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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OK this whole blacking up thing has always been weird to me. I'll never understand it. I just want any rednecks listening to my banjo to know I don't hang the stars and bars in the back of my red pickup window. I drive a van full of instruments with a headful of songs and each song gets treated like a little baby. i don't abuse the music, exploit it or pretend to know everything about it and most of all, try hard not to alter it. I'm a banjo traditionist and just try to do my best to get people away from the frickin' radio and TV for a while.

Here's an interesting banjo image I had not seen before, and relevant to the deeper issues regarding the minstrel style.  It's from the December 20, 1862 issue of Harper's Weekly.

 

Carl, what do you think that drawing/cartoon is trying to say?  And is the fellow on the left on his way to NY?-what does "HG" stand for?  Is he white?   A carpetbagger?  Is the word "fandango' on the poster?- what does it all mean?  it's fascinating.

I get a sense from the people in the drawing that they are 'confused' by the concept of being freed?

Yeah, it says "The Great Negro Emancipation Fandango is Postponed Until 1900.  Abe Lincoln, Manager."  So I think this Dec. 1862 cartoon is opining that the anticipated Emancipation Proclamation of Jan. 1863 will not actually take effect until the year 1900.

 

And as to the deeper issues, of course we have a "darkey" being protrayed as a simpleton banjo-strummer.  Note the absence of Frederick Douglas-type of men in the crowd.

It says care of HG, probably Horace Greeley, founder of the New York Tribune, and war critic/abolitionist.  I would say that you have a variety of classes represented in the picture. I would guess that the man with his back to us is literate.

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)

I'm doing a program on Antebellum America.  There are some quotes and attitudes which might be distasteful but no derogatory words will be included.  I want to do a verse of "Aunt Harriet Beechee Stowe", however.

Does anyone view "picanin" (picaninny) as derogatory?

I would think that "pickaninny" is commonly regarded to be in the same catagory as "darkey," i.e. an offensive term.  It commonly accompanies the "watermelon" class of artwork and depictions.
Ok.  Thanks.  I will change it.

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)

The tubbiest sounding place to put the bridge is right in the middle, so off center is desirable.  Closer to the tailpiece will give you a little more volume, closer to the neck will raise the strings up more so that you have more clearance above the neck.  Most of the time I see the bridge closer to the tailpiece.

Hi Mark,

A little off topic, but re: bridge placements-

as we all know, there can be only one 'right' place for the bridge on a fretted banjo.  But speaking of fretless in this case,  I myself have found the best sound from my fretless banjos to be with the bridge right near the middle or maybe a fraction towards the tail.  I guess I can only speak for myself though.  Maybe the gent in the cartoon liked his bridge up there, but I'm thinking the feel might be awfully stiff unless he then played up over the neck.

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