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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It'd be great to know what your daughter-in-law had to say about all this, if it is something you are willing to share here. I think that if we are all going to do a better job at representing our research, playing interests, and community involvement, it is so helpful to know where different people are coming from in their own experiences.

A second image like the one posted from the Harpers Weekly is in the prototype banjo database. A notable image indeed.

As related to this side conversation about bridge placement and the original intent of this thread, I'm currently playing a thinly sanded slightly modified Joel Hooks Baur style bridge placed slightly above center (towards the peghead) on my Hartel repro Ashborn. I actually just played it tonight at the University of Maryland School of Music in one of their smaller theaters. It filled the space! I was playing as part of a collaborative work with a friend in the dance department and a bunch of other dancer majors. One of the segments includes a series of early banjo pieces. We are not recreating a minstrel show, but using the banjo, its music, and choreography as way to explore, critique, and present historical and modern attitudes about race, ethnicity, and power. I've never experienced anything quite like it, especially as I came to this music through reenacting and am now in a university setting working with a diverse group of people who are willing to examine the deeper aspects of our shared histories in an open and dramatic way. 

The arts are amazing,



Mark Weems said:

HI Strumelia,

Interesting comment, as I've been thinking about bridge placement a lot recently. what would the right place be? I've been looking at the pictures we have of Joel Sweeney and his bridge is always pictured forward, almost to the neck, certainly not in the center of the head or back toward the tailpiece.

Strumelia said:

Oh i get it now.  har har.   I thought it said posted, not postponed.


I've had a few interesting conversations with my daughter-in-law, who is a Haitian playwright/poet/artist/lesbian-gayActivist.   She asked me about the origins of some of the types of music i play/sing, and I was glad to be able to give her some information she had no idea about the banjo, and also concerning American old-time music's African influence.  She in return helped me understand some of the current acceptable/unacceptable wordings (at least from her point of view) as a guide to help clear up some of my own uncertainties about how to approach the issue.  There is a frustrating amount of contradiction these days, and apparently no one-size-fits-all.


(Someone should put that guy's bridge in the right place)

An excellent book for anyone interested in these issues is David W. Blight's Race and Reunion published by Belknap Press.  Blights tells the story of how we as a country did not follow up the Union victory and abolition of slavery with equal rights and equal opportunity after the "waw."  The myth of the "Lost Cause" is central to this story, as is Northern acquiescence to Southern racial tyranny.  The author details how erstwhile well-meaning stories and reminiscences of the Underground Railroad are intertwined with the ingrained conception of african-americans as minstrel show characters.  Quote, "The theatrical darky was childlike, comic and pathetic; he could be duped into the most idiotic and foolish schemes; but like a child, too, innocence would protect him and turn the tables on the schemers."



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