Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

"One of the things I think we are missing in our discussions is a self-interrogation of our own complicity in how we engage and disseminate content."

 

Greg Adams.

_______________________

 

Alright, I'll take a stab at some self-interrogation.  I think I know what that means.  I'll sit my psyche down in a chair and shine a bright light on it, ask some tough questions.

 

Where to start, that are some many issues at stake here.  How about--period lyrics and performance.

 

When I am doing a show, I consciously or unconsciously take a look around to see if any black people are in the audience.  If there are, I usually take the word "darkey" out of my songs.  I regularly use the word darkey when singing minstrel songs, feeling it is an acceptable substitute for the n-word.  It's still an offensive term, I realize, but using "fella" or something else just sanitizes the music too much for my taste, takes out the bite.  Now, whether or not said black people would have been offended by my use of the word darkey, I don't know.  Of course, we're all individuals and different people will react differently.  However, perhaps I've passed up a chance at a 'dialogue' by censoring myself?  Perhaps they wouldn't have cared.  Perhaps they wouldn't have noticed.  Perhaps they'd think I was in the KKK.  It's an uncomfortable topic.  And I'm embarrassed by it.  (I've seen Clarke Buehling use the word to a mixed audience, and the world didn't end.  He, however, has mojo).

 

We all know that most any performing we do of this music has been scaled way back from a period minstrel show.  Hell, none of us have ever even seen a minstrel show, not an original early-style one.  We can be sure that the music performance involved wild gesticulations and outlandish contortions.  Because, I suppose, white people sometimes see black people as more flamboyant than themselves.

 

Of course, it was the cork "mask" that allowed period performers to be someone else--a fictional plantation slave, happy to work all day and sing and dance all night.  So, sans the mask, it would be silly for us to go all crazy during our performances.  Still, I can't help thinking--is what I'm doing a legitimate representation of an extinct art form?  I'm not at all sure.

 

One think you can certain sure count on in this bizarre little genre of ours--dots on the page.  They are black gold.  Speaking of which, I really should be practicing... 

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Thank you for sharing, Carl. I've come from the other end of the spectrum. For years I played with a group that always changed the lyrics because we were more interested in selling a product and didn't want to make anyone upset. I am glad we did it that way because I do not think we were equipped to facilitate any real public discussions for what we were doing. We played at festivals, reenactments, and public concert series. By avoiding the issues, we consistently avoided affecting any real change. I think we really just ended up reinforcing a very narrow sense of nationalism that was not as inclusive as it should have been. 

 

I remember coming home from one of my first reenactments at the age of 19 or 20, demonstrating how I had learned a new song over the weekend, "Year of Jubilo." I wanted to impress my mother by saying, "listen to this fun song." She said, "Do you know what you are singing and saying when you use the word, 'darkey'?" I was oblivious to what the word actually implied. When she explained it to me, I was floored that this is what popular music was doing in the 19th century. It took me years to figure out how to objectively approach the material. For me it was the liner notes of Bob Winans' New World Records album that gave me some insight and a bit of confidence. Coming at the music from a research perspective, created a "safe space" for me to literally put this stuff on the table and try to make sense out of it. I've been doing it ever since. That was probably some time in 1999 or 2000. 

 

While I still do not publicly perform the original words to these songs, I am increasingly incorporating clearer statements about what minstrelsy was, what took place, and how the music was being used in multiple contexts. I find that people become more engaged by the music, but not necessarily entertained!

 

I really do believe that we have a chance to promote greater critical thinking with this music. Many of us have put in the time and energy to learn the materials, playing technique, and collecting materials. Why not try to work on framing this stuff that will get our listeners to reconsider their preconceptions and in some cases, prejudices, about the historical attitudes that gave rise to this music. You mention the cork as a mask. Why not put together performances that reflect how the mask was being used to frame period issues? Start using the scholarship to frame your performances and where people can go to learn more for themselves.  

 

Perhaps, Carl, with your next performance, you might spend a little more time talking about minstrelsy, the banjo, and setting up not only what took place in the past, but also talking more openly about the types of activities you are involved with today, that we are all involved with today. Talk about the music (even with the original lyrics?) in relation to all of the new research that is taking place not only about minstrelsy, but about the African and Caribbean links the banjo possesses and how its use changed by the 1830s. You don't have to present yourself as an expert, but you can certainly act as a pointer toward the fact that we are part of an early banjo revival. 

 

We do not have a handbook for what we are doing. 

