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.

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.     

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.

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.

Paul, I've read your research including what you've written about Gottschalk. You make some generalizations I don't think are correct, such as your statement that the early banjo was clearly an oral tradition, and that it is not possible to notate banjo music as it is played (this is a typical belief I hear from "folk" musicians). When you make these generalizations, you fail to provide any solid supporting evidence. As a scientist, I was taught that a lack of evidence IS evidence in of itself, and therefore I don't think it's wise to make assumptions based on a lack of evidence or heavily using a single source. Check out some of the banjo music arranged for piano that can be found in the 1850s Peterson's Magazines. I think you'll find them to be truer to the tutors and other publications.

When did evoking 'folkies' or 'folk' musicians become a way to somehow discredit people or their posts?  Seems to be becoming a thing here.  I think you've all been watching "A Mighty Wind" too many times.  Or maybe "A High and Mighty Wind".  lol   'Oldtime musician' is apparently a derogatory term here now as well.  So it's like, ok let's just put down everybody, shall we?

Maybe just my opinion, but I think it's good to have a little respect for all kinds of musicians and cultural sources.  Music gets handed down through the generations regardless of whether 'we' judge it authentic or copycat...it survives because people like to hear it and play it.  That makes it all good.  If I hear a Japanese folk song somewhere and then go home and fake my own cockeyed version of what I can 'sort of' remember...well that's good music too!  Humans making music.

Because there is such a fragmentary amount of concrete information on banjo techniques pre-1830s, it becomes all too easy to make conjectures and conclusions based either on a few isolated pieces of evidence OR on the lack of evidence.  Everyone sounds like a bonafide expert if they state their opinion and personal conclusions as fact.  There are many people who have done or are doing serious research and writing conclusions.  And there are many 'armchair experts' as well.  But can't we discuss such things without disparaging musicians and genres we might look down on?

By the way a bit off topic, but Jean Ritchie passed away this week at the age of 92.  Born in 1922, not only was she a key figure in the urban 'folk revival', but she was also a 'folk musician' in the truest sense of the word, having learned the music her rural family (her 'folk') had passed along for generations, in a strong unbroken from their Scotch-Irish ancestors.  While growing up in her family, and indeed in her community of Viper Kentucky, music was just a part of everyday life then- during work, play, worship, dance, courtship, and relaxation.  Jean's elders had no access to banjo camps, symposiums, presentations, reenactments, or music festivals.  Was she a folk musician?- absolutely.  But she was also likely more 'authentic' and knowledgeable about traditional American music than just about any of us.

Cecil Sharp and Maud Karpeles, trained music scholars/teachers who transcribed into standard notation hundreds of ballads directly from isolated traditional mountain singers during the early 1900s, often admitted that their formal transcriptions of the oral music tradition could not convey the rich and subtle nuances of the live performances, and were only academic attempts at laying out the bones of the song.  Reading their ballad standard notation is like hearing the midi version.  It's the live musician who usually adds the spice and energy and variations, 
Most older creative fiddlers change up the notes in their tunes all the time, playing the tune with slight variations each time through.  I know I do that on banjo all the time.  I think most tunebooks and tab books have the same problem when transcribing music that is from the traditional/popular folk setting, as opposed to formal music from commercial composers.  People who try to tab out Tommy Jarrell and Fred Cockerham's recordings have a terrible time.  Roscoe Holcomb?- forget it.  I'd like to see some tab or notated versions of Roscoe Holcomb's stuff...now that would be something impressive!

Ok, sorry to veer a little off the thread title.

Incredible how a question can create such a varied discussion. What I have gleaned from all of the comments is that there isn't conclusive evidence for what style came first or why. Perhaps we may never know, and perhaps it isn't critical as long as we are playing and enjoying the banjo's musical heritage.
I am still curious why stroke became the predominant style since it is the more difficult style to master. Was this because the tutor books of the time promoted it exclusively? I would sincerely hope that any style of playing is welcomed and not looked down upon.
In the end, I am just happy that I have discovered this style of banjo, it's music, and the great folks on this forum!
Looking forward to hopefully meeting some of you face to face someday.

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