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:


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Paul Ely Smith,

I am curious: other than Converse, is there another source describing the technique of ante-bellum black banjo players?

Pending that, I can't imagine any reason to doubt that Converse saw what he claimed he saw: the black players that he encountered mostly played two-finger style. As a banjo player he should have been a discerning observer.

I am somewhat skeptical that there are any communities of "folk" players where down-picking an instrument was universal. There are finger-pickers among the ekonting players. In Appalachia you had various styles of playing banjo, sometimes within the same family. Sometimes within the same person: Buell Kazee is known for his frailing style but he knew other styles (including Seeger's "basic strum"); Wade Ward mostly played finger-style when he accompanied other musicians; Hobart Smith played several styles.

Back in the old days I remember an old time banjo player showing me a hybrid two finger/up pick style that he'd played in the 30s and said was from his part of the South.

I've collected, from a variety of different digital newspaper sources, quite a few (somewhere close to 50 or 75) antebellum descriptions of black banjo players and the performance aspects of antebellum African American music in both the North and the South.   I haven't had time yet to print them all out and study them closely, but it's fair to say that they contain a fair amount of information about the contexts in which banjos were played by African Americans in the first half of the 19th century, but not a lot of detail about playing technique.  Once I find a chance to comb through this material more carefully, I'll have more to say about what I've found.

Meanwhile, I'm attaching a 1919 article from the New York Sun, published on the occasion of the death of Edward C. Dobson.   In it, the author (unnamed) summarizes what he recalls of the early history of the banjo.   It's admittedly late, and therefore the details may be a bit confused.   But he has some interesting things to say about stroke style versus finger style banjo and about the influential black banjo player Horace Weston (1825-1890).   

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
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.

"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.
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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