Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

I'm afraid this might end up being a stupid question but.....

I'm trying to put together a short paragraph history of the early development and mass popularity of the banjo.   Was Sweeney the first to make a banjo that was not a gourd? 

If minstrels were supposedly imitating slave life, what was the motivation to change the gourd "banjo" into the banjo constructed/played by Sweeney and other minstrels?   (perhaps volume?) 

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Amen, Brother Ben. Chop the rooster, kill the hen.

Strumelia said:


As a basic tune book it is quite useful too, for banjoists, fiddlers, concertina players... since it represents a good selection of bare bones melodies without someone's specific suggestions of fingering gymnastics or flourishes applied to it.  It could be that some banjo players both then and now might find the tunes more 'playable' without elaborately detailed fingering arrangements applied. Being able to see both suggested published banjo tutor fingering arrangements and the simple straight melodies is a great thing.  I think it's good to see the melodies before they got 'banjo-fied', since some banjo players might opt for other ways of playing or fingering phrases...just as musicians must have had their own personal arranging/playing style back then as well as today.  I'm sure there is room on the shelf for all these wonderful old music books, and we can each find personal treasures in the variety they offer.   :)  

My Middle TN family said "Shot at the rooster, killed the hen."

But I agree with Strumelia, also.

Mark Weems said:

Amen, Brother Ben. Chop the rooster, kill the hen.

Dan'l, I did do a little curious poking around online about early american gourd growing.  It seems that native Americans grew small gourds that they developed from native vines- but these were for eating/storing the nutritious seeds and for small cup like containers, they were the size of oranges or maybe even smaller.  Later on, people were growing larger gourds- mostly i read about either water-dipper gourds or butternut type gourds.  Again used for food and for containers, often water containers.  We do know that eventually larger gourds were grown and that gourds grow well in southern climes.   I am uncertain as to why you say " it would have taken a few seasons to ramp up a crop"- why would it take several seasons to grow gourds in southern farming areas?  I'd think they'd have plenty of sunny fields to grow stuff on in large quantities?

Ok I hear what you are saying Dan'l.  :)

 I live on the North Carolina-Virginia border approximately 60 miles from Appomattox Court House.  As late as  the 1950s and 60s gourds were pretty much ubiquitous on the farmsteads of our region. I have small antique gourds used to hold table salt and shot gourds used to carry lead bird-shot for muzzleloading shotguns. There was always a long-handled dipper gourd hanging by the well. I still have the last one that my grandfather grew. Large storage gourds were kept in the smokehouse and pantry. Of course, just as they are now, Martin gourds were grown along the fence rows for bird houses.

 I don't know how prevalent gourds were in the Northern states but there are currently chapters of the American Gourd Society in New York State and Pennsylvania. Canada's largest supplier of gourds is "Northern Dipper" located in Cookstown, Ontario.

Dan- The Prestwood Plantation in nearby Clarksville, Virginia has retained an impressive number of it's original furnishings. In the old kitchen there is an early storage gourd with a turned wooden top that measures approximately 16" in diameter.

The old storage gourds that I remember in our smokehouse at home would measure in the 12" to 16" diameter range.

 I would be inclined to believe that gourds of a size suitable for making banjos would have been plentiful in Virginia and North Carolina throughout the 19th century.

Thought I already made a post on this.   This is something I have discussed over the years with people like Pete Ross, Cece Conway and others.   Gourd banjos tended to go out of use among the enslaved, among free African Americans and among European American folk banjoists once banjo playing  with hoop or frame head banjos became wide spread among banjo entertainers in the 1840s.  There is certainly a folk record of making frame headed banjos, not just the creation of banjos by luthiers in the 1840s.

 

It is true that among some people white and black gourd banjo making and playing continued into the 20th century, although probably from the 1840s on gourd banjos were rare even among the enslaved and chiefly something that would be used by a child until they could obtain or make or have someone make a frame headed banjo or buy a manufactured banjo.

It is simply easier to make a frame headed banjo that a gourd banjo and the process isn't seasonally dependent.   Gourd banjo makers I know talk about how each banjo tends to need to be adapted to the particular shape and size and characteristics of individual gourds.  

