Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

Has anyone have ever put together a historical timeline for Minstrel banjo fingering styles?
Which was the earliest fingering style used and in what order did the different styles develop?
I have seen stroke, thumb lead two finger, and guitar style used. Just curious as to which style preceeded which. Thanks In advance for any input.

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Hi Bob, "classical" banjo is played on wire strings with Hawaiian guitar picks. It usually applies bluegrass "rolls" to play classical music.

I think you mean "classic" banjo. I know, the name is confusing but it seems we are stuck with it. "Classic" banjo is popular music played finger style on gut (now nylon) strings. When "classical" music is played it is usually a popular strain only.

There were a few banjoists who played classical music in the late 19th century (notably A. Farland) but they were few and far between. The reports of their inability to fill halls is a testament to how popular they were.

Of the (tens of?)thousands of published sheet music and manuscript only a tiny amount could be called "classical."

Around the 1960s or 1970s the term "classical" was applied in reference to the mechanics (nylon strings, fingers without picks) not repertoire that are similar to "classical guitar." This was because "folk" and plectrum styles dominated the banjo world.

These days we see the way the cool kids dressed in the 1890s and notice it looks just like a philharmonic orchestra today. That and it does not help that banjo clubs called themselves (tonge in cheek) "orchestras".

They were playing popular music. Music that irritated their parents just like grunge and punk did to mine.

Oh, I'm sorry, Joel and Dan'l, I wasn't very clear at all with my questions.  First, I messed up calling "classic banjo" "classical banjo."  I know the difference; it's just that I haven't internalized the term "classic banjo" yet, not being a player of that style.  In fact, I still think of it as "ragtime banjo."

As for my larger question:  I'm thinking of the difference between the frailing technique employed by Clarence Ashley and Buell Kazee, on the one hand, and the fingerpicking style employed by Charlie Poole (and other Carolinians), on the other.  Are the two styles linear descendants from 19th century stroke style and guitar style, respectively?  (Interestingly, Uncle Dave Macon, who was old enough to know some of the old minstrels, played both styles.) 

So my question remains:  Does frailing or clawhammer--that is, banjo played in downstroke fashion with the back of the index or middle finger--derive in a direct historical line from minstrel "stroke style?"  And, conversely, does fingerpicked banjo derive historically from what was originally termed "guitar style"?  These really seem like two very different approaches to the instrument.

I've always wondered where frailing or clawhammer came from historically.  And it just seems that minstrel stroke style might be the answer.  


 
Joel Hooks said:

Hi Bob, "classical" banjo is played on wire strings with Hawaiian guitar picks. It usually applies bluegrass "rolls" to play classical music.

I think you mean "classic" banjo. I know, the name is confusing but it seems we are stuck with it. "Classic" banjo is popular music played finger style on gut (now nylon) strings. When "classical" music is played it is usually a popular strain only.

There were a few banjoists who played classical music in the late 19th century (notably A. Farland) but they were few and far between. The reports of their inability to fill halls is a testament to how popular they were.

Of the (tens of?)thousands of published sheet music and manuscript only a tiny amount could be called "classical."

Around the 1960s or 1970s the term "classical" was applied in reference to the mechanics (nylon strings, fingers without picks) not repertoire that are similar to "classical guitar." This was because "folk" and plectrum styles dominated the banjo world.

These days we see the way the cool kids dressed in the 1890s and notice it looks just like a philharmonic orchestra today. That and it does not help that banjo clubs called themselves (tonge in cheek) "orchestras".

They were playing popular music. Music that irritated their parents just like grunge and punk did to mine.
Sorry Bob, I kick into auto pilot when the "C" word is used. I'm trying to put the fun back into classic banjo and I feel a big part of that is to break the false concept that it is high school orchestra class.

As to the folk revival, they seem to have focused tightly on a very tiny segment ignoring, for the most part, the overall popular banjo movement. From that a new "folk" music was created. Exactly like today there is a new "old time" banjo sound, created from the so called "folk music" that was created from narrowly focused "field research" with a goal to find what they were looking for.

I am reminded of the story that Hank Sapoznik tells about getting into classic banjo because of Tommy Jarrell. Jarrell's father played with a banjoist who was a big fan of Fred Bacon and played classic banjo. Funny how kids did not go to make "field recordings" of Fred Bacon tremolo solos!

Sometimes with research we are so focused on getting the answer we want that we ignore the big picture. Next thing you know, a tiny faction gets lumped with the popular culture of "hillbilly music" (a comercial music) and a "common tradition" is born.

Bob,

All the major elements of what we think of as clawhammer (as being distinct from minstrel stroke style) are demonstrated in Gottschalk's "The Banjo," written in the early 1850s, contemporary with the earliest tutors.  I think both styles were aspects of the way African-Americans played, and some minstrel players may have been more "clawhammery" that the tutors would indicate.  I also think that it's entirely possible that up-picking was part of the repertoire of African-American right hand technique as well, since it is also part of West African performance practice and survived in very un-classic-banjo-style ways in all sorts of American string playing, but I agree that "guitar style" as done by minstrel and later players was in imitation of, well, guitars. 

My two cents...Paul

Thanks Paul (and Joel, Dan'l, and everyone else).  I've learned so much from this website about early banjo players and playing styles--things that I'd thought we could never know for a lack of tangible evidence.   But you folks, with your careful study of the early banjo tutors, have proved me completely wrong.

