Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

I know many of us do things at libraries, roundtables, schools etc. The lyrics are always a weird thing and we change the words, but has anyone ever distributed handouts to accompany your presentation that show the actual lyrics and maybe the covers to the sheet music?

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Tim very good question and topic.  Lyrics are always a very tricky subject.  It depends on the place and the age group I am in front of.  I played at a college last year in which I didn't change any of the lyrics because it was a historical presentation.  It was printed and the audience was informed that they would be hearing offensive words.  I was surprised at how well it was received, not one complaint, I think because of how it was handled.  I also spoke about how the racist words were as much from northern song writers as from southern.  I also bring original Sheet music covers when I go to places and have them framed.   I have also used video presentations especially with election songs or political songs, using political cartoons that go with the songs.

My group, the Locofocos will be playing in two weeks for a group of Son's of the Union veterans group.  For that group nothing will be sugar coated.     

Another thing I have learned from doing school programs is that it's good to know the history of the song as much as possible and understand if possible what some of the phrases mean.  I am still attempting to understand what exactly was meant by "electric fluid"  in Fosters song 

I have a few times shared what the original lyrics were so as to discuss life in the times.  You have to be very careful about that. 
I always took the "electric fluid" in Oh Susanna to be a reference to the fact that electricity, especially electric current flows, as people would be aware from the telegraph.  Something that flows would be considered to be a fluid.  Since you asked, I looked it up.  Here is an encyclopedia definition for it from the time.

thanks John, I also looked it up and what I had found confused me more.  So if I am thinking this through correctly the line de electric fluid magnified, and resulted in the death of 500 blacks.   the particles which repelled each other would be white folks vs black folks.  What do you think.  The magnification of the slavery issue therefore would result In the deaths of black folk. 

I was just informed by a friend who is a science teacher that positive and negative charges were not known about until the 1920's.  So much for that theory.


Curtis, I think its important to remember that early minstrel music was full of nostalgia for an endangered agrarian age. Foster's age was concerned about a new, rapidly industrializing America (locomotives and the telegraph etc.) and how that would impact culture (Thoreau, for instance, was just leaving Walden Pond while this song was being written). Would technology (as represented by "De lectrick fluid magnified) destroy a world of human labor (represented as "killed five hundred Nigga")?

very interesting take. 

When we did a program for the Northville District Library for a "huge" audience (of 12!), I handed out lyrics as they originally appeared.  Though they didn't contain the worst of the possible terms, they did include the dialect of the minstrel genre and one was an anti-Catholic song, "Wide Awake Yankee Doodle" which included:

For we are free, and won't submit, to intolerance and aggression,

From papists who from foreign lands, come here to rule this nation.

I wanted to include that to show the hypocrisy,..... after all just who were they calling "intolerant"?!

It's rather long but, for what it's worth, this is what I said early on in the program.

"It is necessary to explain that this era cannot be faithfully portrayed without acknowledging the prejudices which were openly expressed, not only in verse, but in quotes, and artistic depictions.  African-Americans were not the only ones to be stereotyped, however, it is the case that the minstrel show was the mid-19th century equivalent of our "Hit Parade", and it is evident that some of these songs were performed in that venue because they were written in the supposed "Negro dialect".  I have left verses in their original form on your handouts.  Verse-writers of the day didn't need to worry about the approval of sponsors in order to get "radio play".  They wrote whatever they felt, and though some can be unsettling to us, it is worth understanding because, we are a product of our past.  Whatever, you might find offensive in this program, I assure you, is mild in comparison to that which was printed."


I would be interested in how others have introduced similar programs and/or critiques or improvements on what I said, above.

Of course, you are right, Dan'l.  It depends on the setting, context and primary focus......which might change from song to song, even within the same presentation.

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