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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Joel Hooks said:

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.

"For enthusiasts of early banjo-

A resource and gathering site for people interested in playing and constructing early banjos, and  the history of minstrel music in America."

One question might be-  We know what the term 'minstrel music' means to us today when we talk about American music, but... what did the term 'minstrel music' mean to people back in the 1800's when they first began using it?  Did a minstrel only mean a stage performer?  Or did a 'minstrel' mean more like the older definitions of the word?:

1. a medieval wandering musician who performed songs or recited poetry with instrumental accompaniment
3. archaic , poetic or  any poet, musician, or singer

Minstrelsy was a tongue in cheek play on the use of minstrel, both the medieval meaning, and for the 4 part harmony groups that were popular at the time, such as the Tyrolese Minstrels. 

Much of the music was refered to as plantation music, or other titles that were more derogatory.  The point of reference was on the style and supposed source of the music, rather than being on who performed it.

Ok John, so then generally speaking, the term 'minstrel music' back in the early 1800s wasn't defined as music played by performers for a stage show, the way the term is sometimes defined today?  Weren't a lot of these minstrel songs and tunes also played in the course of everyday activities?...work songs, dance tunes, gospel/religious, sentimental, popular, funny, and romance songs... sung and probably played by reg'lar folk?  Most 'popular' music is by its very nature infectious and gets people humming, singing and dancing to it.

I think that is the point.

And I would like to give credit where credit is due.  The banjo as we know it exists because of the likes of Sweeney, the Buckleys, Converse, Baur, Emmet, the Dobsons, Stewart, Eph Horn, and so forth.

Especially Converse and Bauer-- they were the recorders of that era.  A sort of a "Lomax."

When they, or any banjoist stepped out on stage, folks wanted to be them.

I always come back to FBC, because he came in early on.  He was there when the banjo went from "simple accompaniment" and jigs in the early 50s- to his ABM.

I appreciate all the efforts that folks are making on the subject of pre banjo.  It is very important and wonderful. But our banjo-- the banjo that we love-- was made that way because of folks like FBC, Horace Weston, S. S. Stewart, E. M. Hall, Tho. Armstrong, Jimmy Clarke, (egads.. even the Dobson family in all their sue happy-- arrested for wife abandonment--partnership double crossing--bliss)  and on and on.

It was because of the work of those guys that folks in the "parlor" wanted to play the banjo.

Is it possible that not much was written of the banjo before the mid 1850s for a reason?

I read the same story over and over again... "the first time I heard a banjo was in the hands of (name a early corker)... Banjos were hard to come by so we made one from a flour sieve with a pine neck..."

The banjo went from "hard to come by" to every hock shop and music store having them for sell by the 60s.

Rare-to-common in 15 years (or perhaps five years?) at the exact same time that minstrelsy really took off.

There was Billy Whitlock, as Dan'l pointed out, in '42.  Some sheet music published with the banjo on the cover, but for the piano.  Many puzzled articles in newspapers.

There was Pic Butler (no evidence besides that heavily opinionated work "Blacking Up" by Toll that he was black) who was famous-- oh yea! that's right, Converse leaned how to use a thimble from him.  There was Tom Briggs'-- Oh that's right, Converse wrote "his" book.

All these guys knew each other.

Then the banjo was everywhere.

As for "dead styles," one of Converse's students was a member of the ABF.  That ain't that long ago.  Folks still living knew folks that were friends with a banjoist that was taught to play by the Frank Converse.

That world was small, still is.  Thanks to this sort of networking we are starting to put together the pieces.  And undo the untruths that have been spread for so long.

Rob, I have learned to never say never.  I hope you are going to the ABG this year because it is always a treat to see you.

Joel--I'm planning to go to ABG.  It's a highpoint of my music year, especially since they just announced the demise of the Fiddler's Grove festival, in Union Grove, NC.  I also plan to go to Mark Weem's new event in Appamatox.  Re: the origins of banjo mania.  As far as the hardware goes, I give most credit to the mass markerters of the tubs beginning in the 1860's. They sold way more banjos than anyone else and they actually made most of the banjos for many of the stars of the era such as Converse or the many Dobson's and their offspring.  The software is a much murkier situation due to the paucity of written history.  However, believe me, these traditions have been mined by musicologists and academicians, and although based on oral accounts using anthropological techniques, these traditions do  have their own history, related to, but not necessarily dominated by the minstrel era.  It's all good.

Actually, we do know...  People did use these books and wrote about them.  They collected and traded manuscript sheet music.  There is even hand written sheet music (the very ones that Baur wrote about) from Frank Converse still in extant.  Written in his very hand!  I keep saying it, this really was a small world and still is.

Fact is, these books were, and still are, used.

Dan'l said:

One thing to come out of this thread: the entire resource of banjo tutor material is not the same thing as the entire resource of Minstrel Banjo.

- Dan'l (elaborations beyond the primary topic below)



We have playbills and accounts indicating that there was so much more music that never ended up in the banjo tutors. To whit surviving period piano, fiddle and voice scores. Stephen Foster did not publish a banjo tutor, for instance.

There is a tendency to imply "Minstrel Banjo" to mean what we know of minstrel banjo from the banjo tutors, but again there's no evidence that the tutors were in wide geographical distribution or use. We know they were published, as were reams and reams of forgettable sheet music published with optimism but ending up as bird cage liners. Today we would call it vanity press, as there was no market research. Selling by subcription was the only sure thing.

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