Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

It's easy to see Rice's arrangements as being idiosyncratic by nature, because they sometimes differ radically from what Briggs or Converse, say, might have played. I think most of us see Briggs as representing a simple, pure "banjo style". I know I used to. And it certainly is a great place to start. But what if Briggs was just as idiosyncratic as Rice?

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I don't think it's a question of an 18 year old having influence on popular music, it is more a question of an 18 year old having significance in the publishing business.

Kevin Burke's style brings up very interesting questions about what notation captures and what it ignores, as well as innovation within a living tradition.  The extraordinary swing of Kevin's playing is utterly un-notatable.  While he is quick to acknowledge his debt to the pantheon of 20th-c. Irish fiddlers from Michael Coleman and Paddy Killoran to Bobby Casey, I would say that these earlier players don't have the intoxicating swing you hear in Kevin's playing, especially his right hand.  The recordings are there to compare.  Anyway, it is arguable that Kevin's playing represents something new, and his influence it pervasive, even on his peers (us, too).  I wonder to what degree his rhythm could even reflect an American influence.  That was certainly true in Micheál's guitar playing, with whom I worked a bit in the mid-80s.  It didn't trouble them, though, because they were working in a living tradition.  This is precisely the aspect of approaching 19th-century banjo music that has to be invented by those of us playing it.  Tim is right to say that there is no description that will explain it, nor will notation ever preserve it.  It has to be heard and observed, or reinvented by the performer.  With nineteenth-century banjo music it can never be proven, which to me at least is no obstacle. 


I think you are right that this sort of swing must have been all over 19th-c. African-American music and I can't not put it in my banjo playing.  Based on what does survive into the era of recording, it is fair to say that many white performers in the early 20th-century seem not to "get" the swinging rhythmic subtlety of African-American music, and so I conclude that this was probably true of most minstrel performers as well.  The earliest recordings of African-American oral tradition are already swinging, and I think it's safe to say that this rhythmic heritage is ancient.  Whether or not any of the minstrel banjo players "got it," though, we wouldn't have the evidence in written music. 

Bell Banjos said:

At 3:10 in this clip http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OilNy6nY2YM is the phrasing I'm talking about. It's the same move we do when we play a string of eigth notes, a drone being every other one. This is old fiddling and Kevin was young when he learned this stuff plus he learned usually directly from older players. And listen to the very slight swing in these reels. Some people can't hear it, some fiddlers can't play it. It's there. Kinda like a triple dotted eigth.  It's just something understood. "African Echoes In Appalachian Banjo" is a book that has best explained (to me) how the banjo and fiddle influenced each other.

Agreed, Paul, and that is why some sleuthing is fun and necessary, unless we want to become like religious fundamentalists over our banjo tutors.

I don't know anybody behaving like a religious fundamentalist over tutors. They are, however, the single most important thing from which to supplement our discovery and thought. Those that lose out are they who cannot look at those printed pages without any sense of speculation, imagination, and openness to new thought. 

This is the place where we should be experimenting with interpretations and concepts of the music.

OK I'm guilty. I listen to you guys play here in the group and I steal a little from everyone. Isn't is great that these few dots can yield so many different interrpretations, while sticking to the melody??? A guy called me this morning about a banjo and said, almost as if he had lost all will, "This stuff is so addicting!!"

I agree with Tim's comment. We have been accused of that many times. Fact is, have a session with us in a barn and we trade endless variations.

I differ in that I try to, as much as I can, keep my modern ear from getting involved in those variations. There is enough flourishes documented to keep me happy.

Doubtless even in the middle of what we consider to be 'pure' minstrel era, there were no two minstrel banjo players who played just alike- no matter whether they read and learned from tutors or learned by ear from others.  Musicians come from different backgrounds, and cultural differences must have been sharper back then than they are in today's more homogenized melting pot.  Thus, singers, fiddlers, banjo players etc. of the 1800's who grew up in families hearing Irish traditional music, or southern Baptist music, or African or French-derived music, etc... must all have had their own little flavor that they brought with them, intentionally or not, when they played whatever music they played, including popular songs of their own time.

Sometimes it's easy to forget that people back then might not have been saying things like "hey let's play some minstrel tunes tonight!" or "That sounds like an English parlor tune", or "Check out the Ethiopian rhythm in this stroke style piece I learned!"  

I imagine they were just playing music and having fun and swiping/swapping songs and tunes from whoever they could watch playing or singing, and then playing it their own way.  Just like we would do today if there was no way to 'record' music other than writing melody indications in standard notation.  Tab and standard notation are, and were, the bare bones of folk music.  The shape of the music always changes slightly as a live musician breathes life into it.

Amen, sister Strum.

Offering up another small bit of "Converse wrote the Briggs' book" evidence, besides that fact that he said he did.

In his third letter, he tells the story of a banjo contest and how he won a set of solid gold dear antlers.  That was in 1856.  He the wrote this...

"Parenthetically, I would add that this was the usual result of my various experiences (meaning winning banjo contests) and simply demonstrates the supremacy of musical principles vs. simplified, ear or other methods."

One could deduct that he was beating all banjoists in contest because he used "musical principles."  He wrote (and it was written about him) that he was the first to apply music to the banjo-- the first real banjo instruction book was Briggs'.  I'm pretty bad at math, but still... 

A 'set' of solid gold  deer antlers?  What, were they like a half inch big each?  Dude, nice earrings!  lol!

Ah Strumelia, when the boys go to fussing with each other, you are always there with a lovely calming voice!

I appreciate your presence here.

The episode referred to was a banjo contest in St. Louis against a "western champion" named Kelly and Converse did indeed win a set of solid gold miniture deer antlers.  Deer antlers were often hung in the pilothouse of steamboats and the prize represented that.

Strumelia said:

A 'set' of solid gold  deer antlers?  What, were they like a half inch big each?  Dude, nice earrings!  lol!

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