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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Um, before we start dragging up this whole discussion of drones and drone strings and 'pedal points' yet again...can everyone please first read (or re-read) this discussion where we beat it all to death not that long ago?


Ok. I read it. Lots of interesting stuff. And some confusion about whether a drone is high, low, or either one. Along those lines, I'd argue that a drone based music is in balance when it has both a high and low drone. So, on the historical Celtic harp--probably the source of all organized instrumental music in the Middle East and Europe, going back to 2000 or 3000 BC--there were two low notes--what I and others have called an alternating drone accompaniment--and a single high drone. Where is the low drone in minstrel banjo? I'd say, often at the tip of the cane that the group gently tapped on the downbeat. The stages were often inclined toward the audience and they resonated. The bones played a complex fill rhythm. The tambourine helped create sustain--much as bottle caps do on the gourd into which mbira players fit their instrument. The banjo's high drone ideally created sparkle and was not simply a melody note. It could be sporadic because the cane tap was constant. And the thimble struck a clear percussive melody. Voila. The whole range. The question remains, to what extent do the tutors reflect the actual use of the banjo's drone string, at least prior to 1870 when American music began a serious shift to a more arranged and chordal aesthetic? I'd argue that this remains a central concern here and one that not will be resolved though it will remain important to discuss.
Where is there a reference to celtic harps going that far back? The histories of that instrument I've read trace it back to the Middle Ages.
I use the term "celtic harp" because it is the term everyone is familiar with. About 1100 the instrument was considered natural or native to the British Isles as a whole--so one can argue with that name. And going back further, it was probably imported to the British Isles from the mainland a thousand years earlier--at least. It used a musical system that preceded the systemization of music both in Persia and Europe around 1000AD. So, in fact, it was not "Celtic" inherently. After 1200 or so, it survived in "celtic" areas of the British Isles. Hence the reason for using that word. The basic scale was F G a bflat c d eflat f with the tonality set as twin finals--F combined with Bflat or G combined with Bflat. Bflat was tuned slightly sharp. It was probably the most complete of all the various drone based instruments used across the ancient and then medieval world. And as such it was seen as the core of a musical system that preceded and for a time competed with the Persian and European systems that commenced about 1000AD. Ultimately, it went away much as did the early banjo---because a drone based music is more ecstatic than intellectual.

I'm gonna duck out of this and go play my banjer now.   How about you guys putting up a video or two of actual music playing once in a while, for a change?   Dan'l?  Young John?   You've both been active members a long time but never seem to contribute except to debate and 'correct' others.  Do you also play the banjo?  Maybe time to put up  some tunes and inspire somebody here in a positive way.   What a concept!   :)

Only within the walls of the empire is the tree of knowledge forbidden.

That is over my head, CW.

More on playing styles: I mentioned Pete Seeger saying that most folks musicians that he encountered only knew maybe three songs using simple accompaniment. But he also stressed that many of these same people played with great artistry.

Artistry is not the same as technical brilliance or complexity.

Did full-time professional musicians like Converse, Weston, Ossman, Van Eps, Bacon, etc take the banjo to higher technical levels of playing than ante bellum folk players? Did they have banjos that were better made and more durable?

Seems pretty likely.

You don't need to be that good to play this music. You only need some soul.

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