P.S., I am glad that we have this venue to try to air this stuff out.

Thank you Carl for raising the issue and Greg for responding with insights.  This, of course, is an underlying discomfort which accompanies my (and presumably others)  love of this music.  I saw a documentary once which showed that some Confederate reenactors found their participation to be a handy venue to perpetuate their racial prejudices.  I must be careful not to generalize but because some might be inclined in that direction made me fearful that I might be viewed in that way because of my interest in this period of music.  My interest in the Antebellum era certainly does not mean that I long to return to an era when treatment and attitudes were much harsher toward those of other races, religions, genders, and even species.  Fortunately, in 2011 we have come a long way but the journey is certainly not complete and probably never will be.  

 

In my very short and limited portrayal of this music, I have substituted words because I would be uncomfortable singing the songs as written.  At the same time, this too, makes me uncomfortable.  In a way, I feel as though I might be doing a disservice to those who had to endure those prejudices by sanitizing these songs as though the prejudices never existed. 

 

At the Motor City Gathering, Tim Twiss courageously broached the topic and we had a thoughtful discussion.  I can't really say that we came to a conclusion there and perhaps we cannot do so here, either.....but the important issue has been raised and I think it needs to be thoughtfully discussed and at length.  Perhaps there is no conclusion or solution to the issue, but more insights might help us to feel that we are on better footing.

What really perplexes me is when black entertainers put on a cork mask. It does happen. There's even a photo of Louis Armstrong 'in character' for a black community parade. 

 

Other weirdness...in England they went the other direction in whiteing up, Pierrot style. 

 

I'm not a reenactor, and, being a Scot in Scotland, have not really had to face these issues. I find the whole thing bizarre, and beyond my understanding. Does this mean I can't play the music in an informed way? Probably. But that doesn't stop me enjoying it.

Carl those are some hard hitting statements of honesty.

I haven't played near the amount of minstrel music you have but I used to play in a Celtic group. (We dissolved shortly after I brought my banjo into the mix). The Celtic-African connection fascinates me. I purposely fumble my way through my brother's Scottish and Irish fiddling. We have a great time. But my "Celtic" group at one of our last gigs about 10 years ago, on stage in front of hundreds of people crossed the line. The guitar player, while unloading backstage, said, "Look what I've got!" Three straw hats and three sets of rubber buck teeth. Well, as I played my banjo and they strummed along with their costumes (they begged but I refused to wear mine) the crowd went nuts. I was angry about it then and after the show. A couple days later I got an email from someone who was there, scolding me about the fact that if we continue to portray mountain people that way, then the public's view..etc.."I'm of Irish descent...etc.."  I was just ashamed. I told my band members, the adult church going parents and businesspeople they were, I knew they'd understand and not repeat the spectacle again. Instead, they scoffed and said, Well, there's always somebody.   ?!?! And that pretty much put an end to that group. We had some great Civil War and Early American and Celtic material. Very quickly they got a substitue for me and continued playing the music I arranged, used all my musical ideas, and even did the songs I wrote. That didn't bother me as much as that email from the stranger.

These days I'm happy to tell people I build minstrel banjos, explain their construction and innovations, talk about the minstrels, the slaves' gourd banjos and people get the drift that there's the growing interest in the instruments and the music. My son and I like to wear period clothes but no cork, no goofy acting, and no rubber teeth!

Rob, popular entertainment forced them to do it. As we know, the corked up depiction is fictional, but that is what people would pay to see.

The white face thing is just weird, but that's Europe for you. Seven string banjos, white makeup, closed back wire strings... What were they thinking.
We tend to focus on the minstrel aspect of banjo playing, but there was a different form of enertainment going on at that time that is hardly discussed. No burnt cork needed. Phony contests, al a professional wrestling, that's what I'd like to explore more.

Late century writers wrote not about a "minstrel" era of the banjo, but the pugilistic era of tubs. I'm gonna call it "contest banjo."

Perhaps off the topic, but Terry, your experience reminds me a little of my view of John Denver's "Thank God, I'm a Country Boy" which hit the air waves in 1975.  Perhaps it didn't hit me at the time but I do recall that in 1980 (when it was still being played) I thought, "Aren't those verses a little stereotypical?"  Maybe "Cakes on the griddle" and "playing my fiddle" isn't derogatory but still......   

