Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

I've been sliding my bridge '2 frets' up for a while now (for some tunes) with great success.

The trick is to have a rim big enough and a scale length short enough, and a neck tilt shallow enough to allow it.

My favorite banjo has a 27" scale, 12.5" rim and slightly less than a 2 degree neck tilt (the originals had 0 or maybe 1 degree I believe).

 

So........For instance, the song 'Glendy Burke' which I like to play in dGDF#A tuning but sounds better when I'm singing to the eAEG#B tuning is easy to get to on my banjo. My brige sets (approx) 3/4" behind the centerline. I just slide it up to 1 1/2" about the centerline, then make a quick tweak on the 5th string...and I'm in A. My son can really rattle off the tunes in A on a D whistle. So I do this a lot. Harmonica players as many of you know play in 'standard' fashion, cross harp, and '3rd' position. 3 different keys on one harp.

 

If your neck tilt is like that of a guitar, sliding the bridge up will bring the distance between the strings and skin quite close, but if you have a shallow angle it works great. The tone is full and the strings just a bit tighter feeling like you would get with a capo on a fretted banjo. The scale length can't be much over 27" on a 12.5" because about 2 1/2" from the edge the tone dies, fast. Like a clothespin on your nose.

 

I've been thinking about making a whopping 14 1/2" rim that would allow sliding up and DOWN. That would cover a lot of bases and take care of all of the harmonica, accordion, whistle, and voice problems you'd ever probably encounter.

 

I believe the artist WAS correct when drawing Sweeney's banjo.

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Hi Joel,

Where is the capo in the picture from?



Joel Hooks said:

The funny thing is you both took my sarcasm seriously.  I even included a winking smiley face!

 

As to playing in "A," if one goes by the tutors, that's where we should be.  The real problem is that it sounds too normal up there, not very different and old timey. Same reason the mid 1840s elabrate scroll banjos are so popular to play 1860s music on- it stands out and is way different than modern banjos.  That is really the important part.

 

To whistles... shouldn't they be called "flageolets" or "tin fifes?"

 

Capo D'astros, that was the Buckley book, and he was shilling Ashborn products, and strangely enough, Ashborn had a patent for a capo d'astro.  Funny that capo use seems to be limited to people trying to sell product, where Converse, Stewart, heck even the criminal Dobson family all claimed that the banjo could be played in any key- no patent clamp needed.

 

Patent simplified transposing clamps, simple method play by numbers, raised frets, the objective was money not necessity.

Joel, I guess I am wondering where the music that my husband and I often play fits into the timeline/classification you give above. 

What about traditional families like the Hammons family or the Carpenter families, who were taught the banjo and fiddle music of their grandfathers who lived during the Civil war? Their music was for example Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia mountain music continuously played and passed down throughout 1800's (and likely starting pre-1800)- crooked fiddle tunes, banjo tunes, ballads- in open cross tunings and such, quite archaic.- is that banjo music to be called 'classic banjo' simply because it was their repertoire between 1880 and 1900?  I don't consider that music to be 'old-time' either, since it is well pre-1920's commercial 78's stringband/hillbilly, which heralds the beginning of the 'old-time' label.  And it's certainly nothing related to modern bluegrass (post 1930) or folk revival time periods.


But...classic

Their stuff was not played or found in tutors or in banjo orchestras or college or parlor repertoire- it is much more archaic.  That kind of banjo playing just doesn't feel the same as what I think of as 'classic banjo'.  So how would one classify the drone-based pre-1920 (which would certainly include the entire span between 1820 or so to say 1920, just to take an example slice) fiddle/banjo repertoire of the mountainous areas of WV and Kentucky?  It doesn't seem to jive with any descriptions of 'classic banjo' I have read. Or does it get lumped into the  'classic banjo' category simply because isolated rural people were still passing it down and playing it all throughout that time period?  Am I missing the boat here?

Ian, here is the patent...