Contrary to a lot of the paternalism rampant among folk revivalist old time music enthusiasts and folkies--groupd I have been a charter member of since around 1960--plebian vernacular banjoists, particularly the Black ones, have tended to welcome the advances in banjo development that have been identified with the organized banjo industry that we can first note coming into being in the 1840s.   There seems to be absolutely NO evidence of African American banjoist, cleaving to gourd banjos, because of the origin of the banjo came from gourd instruments any more than there is any evidence whatsoever of New World Africans using round pole necked instruments as opposed to flat necked instruments or using African string tuners as opposed to violin like tuning pegs.

Banjos certainly originated in the Caribbean out of African roots and were brought here by people of AFrican descent.  However, the popularization of the banjo by European American entertainers and the innovations in banjo construction that they spread ad those that followed once banjo craftspersons and then manfacturers came along tend to have been followed and embraced by plebian vernacular players urban and rural.  Perhaps the only resistance came among a minority of Southern folk banjoists to the insertion of frets.

Likewise there is absolutely no evidence of the persistence of  3 and 4 string banjos--Early gourd banjos in the Caribbean and the US were chiefly 4 string but some were 3 string,  once the five-string banjo started being popularized by banjo entertainers in the early 1840s.  Home made banjos seemed to follow the trends of the banjo manufacturers and luthiers, including when like many other musical instruments, banjo tunings were raised three steps in the late 19th century.

However,  one can discern some of the links to the earlier three and four string banjo in the nature of many of the traditional African American origined banjo tunes, or at least banjo tunes whose shape has been African Americanized whatever their origins.    In the standard banjo tunings like G and  drop C and the open D reuben tuning tha twas probably more popular among folk players in the time of early banjos,   you can play most tunes like Juba or Cripple Creek, or Reuben, etc. etc. without using the fourth string of the banjo quite easily and remain in a more or less traditional African American style.

A couple times when visiting with friends like Scott Odell and others  sitting around picking I have disabled the 4 string on my banjo and got along quite fine playing what I consider an older black style.  When I was hot into discussing this a few years ago a major banjo scholar we all know did take an informal look at a bunch of minstrel banjo pieces and thought they tended to use the fourth string much less than 20th century banjo pieces.

There is a lot of pressure in the banjo world, particularly the "trad" and "minstrel" banjo worlds to picture banjo playing as some kind of ancient premodern practice held back and encrusted by hidebound tradition, clinging to the purity of its roots in Africa or elsewhere on other continents.

However, whether among European Americans or African Americans, or indeed beyond the United STates, banjo playing has been a distinctly modern phenomena, one of the first world cultural developments spread by capitalism, one of the first more or less standardized products of its nature,  characterized by constant innovation and creation and technical development and innovative use of new developments and contributions from other instruments

 

 

In fact, though I haven't published anything definitive or supported by documentation,  if banjos had remained in the state of the early gourd banjo,  I doubt very seriously if they would have survived as a wide spread folk instrument even among African Americans, and probably would have more resembled a number of extinct instruments of AFrican or African new world origin that died out across the 19th and early 20th century or perhaps might have been a regional curiosity, or a child's instrument.


 
Tony Thomas said:

Thought I already made a post on this.   This is something I have discussed over the years with people like Pete Ross, Cece Conway and others.   Gourd banjos tended to go out of use among the enslaved, among free African Americans and among European American folk banjoists once banjo playing  with hoop or frame head banjos became wide spread among banjo entertainers in the 1840s.  There is certainly a folk record of making frame headed banjos, not just the creation of banjos by luthiers in the 1840s.

 

It is true that among some people white and black gourd banjo making and playing continued into the 20th century, although probably from the 1840s on gourd banjos were rare even among the enslaved and chiefly something that would be used by a child until they could obtain or make or have someone make a frame headed banjo or buy a manufactured banjo.

It is simply easier to make a frame headed banjo that a gourd banjo and the process isn't seasonally dependent.   Gourd banjo makers I know talk about how each banjo tends to need to be adapted to the particular shape and size and characteristics of individual gourds.  

