Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

SO MANY of the Early Banjo repertoire pieces are either direct lifts of Irish material, or slighlty modified, if only by a title. The deeper I look, the more I see it. I realy don't know much about Irish music...wish I did. Anybody got recommendations for music to listen to in order to hear these old fiddle tunes played correctly? I think we could improve our game by hearing the music the way the early banjo guys heard it...and adapted it.

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"Correct" is a tricky thing when it comes to Irish music. As a living tradition that has never gone through a complete death/rebirth phase it has been continually evolving throughout the past few hundred years. What's considered correct now is not the way people played in 1850 or even 1950. There are also a lot of regional styles both inside Ireland and in the Irish diaspora - Clare, Sligo, Philadelphia, Chicago etc. We can only make educated guesses at historic styles since 19th century fiddle music was generally written out in "bare bones" style and players applied whatever regional/ethnic ornamentation they were used to hearing in their communities. (This is still the case) The earliest recordings from the 1890s or so were concert violinists who didn't generally play in what might be considered a traditional style. Yikes, this is too much to write about here. I'll buy you a beer in Maryland and inflict all my theories on you!

That said some good people to listen to :
Frankie Gavin (fiddle), Jackie Daly (accordion), Kevin Burke (fiddle), Martin Mulvihill (fiddle), Seamus Ennis (uileann pipes), Leo Rowsome (uileann pipes) Martin O'Connor (accordion) Liz Carroll (fiddle) Paddy Glackin (fiddle) Paddy Keenan (uileann pipes) James Morrison (fiddle -early 20th cent.) Michael Colman (fiddle -early 20th cent.) There are lots more too.
What Ian said.

Not sure when the 'treble' appeared - a triplet of the same note (as opposed to a 'triplet' of three different notes), but at the Irish harp festival of the 1780s or 90s (can't recall the exact date, but I have it somewhere) someone wrote down the various ornaments used by the old players, and I think the treble was there, but give a different name.
This is one of those funny subjects where it is easy to overlook the obvious.

Lets consider popular American views of the Irish in the mid-late 19th century. At that time they were thought of as no better than the "plantation darkey." Because Irish is "cool" now, it we often ignore the reasons why these characteristic "Irish" pieces were included in the tudors, written by folks who made money by smearing burnt cork on their faces.

The "Irish" bit was a part of the cork opera, complete with bright red wig, beard, and green suit. Paddy was a character the same as Jim Crow or Tambo. He would tell limericks, be drunk, and try to fight.

These tunes were more likely included for "Paddy" to dance a jig rather than a nod to the noble legacy of traditional Irish folk music.

Were they just as authentic as the "true African" music also in the tutors or were they a gross exaggeration and eventually picked up by the Irish in America?

These may or may not be true representations of Irish music in the mid 19th century. I don't know. I do know that they are "Irish" tunes in the minstrel show sense.
Great points Joel.





deuceswilde said:
This is one of those funny subjects where it is easy to overlook the obvious.

Lets consider popular American views of the Irish in the mid-late 19th century. At that time they were thought of as no better than the "plantation darkey." Because Irish is "cool" now, it we often ignore the reasons why these characteristic "Irish" pieces were included in the tudors, written by folks who made money by smearing burnt cork on their faces.

The "Irish" bit was a part of the cork opera, complete with bright red wig, beard, and green suit. Paddy was a character the same as Jim Crow or Tambo. He would tell limericks, be drunk, and try to fight.

These tunes were more likely included for "Paddy" to dance a jig rather than a nod to the noble legacy of traditional Irish folk music.

Were they just as authentic as the "true African" music also in the tutors or were they a gross exaggeration and eventually picked up by the Irish in America?

These may or may not be true representations of Irish music in the mid 19th century. I don't know. I do know that they are "Irish" tunes in the minstrel show sense.
Joel..I'm not sure if we are talking about the same music. Perhaps there is a body of "Irish" vocal tunes I have not seen. I can see where the characters fit in, but surely there was a genuine respect for the Irish melodies? The early books are filled with them, either directly, or more often a little variation. It seems to be at the heart and soul of a vast amount of the early banjo music. I am speaking of the instrumental music of that time. Yes, I think they were authentic...you can source them from period fiddle music...note for note.
I thought I'd add my two cents worth to this discussion. Yes, the Irish were cruelly lampooned in the mid-19th century in much the same fashion that blacks were lampooned. However, the Irish contribution to early minstrelsy is indisputable. First, some of the top performers (Sweeney, Emmett, et.al.) were at least nominally of Irish descent. Second, the Virginia Minstrels (and other troupes) toured extensively in Ireland and Scotland in the mid-1840s and, presumably, absorbed as much of the local performance culture as they contributed to it. Most important of all, the audience for minstrel shows in places like New York and Boston was mostly white working class and, by the 1850s, a large portion of that white working class was made up of immigrant Irish. My guess is that not only the minstrel's musical repertoire, but their associated dancing, had strong Irish elements.
As a very new person here, I will make my comment short. A great thread, and leads me to bone playing in Ireland, and the "American" style vs the Irish style. Irish bone playing today is predominantly one handed, in contrast to American players who play two handed, for the most part. What, if any, those early minstrel show visits might have had on bone playing in Ireland is not known at this point. Ronnie McShane, bone player with Sean O'Riada's group Ceoltoiri Cualann, and later the Chieftains who plays with one hand , told me his first experience with bone playing came in the 30's at a "black and white minstrel show", and a two handed bone player in a "Mummer band" can be found on the dvd, Come West Along the Road Vol. 1. Any information on this topic that any of you have would be most interesting, thanks!

Bob Sayers said:
I thought I'd add my two cents worth to this discussion. Yes, the Irish were cruelly lampooned in the mid-19th century in much the same fashion that blacks were lampooned. However, the Irish contribution to early minstrelsy is indisputable. First, some of the top performers (Sweeney, Emmett, et.al.) were at least nominally of Irish descent. Second, the Virginia Minstrels (and other troupes) toured extensively in Ireland and Scotland in the mid-1840s and, presumably, absorbed as much of the local performance culture as they contributed to it. Most important of all, the audience for minstrel shows in places like New York and Boston was mostly white working class and, by the 1850s, a large portion of that white working class was made up of immigrant Irish. My guess is that not only the minstrel's musical repertoire, but their associated dancing, had strong Irish elements.

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