Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

Hi, all. I'm brand new to this site, so if this is not the appropriate way to communicate to members, please forgive me. 

I played a little modern bluegrass banjo many years ago, and recently have been building gourd banjos. Being able to actual play the things would be great lol. 

Can anyone point me in the direction learning resources, sheet music, arrangements, and perhaps tips to arranging old tunes, as well. I figured out pretty quickly that the bluegrass 3 finger picking style won't get me far here. 

Thanks everyone, and any assistance would be gratefully received. 

Dane Donato

PS If I am doing this right, here is a pic of a recent banjo along with my own ugly mug. Still a few tiny bugs to work out, but overall, very happy with the sound of the instrument. 

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Bob, just a little clarification...I don't have any knowledge about whether or not any West African gourd fiddles came across the Atlantic.  Given the conditions of the voyages, I would think not...but memories of the sound of the music and knowledge of how to play certainly could have--I'm sure they did, in fact--and if a European violin were put in the hands of someone with that memory and knowledge, I'm sure they could have played it on the spot.  I have had the experience of encountering bowed (and plucked) lutes I have never played previously and been able to play music I know on them instantly.  That 2008 book Greg recommended was great to see--I've got to go order that one!  Back when I was doing most of my research in the old days, she had only published on East African fiddles...now all I need to see is someone looking at Natchez and Choctaw influence on blues singing (and maybe drumming), and all my questions will be answered! 

Paul, I think it's fair to assume that enslaved Africans brought virtually nothing with them on the slave ships, except for their own cultural knowledge.  I also think it's fair to assume that, circumstances permitting, they sought to recreate in the New World what they could of their past institutions, including musical traditions.   

Dear Bob,

Thank you for the follow up. Yes, the Slave Voyages Database is great. Everyone should spend time with it! Several years ago I downloaded all of the data into a single spreadsheet and began trying to correlate early banjo references with those of the Middle Passage. I didn't get to finish what I started on it yet…. I hope to get to that point with some of my forthcoming collaborations (we should talk more about this!). Another important area to consider is the new research being done by people like Gwendolyn Midlo-Hall and Walter Hawthorne on African ethnicities in the Americas. It would also be good to do more research into the inter-American slave trade as additional points of consideration. All of these and other approaches--such as those by people like April Masten (of Stonybrook University) and Christopher Smith (of Texas Tech University)--provide additional perspectives to the effects of creolization in this hemisphere as relates to music and dance, which is part of the backdrop that allows for traditions such as the banjo to take hold. That would add much more dimension to the density of 18th/19th century Chesapeake references and help delineate more informed potentials about the "Caribbean connection" to North American banjo references in addition to the organological continuities between historical images, texts, and extant instruments (from the Caribbean basin) from these 2 regions. It'll take good, hard systematic research. In addition to Bob Winans' forthcoming book from UIP, Laurent Dubois from Duke University is working on a forthcoming banjo book about the banjo's Caribbean connections that will be published I believe by Harvard University Press (though I'm not sure when).

These are exciting times to be doing banjo research! I'm glad you are on board!


Bob Sayers said:

Thanks, Greg, for re-posting that banjo-roots-research page.  I'm firmly in the "out of Africa" camp, based on virtually all of the early (17th-18th century) accounts unearthed thus far.  Moreover, I think it's fair to say that the banjo/banza was exclusively the province of enslaved Africans until the 1830s when Joe Sweeney and maybe a couple of others appropriated the instrument as a way to enhance the "authenticity" of their theatrical representations of "genuine" plantation life--therefore "improving" on the banjo-less performances of earlier blackface performers like Thomas Rice.  This is not to say that Sweeney and later white banjo players didn't come to appreciate the instrument on its own merits.   They certainly did.  But they also began almost immediately adapting the instrument to accommodate their own ideas about "genuine" plantation music--which, I would guess, was a far cry from what African American musicians were actually playing in the 1830s and 1840s.  

For me, this threaded discussion actually raised a couple of new issues.  First, there seems to be an emerging consensus, based on 17th century accounts, that the banjo first appeared in the Caribbean region and later "diffused" to other parts of the Americas.   This may or may not be true.   The recent exhibit in Baltimore highlights a cluster of "banjo sightings" in Maryland in the 18th century.   Could it be that the instrument made its way to the Mid-Atlantic region without the Caribbean connection?   Well, there may be a way to find out by tracing the routes of slave ships to the Carolinas and up the coast.   A new database should help.   See:  http://www.slavevoyages.org/tast/index.faces   

My second observation is that maybe (as Paul Ely Smith points out) we should also be looking at the concurrent appearance of African bowed instruments (and maybe cane flutes) in the Americas, instead of just focusing on banjos.  It may well be that banjos were only a part of a larger complex of early African American music.  It would be a shame to miss the forest for the trees.  



However, I do have a couple of questions/observations 


Dear Dan'l,

Thank you for your reply. As I mentioned earlier, Shlomo and I have expanded these few paragraphs from 2010 into a fully foot-noted 21 page essay for Bob Winans' forthcoming book with UIP.

Thank you for your consideration,


Dan'l said:

Greg, thanks for the re-link http://minstrelbanjo.ning.com/forum/topics/banjo-roots-research. Still, it is that approach which, as good as it is, I feel can be called to task on some points. (although not an academic historian, I am a least a post grad in another field and have a good understanding of scientific and historical research methodology generally, so I'd appreciate serious consideration). Here's a sample trio of my thoughts on the linked synopsis:

(A) The premise contained in the title is: "...African American Origins & West African Heritage." The latter part of that seems to already contain a conclusion: that sources other than West African instrument construction are not relevant. In other words what was found was what was looked for, based on an assumption that 2nd, 3rd, 4th generation American slaves were influenced only by the memories of their West African ancestors, when realistically most slaves lived in the moment and were influenced as well by all of the cultures they actually were engaging with in the New World.

     By the time the first American slave trade was established there were well-established trade routes worldwide, some from other lands having instruments very similar in construction to the West African instruments. I'm not even from Missouri, but shouldn't it be a requirement to specifically and methodically rule out other possible influences before basing a premise on West Africa alone?


(B) It also bothers me a tiny bit that so much of the research was done on the extant modern versions of the West African instruments and their players, as if their folk tradition was so rigid that the instruments and players of 200 years ago would have been the same as those studied in the last decade. That certainly isn't true of the folk traditions of other countries. (That kind of assumption has been made before in the study of folk instruments, to whit: the Irish Bodhran was considered to be ancestral yet it was eventually rectified that it mostly came into use after the turn of the 19th century).

(C) to quote the synopsis: "the early gourd banjo, while fundamentally West African in its design, was not an exact replica of any known African instrument" and "...Instead of the sliding tuning rings used on all traditional West African spike lutes, the early gourd banjo had tuning pegs. In place of the typical West African round (cylindrical) stick neck, it had a flat fingerboard" and yet the conclusion drawn from those statements by the very next sentence is, amazingly: "Recognizing these distinctions, it is clear that the early gourd banjo was a folk instrument unique to the African Diaspora."   !!!


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