Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

Repertoire advice? Early banjo pieces that show African influence?

Hi everyone--really enjoying everyone's videos and high level discourse, a relative rarity online these days, it seems!

Anyway, sorry if this has been beaten about somewhere before, but I'm putting together a little lecture/recital on traditional bloodlines of early banjo music, exploring African/ Celtic and European contributions to early repertoire and playing styles.

I wanted to ask if anyone could suggest some pieces that best represent the West African roots of the banjo, that would be good examples to include in this concert.

I was thinking of adapting some Ekonting riffs off of videos, but that seems kind of like extreme reverse engineering, since that music has obviously developed over the last 200 years, and mostly seems to consist of repeated ostinato figures under ornately sung melodies.

I think the argument can be made for "Injun Rubber Overcoat," with its bluesy flat 5th and call and response form, but would appreciate any other ideas or input. 

Thanks!

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I suspect very few people agree with me on this (though people have never been able to prove their disagreements on the evidence I provided), but much of the structure of Louis Moreau Gottschalk's "The Banjo" involves variations on a repeating phrase, much more like the kumbengo (Mande), fodet (Wolof), etc., than European dance music structure.  The piece is playable on the banjo (my YouTube video of me playing it demonstrates this--it is on this site, too) and I have published on the possibility that it is based on a transcription of an actual performance.  "Juba" looks like a good candidate too, and I wouldn't dismiss ekonting music out-of-hand--I wouldn't assume that it has changed all that much.  Maybe yes, maybe not.  Certainly not "obviously".  And in its current state, it represents something easily transferable to a banjo and there's a lot to learn there, in my opinion.  I think ngoni and kontingo music also provide insight.  The more I play around with the little tune Frank Converse claimed to learn from an African-American player, the more I suspect his account is bogus or at least his memory was fuzzy, but it's one that any of us interested in this topic needs to learn.  Mark Weems has posted a bunch of good videos on this site demonstrating very African-sounding interpretations of minstrel tunes on gourd banjo.  Maybe he'll jump on here presently.  Anyway, I am working on a CD of this stuff, and I hope to be done before too long. 

Thanks, Paul! I will explore those suggestion, esp the Gottschalk, I'm reading your essay on it right now! 

The Converse is the "Morceaux" piece, with the EAEAB tuning? 

It does have that cakewalk syncopation that you'd think you'd find more...

Anyway, I appreciate the direction!

Yeah, that's the Converse.  The "cakewalk syncopation" is common enough in minstrel music that I don't give its presence in the "Morceau" much weight.  The EAEAB tuning is interesting though, and when I got into this stuff (c. 1980) I decided to use it as my standard tuning--I think the EAEG#B was devised by the minstrels and I prefer the way the banjo sounds with the perfect intervals...And I liked having to rework all the fingering so that I didn't just follow the minstrel banjo methods.  The piece may be authentic, but Converse's unpleasant dismissal of his source makes me think he might have overlooked a lot of what the player was actually doing, or possibly he insulted the player enough that the guy didn't really show what he was doing.  When you see later attempts of European-Americans copying African-American music, compared to the originals, I see no reason to think that the minstrels did any better--I assume that, lacking sound recording and (for some) respect for African-American music, they probably did worse.  Think Pat Boone doing rock 'n' roll.      

You might want to look at Coal Black Rose.  There are strong elements of Juba in there.  For 1828 it really foreshadows minstrel music, and has been suggested to be the first true minstrel song.  I read somewhere that Grapevine Twist has African American origins, but I don't remember where I read that, so it is probably undocumented.  In general I would suggest that the later the date for a piece of music the less likely that it has African influence.  Of course, after the war music of people like Horace Weston starts to show up.

Thanks, John- it is Juba-esque! 

I would put my personal vote in for Pompei Ran Away.    :)

Thanks, Strumelia-that's a great one!

J

My vote is for Hobson's Jig.

Thnaks, John-

I like playing Injun Rubber and Hobson's Jig together, as they use similar melodic material but good contrast, too.

It's funny how Hobson's is one of the few EB jigs that's actually a 6/8 jig by Irish dance definition.

Most of the time (in Briggs, Buckley, Sweeney) they are just 2/4 twosteps/marches/quicksteps.

I don't know if you listen to any modern African pop music, but Hobson's Jig kind of has the feel the electric guitars do in that genre.

cool--will check out!

Hi Paul, I don't give the story much credit either, perhaps for different reasons.

The man did not show him anything.  FBC wrote "it was the first banjo I ever heard… I cannot say I learned anything from his execution."  It is also a stretch to say that the youthful FBC was insulting to the guy without evidence.  By all accounts, FBC (young or old) was a pleasant person.

A lot of credit has been given to this story and the attached musical piece as very early proof of the "old-time banjo" tradition of scordatura.  This is cited as documentable proof that the current "old-time" folk banjo tradition existed before and remains free of popular minstrelsy influence.

As FBC was a preteen adolescent at the time this would have taken place it is clearly a "back in my day we had it hard" story directed at "you kids of today that have it easy. (shakes fist)."  The scordatura was clearly pointed out as a stunt of showmanship, that the musician claimed he was such a good banjo player that he could even play "out ob a'tune."

Also, as banjo historians claw and scratch to find a documentable connection between African Americans (free or slave) and the pioneers of popular five string banjo, this story gets confused with another story. It is often misquoted that FBC was taught how to play thimble style by a black man named John "Pic" Butler.  That fact is that Pic Butler was not black (at least not the one FBC knew) and this had been distorted over the years (originating with Robert Toll I think) and gets repeated time and time again.  We were enlightened of this by the fantastic job Tony Thomas did at the EBG.

I'm glad that we live in a day where we can read the actual cited documents and not have to rely on the authors interpretation of them.

Back to the topic.

How does one determine what would have "sounded African" to a American in the 1850s?  I mean, I can watch youtube videos of African folk music played recently in Africa by current musicians.  That does not give me an exact account of what a generation removed of enslaved African Americans--stripped of their culture, would have played mid 19th century. Or does it?

Paul Ely Smith said:

Yeah, that's the Converse.  The "cakewalk syncopation" is common enough in minstrel music that I don't give its presence in the "Morceau" much weight.  The EAEAB tuning is interesting though, and when I got into this stuff (c. 1980) I decided to use it as my standard tuning--I think the EAEG#B was devised by the minstrels and I prefer the way the banjo sounds with the perfect intervals...And I liked having to rework all the fingering so that I didn't just follow the minstrel banjo methods.  The piece may be authentic, but Converse's unpleasant dismissal of his source makes me think he might have overlooked a lot of what the player was actually doing, or possibly he insulted the player enough that the guy didn't really show what he was doing.  When you see later attempts of European-Americans copying African-American music, compared to the originals, I see no reason to think that the minstrels did any better--I assume that, lacking sound recording and (for some) respect for African-American music, they probably did worse.  Think Pat Boone doing rock 'n' roll.      

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