Contrary to a lot of the paternalism rampant among folk revivalist old time music enthusiasts and folkies--groupd I have been a charter member of since around 1960--plebian vernacular banjoists, particularly the Black ones, have tended to welcome the advances in banjo development that have been identified with the organized banjo industry that we can first note coming into being in the 1840s.   There seems to be absolutely NO evidence of African American banjoist, cleaving to gourd banjos, because of the origin of the banjo came from gourd instruments any more than there is any evidence whatsoever of New World Africans using round pole necked instruments as opposed to flat necked instruments or using African string tuners as opposed to violin like tuning pegs.

Banjos certainly originated in the Caribbean out of African roots and were brought here by people of AFrican descent.  However, the popularization of the banjo by European American entertainers and the innovations in banjo construction that they spread ad those that followed once banjo craftspersons and then manfacturers came along tend to have been followed and embraced by plebian vernacular players urban and rural.  Perhaps the only resistance came among a minority of Southern folk banjoists to the insertion of frets.

Likewise there is absolutely no evidence of the persistence of  3 and 4 string banjos--Early gourd banjos in the Caribbean and the US were chiefly 4 string but some were 3 string,  once the five-string banjo started being popularized by banjo entertainers in the early 1840s.  Home made banjos seemed to follow the trends of the banjo manufacturers and luthiers, including when like many other musical instruments, banjo tunings were raised three steps in the late 19th century.

However,  one can discern some of the links to the earlier three and four string banjo in the nature of many of the traditional African American origined banjo tunes, or at least banjo tunes whose shape has been African Americanized whatever their origins.    In the standard banjo tunings like G and  drop C and the open D reuben tuning tha twas probably more popular among folk players in the time of early banjos,   you can play most tunes like Juba or Cripple Creek, or Reuben, etc. etc. without using the fourth string of the banjo quite easily and remain in a more or less traditional African American style.

A couple times when visiting with friends like Scott Odell and others  sitting around picking I have disabled the 4 string on my banjo and got along quite fine playing what I consider an older black style.  When I was hot into discussing this a few years ago a major banjo scholar we all know did take an informal look at a bunch of minstrel banjo pieces and thought they tended to use the fourth string much less than 20th century banjo pieces.

There is a lot of pressure in the banjo world, particularly the "trad" and "minstrel" banjo worlds to picture banjo playing as some kind of ancient premodern practice held back and encrusted by hidebound tradition, clinging to the purity of its roots in Africa or elsewhere on other continents.

However, whether among European Americans or African Americans, or indeed beyond the United STates, banjo playing has been a distinctly modern phenomena, one of the first world cultural developments spread by capitalism, one of the first more or less standardized products of its nature,  characterized by constant innovation and creation and technical development and innovative use of new developments and contributions from other instruments

 

 

Yes that was one of the very first things I noticed when I began to feel out minstrel tutor repertoire, Tony-  that I was using the bass string a whole lot less than in old-time playing.

like many other musical instruments, banjo tunings were raised three steps in the late 19th century.

Are you meaning raised up from what would be a 'drop G' equivalent (minstrel dGDF#A) to 'Drop C' tuning (gCGBD) ?  If so, then that's two and a half steps, not three.  A small detail, but important and potentially confusing for new learners going back and forth between various tunings.   :)

Actually, the official musical terminology on that shift of tuning would be that it was tuned up a fourth, G to C.  I think Tony is absolutely right that the gourd banjo may well have disappeared were it not for the appropriation of the banjo by the minstrels.  I still prefer my gourd banjo to any of the other supposedly-improved banjos I have here, though. 

There continues to be a lot of reading African musical influence into Minstrel banjo. To be honest most of the Minstrel repertoire has no such connection after all,

Dan'l,

first, let's just temporarily put aside the minstrel repertoire that obviously does have African music influence, such as Juba, Pompeii Ran Away...and we'll go with your 'most' comment.  And I agree that most of the repertoire of the tutor books seems to be tunes that did not originate in Africa. 

When we speak, there are significant differences between the terms "minstrel banjo" (meaning all playing of the banjo by minstrel players, including playing techniques), and "minstrel repertoire" (referring only to the tunes and songs played by minstrel performers in general, not how they played them or what instruments they played them on).  These two terms cannot be interchanged from sentence to sentence as though we are talking about the same thing.

