Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

Once again, a forum topic in the Banjo Hangout sort of took a twist and became a debate about print sources vs. "ear" to summarize it. There is such a school of thought that the banjo books do not represent an accurate reflection of playing during this time. Thus...no way to know. I don't claim that I know, but certainly there is something to it (the printed page). Don't want to start a controversy here, but it is a great topic. 

I believe that the books did not create the style of the day. I think they reflect what was already going on. I don't think the tutors appeared, and everybody became influenced by it. I contend that the tutors reflect what was going on...with skillful and accurate transcriptions of styles and pieces. It was a reflection of the culture. If all they wanted to do was make money, I think the books would be way shittier...but they are good...and obviously took a great deal of toil. I think that the songs that were vocal pieces were widely interpreted in many ways, but not what I am adressing. I am speaking of the hundreds of songs in these books. You can see a continuity. Why would one book come out...and then another...and another.....basically the same? They must be based in reality. Why wouldn't somebody play and repeat cool versions of poplular songs.

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These discussions still seem to lead a conclusion that written arrangements were at least a snapshot in time of how a piece of music would sound. I think the topic gets skewed to seem that this was the ONLY way it were played. I agree with variants....

Joel--Re: "the horrible tub pounder that beat on his banjo by ear,"  it has always been my impression that these opinions came from people pushing their own line of instruments, such as Converse, Stewart, and Bauer, as well as their own lines of instructional material.  My hobby is restoring "store tubs", and they are actually pretty good instruments for the early repertoire.  I can't speak for the musicianship of their players, but I suspect these criticisms  are all propaganda in the aid of commercial gain.  We thimble players have to stick together.  (Even though I don't actually use a thimble, I like to think of myself as part of the much-maligned fraternity).--Rob

That the tutors are an accurate representation of what was being played at the time is true and I think that the analogy to a snapshot in time is good. But it is still a photo and not a movie. Like looking at an old Victorian photo you always wonder what is missing or not in the picture. Perhaps that is part of the magic of trying to figure out the tunes. If we knew everything about that time period, people like Greg Adams and Bob Wynans would have to find something else to do, and we definitely don't want that.

Did people learn by ear back in the 1840's and 1850's ? Of course they did. They went to shows and listened, got banjo's and tried to figure out that new “minstrel” music. Some probably could read music, but many could not. They just did the best they could, just like all of us. That people like Rice and Converse wrote it down is a great gift. They were knowledgeable, played in minstrel shows, traveled , and knew what was going on in the banjo world of the day. Did they give us a complete picture? No, But they gave us a good idea of what was musically going on at the time, both the simple and complex stuff.

Trying to define the minstrel/stroke style can be frustrating because it is based on African and African American rhythmic elements mixing with European musical elements and can get somewhat complex.

You can't just say something like, it has the bum dity and bump-a-dity rhythm of clawhammer, or the backbeat of rock and roll, or the 12 bar and pentatonic scales of blues. It's more complex than that. It is sometime simple, sometimes complex, and can have a lot of variation. That people like Greg and Bob can make a serious attempt at trying to sort through this stuff it is great and gives us all something to think about. I like to think of it as how people try to define pornography, It can be hard put a definition on it, but you know it when you see it :)

My point was that there were ear players a plenty. Let's not forget the angelic Dobsons who would teach you to play instantly by ear... Well, if they did not sue you for using their method.

It was all ear playing in the early 40s and 50s-. We don't get really good info till the late 50s and esp. The mid 60s.

In North Carolina until fairly recently, one could not travel from one side of the state to the other without encountering countless variants of old-time banjo style and repertoire - even varying greatly from one county to the next. Why should it have been different across the entire nation before the tutors were published? Perhaps a more likely scenario is that the authors of the tutors participated in the early homogenization of a very commercial and easily taught banjo style, rendered possible by the beginning of American musical pop-culture, i.e. the minstrel show?

Um... if i'm not mistaken that is what we were discussing.  There is no documental evidence of anything but what was written down (and the "tutors" are not the only extant place that that happened).

And there is no reason that the dots plus variations (the likes of are easy to formulate once one develops an "ear" for the formula) would not be a representation of that era music.

