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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Richard, I think the consensus is that thumb-lead was not used.  There will always be a few people on the fringe who disagree.  There is no evidence that thumb-lead was used, and it is likely a newer style like clawhammer.  As far as a relaxed feel is concerned, you need to learn to play stroke style without tensing up.  For these tunes, stroke style will allow you to play a lot more notes with more economy of motion, so it should be less strenuous than trying to play all the notes using thumb-lead.

The dactyl rhythmic structure of clawhammer is already found in 1855 in Briggs, as is the use of the thumb string as a drone and not just a melody note. I don't think of it as any more modern than banjo style (Stroke). If you take the pauses out of Brigg's Old Dan Tucker for instance, you have a very nice "clawhammer" version.

John Cohen said:

Rob MacKillop takes this to the extreme... to make a point he played all of Briggs in guitar style, which is not how it was intended to be played.  Still, guitar style is very different than thumb-lead.  Richard, it seems like you really want to use thumb-lead and are trying to get someone to tell you it is a period correct way to play the minstrel repertoire.  It isn't.  It's a modern style, much like clawhammer.  You can obviously use it if that is what you want to do, but it won't look or sound historically authentic.  I really recommend sticking with stroke-style and giving it a good, long chance before you decide you don't want to play the tunes this way.  

I agree.  Minstrel stroke versions of old songs like "Uncle Gabriel" (aka The Sandy Boy)  are almost unchanged from today's clawhammer versions, and whole sections can be exchanged without doing much different at all. 

Sometimes after learning a tutor tune in stroke style, I then realize there are only a very few little fingering differences that keep it from simply being clawhammer-for example maybe a few more thumbs used for the melody notes, or maybe more spaces where CH 'dropthumbs' might typically be.  Clawhammer tends to fill the empty pauses with a more constant 5th string ringing and dropthumbs....like someone who feels compelled to leave the tv on so the house doesn't sound empty..lol. 

The stroke style tutor tunes where I have the most trouble and find to be the least resembling clawhammer, are invariably the ones that sound the most like pure Irish or European parlor tunes, adapted to the banjo, with lots of triplets and arpeggios etc.  Especially as the time approaches the 1880s and the music is less 'primitive' and more 'refined'.

Mark Weems said:

The dactyl rhythmic structure of clawhammer is already found in 1855 in Briggs, as is the use of the thumb string as a drone and not just a melody note. I don't think of it as any more modern than banjo style (Stroke). If you take the pauses out of Brigg's Old Dan Tucker for instance, you have a very nice "clawhammer" version.

Paul, would those elements of rhythmic drive be missing from the tutors because music writing conventions precluded their inclusion, because the "experts" who wrote the books tended toward complexity rather than simplification of the melody and/or because the "experts" lived in a world apart from lower or more common performance practice?

Yes, exactly.  It is not an easy task to notate banjo music, especially if it isn't just some reminder to you of how you want to play it, but something that would make sense and deliver an authentic sound in someone else's hands.  But not only that--most "experts" didn't get much of a professional European music education in the first half of the 19th century in the US.  To figure out the conventions that they did in the minstrel tutors is a pretty impressive feat, in such a way that banjo music could be produced from them alone (as we see done beautifully here all the time).  I assume that the music was far more danceable and driving than the tutors could lead one to believe though, but they could assume that you had access to live performances from which you'd get the rhythm and drive of the music.  In its essence, this music was oral tradition; musicians learned it by ear, which is why so much dance music from the British Isles was immediately part of minstrel music--everyone knew that sort of stuff already, and they could put a banjo in it, and...there you go.  IMHO, the tutors really are like the classic Earl Scruggs banjo book.  They tell you what to do, but ideally you already know what it's supposed to sound like.     

Thanks. I'm working on a small book about a couple of 1860s style banjoists. There seems to be a lot of women, drinking and good times going on. It's hard to see these players as interested in anything staid. And they are all comics.

