Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo


Interesting article about a pianist's study of early 19th century piano tutors and how using these techiniques changes the sound of the songs compared to modern playing technique.

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That is a great find, and so pertinent to our banjo situation. I would love to engage in a conversation about this here if we can keep an even keel to the passion of our opinions and observations. This is such a great topic, and one I spend a lot of time on with regards to extracting technique from written treatise. We do spend a lot of time developing our constructs of early banjo playing from our present experience, working backwards to the music. She makes great points about how the physicality effects the music.

Hm.... Interesting concept, studying period specific pedagogical works in order to recreate a style amd technique of playing of an isntrument that was, itdelf, rather different in construction. I wonder how we might apply this? ;)

Historically-informed performance practice has been a big deal in the classical music world for decades.  I first encountered the movement in the 70s when I was an undergraduate music student, learning harpsichord.  There are numerous sources for different instruments.  Actually, Leopold Mozart, Wolfgang's dad, wrote a very important mid-18th c. treatise on violin-playing, there's CPE Bach for keyboard, Quantz for the flute.  I discovered Bob Winans' work at that time, along with a lucky encounter with a copy of Hans Nathan's important book in a used bookstore, and that is what originally set me on this odd path.  The banjo tutors are absolutely in this same tradition, teaching amateurs how to play like the pros.  Some of the distinctions I would make between these classical-music treatises and the banjo tutors is that the authors of the treatises were highly educated in the European tradition, built on numerous generations of virtuosi, and there was a vast resource of published music to draw on, while the authors of banjo tutors were not as highly-educated and, because this was all new, they had to make it up as they went along.     

I am especially intrigued with the violin part of this, since modern violin-playing is quite a bit different from how it was done before the Napoleonic Wars, and the a lot of what was done in the 18th c. is closer to fiddling.  Irish traditional fiddling, in particular, seems to preserve this older way of playing.  Besides studying West African plucked-lute performance practice, I have been interested in the bowing styles of West African players of the nyanyaur (what a great onomatopeic name for a fiddle) and other one-stringed fiddles, and I think that the driving bowing of American fiddling, entirely absent from Western European styles, is a direct import from West Africa.  Whether, or how much, it influenced minstrel show fiddlers is impossible to know, but I suspect that if minstrel fiddlers were doing anything really distinctive from what was generally out there in the mid-1800s, there would have been tutors to teach the style.  And there aren't. 

Though it might not pass for publishable evidence, I think that the fiddlers in the minstrel shows were not distinguishable stylistically from fiddlers playing for dances.  Which is to say that I suspect that African-American fiddling, which was commented on at the time (and we know from the historical record that some African-American fiddlers were in particular demand), was not being taken on by the minstrels and, like African-American banjo playing, was outside the scope of the minstrels, a musical parallel universe of sorts that wasn't really influential until later.

This is largely what I did. I had ZERO banjo experience and learned it all from the written page. While of course, My vantage point was having none.

I still believe that applying the carefully described techniques, combined with a reasonable period reproduction instrument, music as written down from that time, and a careful study of general pop culture can result in something unique.

Most people approach this music from now go backwards. This supports the living tradition argument. What we may miss are other things, as she describes general posture, finger movements, angle of the arms and hands. Today's players do the same...in the hand movement...brushing, flick, bum ditty stuff. It DOES play the music, but it is different. Also, most people that do this music ( early banjo ) are hobbyists with no need or interest to go deep. 
Leonidas (Lee) Jones said:

Hm.... Interesting concept, studying period specific pedagogical works in order to recreate a style amd technique of playing of an isntrument that was, itdelf, rather different in construction. I wonder how we might apply this? ;)

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