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. 


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Or maybe it's just an accompaniment to a high colonic.

Tim Twiss said:

Maybe Pompey is an accompaniment to a higher melodic line.

Hm, I guess it was a little disappointing for me when I figured that out 30 years ago, since all the evidence on what African-Americans were doing with the banjo is very interesting (more interesting to me, frankly, than trying to play melodies) and I wish the minstrels had been paying more attention.  I am more interested in the African-American tradition, since its influence was vastly more important to 20th-century music.  But that's just me.

Yes, it is a shame that the original style is lost to history, and especially tantalizing that the minstrel technique and performance style was so meticulously documented in its own time. But that's the way it is in oral/folk tradition versus 'paper trained" music, I guess. Stuff just disappears, dies out.

I don't think it did die out.  It continues to hide in plain sight.  Ragtime piano, blues guitar, various 20th-century banjo styles are all obvious descendents and much of this music is probably closer to African-American banjo music than some might think.  I think there is enough 19th-century evidence to speculate musically.  That's what I do.

Happy ending for the thread? 

There was of course more focus on documenting and/or promoting white musicians and performers than black musicians, so there is a serious gaping hole in the documentation of black banjo players early on.

The famous Cecil Sharp traveled through the Appalachians with his assistant Maud Karpeles, collecting and meticulously documenting the traditional songs of the local rural population, particularly interested in finding evidence of Anglo ballads, though they also documented local and American songs they encountered.  They had no interest in documenting black singing, however.  Black settlements were passed over altogether during their travels, as described in Maude's notes from their 1916 song collecting journey:

We arrived at a cove and got sight of log cabins that seemed just what we wanted.  Called at one.  A musical 'Good Morning', turned round.. and behold he was a negro.  We had struck a negro settlement.  Nothing for it but to toil back again.

Somewhat off topic, but Sharp's (an Englishman) description of hearing Appalachian fiddle and banjo is interesting:

These (tunes) were played by two youths, the one playing the air on the fiddle (con-sordini i.e. by hanging his clasp knife with partially opened blade on the bridge) accompanied by the other with arpeggios on the banjo.  The thing was very skilfully played, plumb in tune, and its constant repetition had a very hypnotic effect on me and apparently on the players ... the tunes look little enough when committed to paper, but the way they were played produced a very curious and not un-beautiful effect.

Also of possible note for those with the CD:  "For an excellent essay concerning the introduction of the banjo into the mountains, see Andy Cahan's 'Manley Reece and the Dawn of North Carolina Banjo' in the booklet accompanying The North Carolina Banjo Collection (Rounder CD 0439/40)."

A distinction between the musical influences of West Africans and African-Americans born here is impossible to make, based on the evidence, because the historical record demonstrates no such clarity.  As I have found myself saying here recently, the gaps in our knowledge may be filled in any number of ways.  Celebrate anything that inspires you.

Paul, which evidences are you referring to?

Paul Ely Smith said:

Hm, I guess it was a little disappointing for me when I figured that out 30 years ago, since all the evidence on what African-Americans were doing with the banjo is very interesting (more interesting to me, frankly, than trying to play melodies) and I wish the minstrels had been paying more attention.  I am more interested in the African-American tradition, since its influence was vastly more important to 20th-century music.  But that's just me.

Mark, I think I have been outlining my evidence at various points throughout this thread.  Here's a summary-- 

1) Surviving West African plucked-lute traditions.  Besides, the ekonting and ngoni/kontingo of the Senegambian region, I also include in this the Gnawa tradition of Morocco, since those people were originally Mande and taken north as slaves around 1600.  Applying the principle of marginal survival, I consider this group to be an important control group for understanding changes in West African music since that time.

2) Recorded African-American music of the early 20th century, including banjo, guitar, and piano music.  A surprising amount of this music demonstrates features of (1), thus implying a good deal of continuity over the previous centuries.

3) Evidence of both (1) and (2) in the L. M. Gottschalk's "The Banjo" and to a lesser degree "Bamboula".  When I make this reference, I usually mention that I am recapitulating my published work on this, and that there may be differing views on my theory.  I think I said earlier that I buy my own theory "hook, line, and sinker." 

4) Minstrel banjo music (and examples like "Pompey Ran Away") that claim influence from African-American music, and examples demonstrating formal and textural aspects consistent with (1), above, that are not part of previous European folk and popular music.  These include the short ideas I pointed out were lacking in the video you posted recently of a Scottish strathspey:  the kumbengo (repeating groove/riff) and birimitingo (improvisational variation--I'm using the Mande terms here--demonstrated by Joe Ayers in your video of "Pompey Ran Away" and various versions of "Juba" and other tunes.  It is pretty obvious to me that from the earliest published minstrel banjo music, the movement was away from music that demonstrated features of West African influence (1, above) in favor of tunes consistent with popular dance music of vaguely British Isles origin and other European forms, since that was more familiar to the popular audiences for minstrel shows.  As a result, the banjo in the minstrel shows moved away from more complex textures demonstrating African features of polyrhythm and interlocking polyphony (hocketing is another term for it) in favor of melody playing.  Fortunately, these features survived--indeed they thrived--in (2), above.

I don't recall seeing "Pompey Ran Away" in any book on banjo-- or single sheet banjo music-- from the 19th century.  Have I missed this?

Paul wrote, "Think Pat Boone doing rock 'n' roll." as a possible comparison to European-Americans mimicking African-American music.  That's interesting and seemingly obvious though I hadn't thought of it.  I always thought that Boone's "white bucks" had greater significance than what he put on his feet.....almost seemed like a not-so-secret code for his true intentions.   

Joel, as we know Pompey was published in Aird's 1782, with the description of only "Negroe Jig."


But we don't know what instrument was being played by the 'negroe' in question when they supposedly played Pompey originally.  Aird's book contained tunes "adapted to fife, violin and German flute", http://deriv.nls.uk/dcn30/9455/94558746.30.jpg .  That title with 'adapted to' implies that the melodies in the book might not have started out on those instruments.  Unfortunately we cannot know whether the black musician(s) Pompey was gotten from was playing flute, fiddle, or banjo.  I think it's likely they were playing some instrument rather than just singing or percussion, since Aird has a melody for the jig.  (Though it's certainly possible the melody was gotten from singing- I've heard African songs repeated in short phrases, like Pompey's tune.)  We have the description "Negroe Jig", and the African-like tune itself to affirm that it has strong African or African-American lineage.  But alas Aird did not indicate how the jig Pompey was played before he 'adapted' it.

Does anyone have any early written references to anyone actually playing Pompey Ran Away, on any instrument, before 1900? (Aside from Aird's book of tunes)  I wonder if it was popular at all, or not well known or played.

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