Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

Shedding light on the beginnings of fingerstyle banjo and other topics

I was reading through the Gatcomb's Gazette editions that Joel Hooks kindly uploaded, and in Volume 7 No. 3 the opening article titled "Old-Time Banjoists" provides a lot of information that is very relevant to this forum and could shed light on a number of topics discussed here including the beginnings of fingerstyle banjo.  Here's a link:

https://archive.org/details/GatcombVol7No3

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I think there is a confusion between guitar style and thumb lead two finger playing. Guitar style uses three fingers much like guitar and modern bluegrass playing whereas thumb lead two finger is just that, thumb leading using the index finger only for
up-picking.
It will be interesting to see if stroke and thumb lead two finger were played historically during the same period. I hope the research will make it clear. Seems, so far, that there is evidence for both styles being played, but which was predominant?
I would guess that stroke was as it was mentioned mostly in the tutors of the day.

From my brief conversation with a player in the thumb lead/up pick style my impression is that he gravitated toward slower, more sentimental tunes. In other words, while that style might be used for assertive, dynamic instrumental pieces when promoted as such, inherently it may have been associated with slower pieces. Some fiddlers love to play waltzes. Some play nothing but reels. I doubt the tutors were written with slow dances, sentimental songs or accompaniment as their focus.

OK-4,

Unfortunately, unless you buy my Gottschalk hypothesis (which is why I make a big deal about it) there isn't a single source describing the technique 19th-century African-American banjo players in any detail. Honestly, that's why I found my own inquiry into this so absorbing.  You've got to do your homework, and you still have to get creative. 

Converse casually dismisses the musicality of African-American performers to such a degree that you have to regard any of his observations of them with suspicion, in my opinion.  It's like asking Minstrel Banjo participants for their observations on freestyle rap technique.  Maybe someone here would get it right, but probably not.  We're surrounded by it in our culture, but unless you really study it and respect it, your observations are likely to be worthless.  Converse's superficial observations as to technique of a performance he saw are likely to be accurate--yeah, the guy definitely had banjo chops--but he clearly also had attitudes that would preclude any serious study of African-American music.  Without a doubt he had virtually no access to the vast majority of African-American music traditions and performance practice and he showed no interest in addressing his ignorance.  How would he know what most black banjo players were doing? 

I was not aware of up-picking among ekonting players.  Do you have a specific example you can cite?  I can imagine current players imitating guitars or whatever, but I didn't know that it was part of that tradition.  I've only seen downstroking.  Ngoni players up-pick traditionally, of course, within a primarily downstroking context, but the Gnawa of Morocco (Mande people captured c.1600 in Mali by the Moroccan invasion) brought plucked lutes with them which they play exclusively in a downstroking style.  Applying the anthropological concept of marginal survival to their tradition, I believe we have as much a window on early West African plucked lute performance practice in America as we are going to get.  Alas, musicians are creative and try stuff, and there's no rule against up-picking.  It's certainly present in West Africa, and is all over early blues, and I found a place to put it in my arrangement of Gottschalk's "Banjo".  But if down-picking isn't "universal" in many communities, it is by far the dominant style in most rural traditions by the early 20th century.  If you need danceable rhythmic drive on a banjo (and who doesn't), it's the way to go, IMHO.  I think it becomes rare in early blues guitar because its advantages are the way it uses a banjo thumb string, which guitars lost back in the 18th century.      

"Without a doubt, he had virtually no access to the vast majority of African-American music traditions and performance practice and he showed no interest in addressing his ignorance. How would he know what most black banjo players were doing."

Where is your evidence of this? Please explain how you know this "without a doubt" when you never met the man.

Here's a little gem from Frank--

"isn't it interesting that the banjo long slumbered in the hands of the ignorant darkys of the South, awaiting it's development in the hands of white players in the North?"

Besides the obvious fact that an attitude like that would not get you very far in finding out anything about what was going on in African-American communities in the segregated South before 1900 (where the vast majority of African-Americans lived before the Great Migration in the 20th century), it is self-evident that he didn't know anything about African-American music if he said something as utterly stupid and ignorant as that.  Word.

Compared to his playing, African-American plantation banjo playing likely did appear ignorant to him, and to be quite honest I think you are trying to elevate it to be something that it may not have been. I think Converse has a point- it IS interesting that the banjo rose from such lowly beginnings to become a respectable instrument found in "parlors of the nation's best people" (to quote Gatcomb). Pretty neat if you ask me. If a few notable moments in history did not occur (like Sweeney's banjo performances) we may have never had the modern banjo.

John, I am curious to know if your last comment reflects an opinion shared by other adherents to the genre of "classic" banjo today?

Most white people back then (and some white people today as well) typically looked upon the culture, music, and folk traditions of pretty much any dark skinned people as being crude, ignorant, lowly and unrefined as compared to their own...which were viewed as being respectable, refined, and far more advanced.

How music and culture gets judged as being respectable, best, refined, advanced, ignorant, lowly, etc...is often purely a subjective matter of opinion, based on a person's background and acquired tastes.  It's funny how we see things sometimes.  I know i would rather hear the old Chinese busker  have seen in the subway playing on his simple homemade erhu than listen to a violin concerto.  To me the old man expresses intangible and ancient cultural traditions through his instrument that feel truly sublime to my ears.  I stood to listen for a long time...his music brought me to tears and I had only the highest respect for his 'folk' art, regardless of whether others consider it respectable or not.  Others might pass by him and cringe, saying perhaps "What horrible crude out-of-tune caterwauling- he's no Itzhak Perlman". 


Paul Ely Smith said:

"isn't it interesting that the banjo long slumbered in the hands of the ignorant darkys of the South, awaiting it's development in the hands of white players in the North?"

...... it is self-evident that he didn't know anything about African-American music if he said something as utterly stupid and ignorant as that.  Word.

Word +1

To be fair FBC did not consider that anyone played the banjo well when he was young-- no matter what race or class. That is made clear if one reads ALL of his letters and does not Just quote small verses.

FBC is being painted as a hate filled villain, but let us not forget his (and his wife's) work for the rights of American Indians. He claims the honor of being the first white man to have the Iroquois hold service in a white church at christain funeral. His wife (and life long love, quite the romance there) battled on behalf of the Iroquois till the day of her death.

It is also easy for us to judge him. We did not live through the horror of the ACW. We were not living in New York during the draft riots.

And most importantly-- we have no idea what he heard or did not hear!

If anything be complete. And note my first point-- in his opinion no one was a good banjo player at that time.

I'm siding with Paul Ely Smith on this one.  And here's why:  All of the accounts (alluded to earlier) that I've collected from antebellum newspapers cite three contexts in which the banjo was played by African Americans:  (1) as an accompaniment to group dancing (e.g., during Christmas celebrations on Southern plantations), as an accompaniment to personal singing, and as an accompaniment to group singing (e.g., groups of black men walking together and singing through the streets of New York, Boston, and Washington, DC).  I've found no references to banjo contests in black communities or to displays of black virtuosity in the same (although black virtuosos like Horace Weston and the Bohee Bros. did eventually emerge in a white entertainment context.)  This doesn't mean that such displays didn't occur among black banjo players in antebellum times.  We just don't know at this point.  However, I'm not sure that the accounts of white virtuosos like Converse (who mostly viewed banjo-playing in a competitive environment) or the minstrel performers, or the writers of banjo tutors like Briggs are a true reflection of how the banjo was used in antebellum African American communities.   Just my two cents.     

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