I read Converse as saying that two finger up-picking was the most common method among the black players that he encountered. Is it possible that downstroke was not particularly popular, but happened to be the method that Joel Walker Sweeney picked up from his neighbors, and so become the style that Sweeney popularized as he travelled about, turning it into the characteristic banjo style?

It took me six months to get the frailing motion down really solid when I learned it 30 years ago. So I have trouble imagining that down-picking could ever have been the only method used in any community.

Stroke-style vs. thumb lead? Are those really exclusive? The tutors have some down picking with the thumb leading, such as parts of "Bully for All" from Converse 1865:

http://http://minstrelbanjo.ning.com/video/bully-for-all-st-patrick...

I know that Converse claimed that he learned that one tune from an African-American banjo player, and I recall that he said that it was played in a two-finger style with index finger up-picking.  Hm, maybe.  Some West African players mix it up quite a bit, and that inspired me to play some things in what I like to call "kora" style.  However, "down-picking" is indeed the only right hand technique used in a variety of music communities--various traditions in Appalachia of course (lots of places where clawhammer is how it's done), ekonting players in the Gambia, Chinese pipa players, too...   Personally, I look to the diversity of techniques of the early blues guitar players for a sense of the options, and some of those guys (Son House comes to mind) do a lot of what seems to me like frailing the guitar, others up-pick more precisely--it's pretty much all over the place.  John Lee Hooker's playing sounds very banjo-esque to me (I had a cool stroke-style "Boogie Chillen" going for awhile).  No reason to think banjo was any different in those communities.  As a player, I try to keep my right hand flexible and able to do whatever works.  Inspired by West African ngoni players for whom the first string is another drone string, I have some things where I stroke down with my index and up-pick with my middle finger on the first string.  The advantage of the downstroke is that by using larger muscle groups and a heavier item driving the string (your entire hand, wrist, and forearm versus your index finger), there is more potential power and drive in the downstroke than the up-pick.  I think it's more powerful rhythmically, without a doubt.  

Converse strikes me as a pretty dubious source on what African-Americans were or weren't doing, since he really doesn't seem to respect their music or be particularly aware of it.  He appears to me to be mostly ignorant of what was going on in African-American communities, and I don't think he was in a position to say what techniques were the most common.  That tune could be for real or not (he reports it many decades after he supposedly heard it)--nothing about it distinguishes it from any number of other minstrel banjo tunes, and formally it resembles minstrel music much more than African-American music (2-part European fiddle tune architecture, for example).  Of course, the individual elements in the tune can be jettisoned from that form and played as more of a driving dance groove, with improvised development and whatnot--that's how I do it--and then it's a bit more believable as an African-American tune.  Maybe it was played that way when/if he heard it and he sought to "correct" it by making it fit a standard minstrel form.  Who knows?   In any case, IMHO it is far better as a stroke-style piece, though.

You are correct that some stroke-style tunes put the thumb on, say, the first beat, but it doesn't stay on the melody with index finger accompaniment, like the aptly-named "thumb lead".    

I think it's possible that, historically, some musicians played the instrument the wrong way and made good music. Others who played the right way may have made terrible music. Still others probably tried to take a vote and reach a consensus in the interest of universal harmony. Then someone invented the ukelele---a drone based instrument where everyone has forgotten that there is a drone string. This has lead to real confusion and a discussion of the word, "ukelele." Fortunately, this is not a ukelele group. Personally, I like the idea that the experts who wrote down difficult tunes were interested in improving--they were improvers. They combed the melodeon halls and midst the whiskey and beer discovered interesting pieces and culled them from the general din. They wrote them down and fixed them in space and time--something those tunes never were in actual performance. But that's the nature of writing. No amount of writing can then bring them alive. That requires singing and dancing. We should talk more about dancing. Does anyone know how to dance the plantation jig? The hornpipe clog? I wonder about tempo and lift. Do the tutors address lift?

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).   

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