 

http://www.google.com/patents?id=7H5GAAAAEBAJ

 

Here is where I got the photo.

 

http://www.sternercapo.se/Capomuseum/

Have you met R.D. Lunceford?

 

Strumelia said:

Joel, I guess I am wondering where the music that my husband and I often play fits into the timeline/classification you give above. 

What about traditional families like the Hammons family or the Carpenter families, who were taught the banjo and fiddle music of their grandfathers who lived during the Civil war? Their music was for example Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia mountain music continuously played and passed down throughout 1800's (and likely starting pre-1800)- crooked fiddle tunes, banjo tunes, ballads- in open cross tunings and such, quite archaic.- is that banjo music to be called 'classic banjo' simply because it was their repertoire between 1880 and 1900?  I don't consider that music to be 'old-time' either, since it is well pre-1920's commercial 78's stringband/hillbilly, which heralds the beginning of the 'old-time' label.  And it's certainly nothing related to modern bluegrass (post 1930) or folk revival time periods.


But...classic

Their stuff was not played or found in tutors or in banjo orchestras or college or parlor repertoire- it is much more archaic.  That kind of banjo playing just doesn't feel the same as what I think of as 'classic banjo'.  So how would one classify the drone-based pre-1920 (which would certainly include the entire span between 1820 or so to say 1920, just to take an example slice) fiddle/banjo repertoire of the mountainous areas of WV and Kentucky?  It doesn't seem to jive with any descriptions of 'classic banjo' I have read. Or does it get lumped into the  'classic banjo' category simply because isolated rural people were still passing it down and playing it all throughout that time period?  Am I missing the boat here?

No I haven't met him.

What does this mean?

Joel Hooks said:

Have you met R.D. Lunceford?

 

 

Hi Dan'l, thanks for your detailed reply.  :)

There's often a big difference as to a date when things started happening, and the date when those things became 'popular and common'- and part of that may be at work here in what we say in our posts.

I think that 'popular' banjo playing among 'civilized' white society is indeed dated as you say- becoming popular after the CW.  There is abundant evidence as we all know.

Without setting aside an hour or two of digging up citations in my banjo books, I will take the lazy route here and say that my readings over the years have led me to understand that white Appalachian rural people were playing banjo well before the Civil War.  How much earlier is hard to say, because we then wander outside the evidence realm of banjo tutors, minstrel show descriptions, and photographs.  As time reaches further back there is naturally less and less hard documentation and more and more anecdotal evidence, particularly in isolated and often poor rural areas.  I find in general that there is more writing and stories related to fiddlers of that time and place than there is to banjo players- and that may be partly due to the community respect given to a good fiddler (whether a scoundrel or family man) who was in the position of leading dances in a community.  Even today in the old-time and dance scene, fiddlers get all the respect and lowly banjo players are a dime a dozen.   ;D

An aside- fiddling was a HUGE influence on rural mountain banjo playing, along with the Elizabethan ballads, travelling Minstrel shows, sea chanteys, slave spirituals and work songs you mentioned.

 

I realize this has all strayed far from the thread topic, and for that I apologize and am happy to go back to sliding bridges...which I intend to experiment more with this evening on my gourd banjo.   :)

Thanks Joel - that's pretty neat, but the reduction system on the tuning pegs is even better. Wonder how well it worked? Perhaps the fact I've never seen anything like that is my answer.

Joel Hooks said:

Ian, here is the patent...

 

http://www.google.com/patents?id=7H5GAAAAEBAJ

 

Here is where I got the photo.

 

http://www.sternercapo.se/Capomuseum/

I found two more songs today that I just HAVE to sing in A. The only thing I don't like about sliding the bridge is playing over the neck sometimes and banging my recently sprained thumb on the wood  +ouch+

Strumelia said:

Hi Dan'l, thanks for your detailed reply.  :)

There's often a big difference as to a date when things started happening, and the date when those things became 'popular and common'- and part of that may be at work here in what we say in our posts.