Regarding playing to an audience..... Yes, that can be daunting, especially when playing for a bar-type crowd who are there to be entertained and not there necessarily to hear or enjoy an particular type of music, etc.  I recall a musical acquaintance half-joking, half-complaining that you could play a beautiful air on the tin whistle and no one would pay any attention (or might grow very impatient), but jam the thing up your nose and play "Three blind mice" and the crowd would go wild!.......  One time a friend was playing Celtic music in an Irish bar and a man came up and requested a slip jig.  My friend thought, "Wow, finally someone is actually interested in this music."  They promptly accommodated the request and the man pulled out one of those paddles with a rubber ball attached to an elastic band and began bouncing it to the music.  Once again, the crowd wend wild!  .......  Ok, sorry, back to the more important discussion!!

Not really minstrel music related, but-  I have a book of jokes that was published in Boston in 1908, and maybe half the jokes are at the expense of some group- Irish, German, Jews, women, 'farmers/hill folk' (usually specifically referencing WV or Arkansas etc), 'darkies/coloreds', Chinese, etc.   They are mostly along the lines of all these groups being variously lazy, stupid, greedy, drunken, loose morals, or some combination of such traits.  I'd say the Irish jokes are in the majority in this book (perhaps this may be partly because the book was published in Boston?) but the black jokes come in second.   It's really icky reading.
You are on a roll dude!  
To add, evidence shows that many- esp. the Irish of these bits were still in cork.  Red wig, green suit, fake red beard, and black face.  It is also interesting to note that the "Irish" tunes in the tutors were there for "paddy" in black face to act drunk tell jokes and dance jigs.  Often these "Irish" tunes are romantically and lovingly thought of a genuine and without malice.  Well kids, "Irish Jig no. 1 & 2" by Converse was not a innocent nod to the green motherland. It was the same as "Zip Coon" or "In de house wid."

Dan'l said:

To throw in here...

 

It's quite clear from playbills from the Minstrel era (2nd third of 19th century) that blacks were not nearly the only group satirized.  Many operas were covered, as well as stump politicians, the Irish, the Germans, women, scientific discourse and more.  That being the case, perhaps we are disingenuous in focusing and worrying on the satirization of blacks only, where the depiction of Minstrel performance mode generally is just as authentic and more instructive to understanding the period.

 

I realize that the performers may have stayed in blackface for the entire evening, even as they depicted Germans and Irish, but wasn't that probably just a practical matter - they were fast-paced shows with no time to changeout?  Anyway, "blacking-up" became a performance standard quite apart from its original purpose.  Singers and bands blacked-up for the stage without ever once performing a "darky" song, and that mode lasted well up to WWII era. 

 

At any rate, its also quite clear that meanest era of "darky" depictions took place around the turn of the century (1890-1930s).  Pictures, collateral and recordings from that period were overtly racist in a way that the first few generations of Minstrels never were.

 

Dan'l

 

PS: As for some CW Confederate reenactors taking license to mock blacks and dispense lost cause myth about "what the war was really about," I have to say that happens at many of the public-venue reenactments I've participated in over the past dozen years. There has been a great deal of historical drivel spewed on the public, and by public I mean children.  It's disgusting but at least it's only a very small minority of of hill-rod confederate reenactors that do it.  As with our studies, the danger is in focusing on one aspect or documentation that supports one conclusion and then promoting it as if it is the only conclusion.

I think it is important for the performances to be able to demonstrate that minstrelsy was more than just blacking up as Dan'l and Joel mention (or at least the variant functions that blacking up provided as well as the performance contexts when people did not black up). These would be great veins of musical exploration. In fact, it'd be great to explore them as part of the next AEBG. In terms of the forum topic that Carl bravely began, my question is, would the point in exploring these other areas be to maintain a distance from the deeper issues that are largely overlooked or avoided during most public performances (at least the ones I've seen)?

 

Enough people on this site know about the additional layers that minstrelsy entailed. I think it would be constructive/instructive to figure out a way to let those extra elements (e.g., opera, contests, humor at the expense of other ethnicities, politicians, women, etc.) become supplements to what is central to modern concerns about maintaining/reinforcing racial stereotypes. Can we shift our focus to provide some type of public service toward social healing or should we perhaps try to wait for a few more generations to pass?

 

I guess my two final questions are, do people on this site feel a sense of social responsibility in playing minstrel era music? (I have heard too many people in the reenactment community state, "that's history, get over it.") Or, should we all just get over it and let the past be in the past? 

 

Again, thank you for considering my concerns,

Greg

 

The question then becomes-  who should 'get over it' and let the past be in the past?

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