probably like to sell more than two ;)

Dan'l

btw by coating formula I was of course referring to the formula for your oil-cloth, as you said that was the way you were going with this.

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