Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

I am looking for historical information about all of the rhythm instruments used in minstrel bands including tambo, bones, jawbone and triangle.

The following are a few examples......

From "Gentlemen be Seated".........
"The tambourine permits a rhythmic tapping of it's single drumhead, a whirling of it's metal discs, and a general shaking of it's completely loose and irresponsible mechanism. It is also a temptation to jugglery, and Mr. Tambo is a past master of that art. Up in the air, behind his back, under his chair, goes his tambourine, sometimes several tambourines at once, with knuckles, elbows, head, and feet paying rhythmic tribute to the endlessly moving sheepskin. Biff! Bang! Rattle! Whirr!

From "Gold Rush Performers".........
"Birch, William ("Billy") ... master bones player; affectionately called "Brudder Bones," admires gave him an ivory set tipped with gold."

The book "Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War" by Dena J. Eptsein gives us numerous accounts of slaves playing all of the instruments used in minstrelsy. Here is one bit about the jawbone. "A more primitive, more African combination was observed in middle Florida in 1837-38: "The orchestra is provided with a sort of mandolin made of a gourd, and a horse's jaw bone, the teeth of which are scraped with a hollow stick."

Chris Ownby

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The Hans Nathan Book actually has a score for Minstrel Ensemble, including the notation for Tambo and Bones. It is for "'Twill Nebber Do To Gib It Up So".

It "approximates the manner of performance of minstrel bands in the early forties".
P 403.
Some of the sheet music covers from the 1840s/1850s that I recall show bones, triangle, tambourine
Somewhat tangentally, Albert Baur related that while his unit was on campaign during the Civil War, a "sheet mess tin answered tolerably for a tambourine."
Have you checked out: Winans, Robert. "Early Minstrel Show Music, 1843-1852," in Musical Theater in America: Papers
and Proceedings of the Conference on Musical Theater in America, Glenn Loney (ed.), Westport, CT: Greenwood Press , 1984. Also reprinted in Inside the Minstrel Mask: Readings in Nineteenth-Century Blackface Minstrelsy, ed. Annemarie Bean, James V. Hatch, and Brooks McNamara. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1996.
Thank you Gentlemen!!!

Greg, thanks for reminding me about Robert Winans "Early Minstrel Show Music, 1843-1853" in Inside the Minstrel Mask. I just reread it and found some cool stuff that I can use to help keep my presentations fresh.

The kind of information that I am looking for is like this "One of the earliest tambourine solos is described in a program as imitating railroad trains, cannon, bugle calls, a French drummer, a grist mill, and a cotton mill. Bones solos usually involved imitations of drums and horses."

Now if I could just find some primary source information about how that pesky triangle was played.
And don't forget the fire-tongs.

In Utah one of the Old Time traditional bands of 90 year olds were captured on film by the State folk arts council. They had fiddle, banjo, guitar and pitch fork played like a triangle with a wrench. It had a sound like a giant Teefer or french triangle. As to the triangle I've always assumed it was played in the french Canadian maner. I could imagine that the Minstrel shows had many things they did besides much like the tambourine and bones solos mentioned by Chris. I'm glad to find my wife and I are on the right track playing the Tambourine with Banjo. We did it because it felt right and then found many performers and historical reasons why the two were played together.


We got our jawbone at Lark in the morning.  We've used wooden sticks, but Elaine normally ends up with a lap full of sawdust.  We've tried turkey bones, and are currently using a ham bone.  That has lasted fairly well, but the teeth have eaten through that as well.

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