I think that 'popular' banjo playing among 'civilized' white society is indeed dated as you say- becoming popular after the CW.  There is abundant evidence as we all know.

Without setting aside an hour or two of digging up citations in my banjo books, I will take the lazy route here and say that my readings over the years have led me to understand that white Appalachian rural people were playing banjo well before the Civil War.  How much earlier is hard to say, because we then wander outside the evidence realm of banjo tutors, minstrel show descriptions, and photographs.  As time reaches further back there is naturally less and less hard documentation and more and more anecdotal evidence, particularly in isolated and often poor rural areas.  I find in general that there is more writing and stories related to fiddlers of that time and place than there is to banjo players- and that may be partly due to the community respect given to a good fiddler (whether a scoundrel or family man) who was in the position of leading dances in a community.  Even today in the old-time and dance scene, fiddlers get all the respect and lowly banjo players are a dime a dozen.   ;D

An aside- fiddling was a HUGE influence on rural mountain banjo playing, along with the Elizabethan ballads, travelling Minstrel shows, sea chanteys, slave spirituals and work songs you mentioned.

 

I realize this has all strayed far from the thread topic, and for that I apologize and am happy to go back to sliding bridges...which I intend to experiment more with this evening on my gourd banjo.   :)

Danl, I take all your points well. 

What's older is slave then Minstrel banjo, both pre-dating the adoption of the instrument in Appalachia and the marriage of Elizabethan and ballad influences on banjo repertoire.

I agree with your above statement. 

I hear the English ballad, minstrel, and African influences in early Appalachian banjo styles- these Southern and Appalachian banjo styles having been beautifully laid out and demonstrated by the late Mike Seeger.  These recognizable stylistic sounds in mountain banjo playing indeed harken back to earlier times, those of minstrel and slave banjo playing, and Elizabethan balladry.  I guess that's the part of  Southern Appalachian clawhammer banjo playing that I am hearing, recognizing, and labeling as 'archaic'.   Just as with Appalachian ballad traditions, the material and threads of the fabric come from a much older past, and the resultant music bears the stamp of antiquity even if the singer is just a young girl.

Though I see your point and agree with the timeline, little in real life is neatly and cleanly delineated, and  I suspect the banjo was sporatically brought to the Appalachians by traders and travelers of various sorts, possibly including some blacks, at some point before the CW.  Certainly not common until after the CW as you say, but I still imagine it had begun to appear here and there and be paired with fiddlers.  Mine is a combination of intuition and of reading about various Appalachian musical family histories- often colorfully told as passed down over the generations.  Little of it provable fact, for sure.  I should preface my comments as being my own impressions gleaned from multiple and varied sources over time.

 

We should best leave bluegrass banjo out of it altogether, since we all know bluegrass is a modern 1930-40's style that was developed from earlier black up-picking finger styles.   "Old-timey banjo" and 'old-time' music I define as assuming the birth date of commercial stringband recordings in the time period of the 1920's.

 

I do know that Appalachian dulcimers were not as common as romantic descriptions would like us to think.   However, even the earliest immigrants were bringing over and/or making their own familiar box zitters such as hummels, epinettes, scheitholts, langspils, etc... various embodiments of which would lead during the mid 1800's to the development of the American fretted lap zither.  No one knows the actual date when the Appalachian dulcimer was actually first created, though the earliest verified surviving Appalachian dulcimer was dated 1832, and German scheiholts were being made in Pennsylvania in the late 1700's.

Strumelia, maybe you have this book, but if not, you'll want it -

"African Banjo Echoes In Appalachia: A Study Of Folk Traditions" by Cecelia Conway.

Terry, thank you- you're right.  I absolutely should get and read that book, I've been meaning to get it for a couple of yrs now.  I have "That Half-Barbaric Twang" by Linn and Gura/Bollman's book.  I'll order CeCe's book!

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