Once you bring in folk styles, I'm out.  This board's focus (at least I thought) is on popular banjo as played by or influenced by the stage.

There are two sections on the banjo hangout where one can discuss regional folk styles of the 20th century.

One could also doubt the likelihood of music in a region not changing-- frozen in time with no innovation or progress made.  The formula established and not broken by each subsequent generation.  One also wonders at what point in the evolution of musical progress did each of these regions decide to stop following trends in music.

Was somebody appointed in each of those regions to decide what technique would be taboo and crossing the line into modern banjo playing?  "No, in this region we only play two finger thumb-something, we don't take kindly to folks who use the Galax lick."


Mark Weems said:

In North Carolina until fairly recently, one could not travel from one side of the state to the other without encountering countless variants of old-time banjo style and repertoire - even varying greatly from one county to the next. Why should it have been different across the entire nation before the tutors were published? Perhaps a more likely scenario is that the authors of the tutors participated in the early homogenization of a very commercial and easily taught banjo style, rendered possible by the beginning of American musical pop-culture, i.e. the minstrel show?

"Take aught from aught and naught remains, but you're a damn fool for your pains." But, hey let's talk about early folk styles too. It's all early banjo. Dave

Joel-- Actually there are people who would tell you that what you are doing is not authentic and should not be attempted.  Marvin Gaster, a friend and a two finger player from Sanford, NC who was awarded a North Carolina Heritage Award in 2000 for his banjo playing, told me in no uncertain terms, the first time he saw me play that what I was doing was taboo because I was playing north of the 7th fret on a fretless banjo.  He said no one ever did this and it was not part of the tradition.  I've had people from the Galax area question my style and ask me pointed questions about it.  I never ever gave my style two seconds of thought.  I just play the music and do what sounds good to me.  I hope that's what most people do. So yes, there are style police out there.  And Mark is absolutely right, North Carolina is the home of more banjo styles than our poor imaginations can contemplate, including some, like Dink Roberts, that go way back to call and respose traditions where the banjo is the musician's partner in the enterprise, not just the tool.  Of course the material in the tutors reflect the music of the time, and I'm sure very accurately.  But the music of the time continued in a largely separate and parallel tradition.  African Americans did not stop playing the banjo the minute minstrelsy began and their playing undoubtedly influnenced that of rural whites.  As one with a foot in both camps I can see the virtue of considering the modern remnants of folk styles and how they reflect or differ from the performances in the minstrel era.  I see it as all part of the same musical heritage and at the same time understand the differences.  But I do believe a knowledge of underlying folk tradtions, with all their cultural and academic baggage, cannot help but inform rather than detract from our knowledge and appreciation of the music and performance of the minstrel era. 

"FOR ENTHUSIASTS OF EARLY BANJO" is written right under that picture. Stage minstrel banjo style was not born  in a vacuum in the year 1855. 

I love learning about early folk banjo and what helped shaped the banjo that ultimately ended up in the hands of stage performers.

 Or was it the banjo in the hands of stage performers that helped shape folk styles of the 20th century?

 Or is it folk styles of the 20th century that helped shape our interpretation of what was played in popular theater in the mid 19th century?

Or is it the uncertain pedigree of that 20th century folk method of playing a popular instrument that discredits sheet music in banjo method books?

This all comes down to why we are playing.  Are we playing for ourselves, or are we playing to recreate a style and sound from the past.  I have done both on my minstrel banjos.  When I hook a pickup to my bridge so that I can play with electronic instruments, then all ties to the past are gone.

When I am playing as a reenactor, I want to look and sound like someone might have in the past.  As a musician (at least some people have been kind enough to call me that) I have to admit that I am influenced by all of the music that I have heard, and it is very easy for modernisms to creep in to what I am playing.  Sometimes I'm not even aware of it until someone points that out to me.  Staying close to the written music is a discipline that really helps in keeping to the original sound of music played on these instruments.  

Did people play in styles other than what we have as scored banjo music?  Yes.  Converse mentions several people he had heard who played in different styles.  Do we know what those styles were?  Not really.  We can guess, and make educated guesses, but that does not ensure that we are right.

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