Now back to my question and my reason for asking it:   Like many other serious folkies back in '60s, I discovered (at the local library) Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, which contained all of those great commercial recordings of Southern vernacular music (I'm deliberately avoiding the word "folk") from the 1920s and 1930s.  Then County Records started to reissue more such recordings, including samplers of Southern banjo music from the same period, in all of its many varieties.  

For a long time, I just assumed that the same banjo styles--most especially what's come to be called clawhammer or frailing--existed long before the advent of commercial recordings, probably well back into the 19th century, if not earlier.  But this website, as well as the Classic Banjo website (I think I got that right this time, Joel), seem to be saying something different:  that banjo styles actually evolved fairly rapidly from the 1840s through the turn of the 20th Century.  I can kind of see a trajectory for "guitar style" banjo in the Classic banjo realm (and the great Southern finger stylist Charlie Poole was clearly aware of this body of music, judging from the popular songs in his repertoire).   But where did clawhammer come from?  It seems to be related to minstrel stroke style, but stroke style appears to have died out by the 1870s or later.  Or did it live on in Appalachia?  That's my question.     

This showed up on another site and thought it kind of fit in here.
http://youtu.be/5Iy9qfW_cYg

Hi Bob,

This is quite debatable. There is documentation of a banjo and fiddle being played together as early as the 1790's. However, no one knows exactly what banjo techniques were at that time. Many believe that claw-hammer is a remnant of Early Banjo Style (what many now call "Stroke Style"), and others believe that some type of claw-hammer must have existed before the Tutors and that the Tutors represent a Western musical sensibility attempting to codify into a classic form what idiosyncratic banjo players were doing.

Bob Sayers said:

Thanks Paul (and Joel, Dan'l, and everyone else).  I've learned so much from this website about early banjo players and playing styles--things that I'd thought we could never know for a lack of tangible evidence.   But you folks, with your careful study of the early banjo tutors, have proved me completely wrong.

Now back to my question and my reason for asking it:   Like many other serious folkies back in '60s, I discovered (at the local library) Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, which contained all of those great commercial recordings of Southern vernacular music (I'm deliberately avoiding the word "folk") from the 1920s and 1930s.  Then County Records started to reissue more such recordings, including samplers of Southern banjo music from the same period, in all of its many varieties.  

For a long time, I just assumed that the same banjo styles--most especially what's come to be called clawhammer or frailing--existed long before the advent of commercial recordings, probably well back into the 19th century, if not earlier.  But this website, as well as the Classic Banjo website (I think I got that right this time, Joel), seem to be saying something different:  that banjo styles actually evolved fairly rapidly from the 1840s through the turn of the 20th Century.  I can kind of see a trajectory for "guitar style" banjo in the Classic banjo realm (and the great Southern finger stylist Charlie Poole was clearly aware of this body of music, judging from the popular songs in his repertoire).   But where did clawhammer come from?  It seems to be related to minstrel stroke style, but stroke style appears to have died out by the 1870s or later.  Or did it live on in Appalachia?  That's my question.     

Bob,

Maybe I wasn't clear.  Yes, clawhammer style existed "well back into the 19th century, if not earlier."  Individuals on this site might say anything they like, but the elements of clawhammer style are documented from the 1850s.  Several people have pointed this out.  Just not so much in the tutors, but it has been well-established that the tutors were not at all comprehensive guides to contemporary styles of playing the banjo.  They taught you how to play like the minstrels.  Which is a fine thing. 

Banjo styles did evolve rapidly after the minstrels got going.  There's the guitar style, but before that I think the evidence is pretty strong that minstrels became very skilled at adapting the stroke technique for playing melodies, moving away from the African-American roots of the style, at the expense of more rhythmic textural playing that survived in so-called clawhammer style in Appalachia and of course in African-American performance practice.  You can find evidence of stroke style in clawhammer playing--they are branches from the same tree.  It may have died out on the minstrel stage, but there were many important American music communities (the Mississippi Delta, for ex) that wouldn't have been paying much attention to minstrel music.  And there it is, going strong once the early recording industry starts looking for it.

By the early 20th century, the potential sources for a banjo player with open ears were ubiquitous.  A player like Charlie Poole could be aware of classic banjo/guitar style, clawhammer, African-American guitar playing, all of it. 

Great answers.  Thanks everyone! 

How are you all so certain that pre-minstrel era African American banjo playing was different than what is represented in the tutors and other period music like the Emmett manuscripts? The evidence does not seem to suggest this, nor does Dr. Winan's research. I think it is shortsighted to rely heavily on a single piece of music written for the piano that is in the style of the banjo. I've come across other piano arrangements of banjo music from the period that sounds like it came straight from the tutors.

Thank you for pointing out why my research is significant--why I think what I think is clearly presented in my work and is too complex to explain here, though you can hunt around my posts over the years and probably figure it out.  You are correct that Gottschalk's work is of crucial importance because it clearly shows so much important evidence not found anywhere else.  Of course the surviving evidence, such as it is, supports my conclusions.  You might find it short-sighted (?), but if you can prove your doubts, then you I'm sure you could publish your own research refuting me in the peer-reviewed literature.

It is entirely possible that Gottschalk's work represents a style of playing that might have been prevalent in a specific region of the country, i.e. New Orleans, whereas the tutors represent something that is more typical of Virginia and the North.  Enslaved people for the most part do not have the luxury of travel.  All of this is conjecture because there is no written record supporting Paul's suggestions.  Something I've learned about history is to never say never.  Paul, you make some interesting points, it would be great if we could take this further some how.  It might be interesting to compare music published in the South with that from up North.

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