Yes, a majority of minstrel repertoire seems to consist of European and American-composed tunes and songs.  But once they are played on a banjo with a short drone string, using the typical syncopated 'banjo-y' patterns and rhythms, and using the tuning intervals and playing patterns found in most minstrel banjo tutors, then yes we hear to one extent or another the African influence in minstrel banjo playing.  This cannot be dismissed as insignificant, because it forms the very core of what we recognize as 'the banjo sound'.  But play those same tunes on a banjo using say guitar style or heavy Irish rhythms while using the drone string as simply another melody string, or play it on a tenor banjo in tango style, then likely not much African influence is apparent anymore.

But my main point is that there is a big difference between the meanings of the terms 'minstrel banjo' and 'minstrel repertoire', and we can't simply use them interchangeably without our discussions rapidly becoming inaccurate and confusing, leading to new debates.   :)

"Are you meaning raised up from what would be a 'drop G' equivalent (minstrel dGDF#A) to 'Drop C' tuning (gCGBD) ?  If so, then that's two and a half steps, not three.  A small detail, but important and potentially confusing for new learners going back and forth between various tunings.   :)"

No banjo tunings once pitched at A started being pitched at C,  those at E  began being pitched at G.  

The architecture of banjos made in the late 19th century,  such as the great Boston banjos, was altered to support this and focus on the high distinct treble epitomized in the 20th centur by the Bacon name Silver Bell for the last of Day's major banjo designs

In very much of formal music,  a series of international formal and informal agreements went on in the late 19th and early 20th century agreeing about a common pitch we know now as 440 for A,

"There continues to be a lot of reading African musical influence into Minstrel banjo. To be honest most of the Minstrel repertoire has no such connection after all, and why try so hard to appear politically correct?  Let's be historically correct. Most credit can be given to African-Americans and Euro-Americans, their ancestors some."

When I first heard minstrel banjo being played,  I think the great album out out by a bunch of people in the 70s  I thought the music sounded exceedingly European, not even European American.  I remember having a discourse with Beuhling about it then.   But,  two things, what would you expect European Americans of that time to make. 

What would you expect given the way that we knew this music only from formal printed transcriptions and tab from the minstrel tutors.   But if one listens to attempts to transcribe African American songs from that period, the music is smoothed out, often deprived of its syncopation, the blues and other African origined scales and modes are minimized or removed, and the music might sound quite musical

Bob Winans told me that when he began investigating minstrel banjo back in the 1970s discovering all the tutors while doing other research in libraries,  no one really knew what it would sound like and he expected it might sound like clangy choppy tenor banjo played by the last generation of minstrels.     All people had to go by was the music discovered in the tutors and song books,

However,  now, having spent some time trying to have an understanding of what constitutes black musical patterns, a huge number of the tunes are structured the way African American music of parallel kinds is structured.  A huge proportion of the tunes entered the Black banjo repertoire of the most "traditional" performers because whatever the origin they fit in the musical needs of black music makers whether they started out as Black tunes or not.

Now, most Black banjo music I am familiar is dance music oriented toward the way Blacks did the old dances, whereas most minstrel tunes we have are presented as show music for an entertainer, usually for an entertainer singing and as time went on the tutors and song books became more adapted for parlor entertainment etc.

However,  it seems fairly clear to me that very much of the actual white minstrel music was much more syncopated and swingy than the written music indicates.  Some of the artists probably used much more of the blues scale and other Black sounds than the music would indicate.  This seems to be indicated by the reports of people who heard them and by the musicians of other music, particularly the piano, who introduced music that was syncopated precursors of  ragtime,  that claimed to be inspired by the syncipations of minstrel banjo.

Bob Winans has a very good musical analysis of how African American syncopation can be learned by studying some of the original minstrel tutor music.  I know he is at work on a larger work to make a real musicological study of  the AFrican American rhythmic and harmonic influences in Emmett's music.

There was probably a range of African American influence from entertainers that sounded like Black musicians to musicians who had little Black influence.  This probably changed over the years with ups and downs as minstrel entertainers mixed it up and mixed their repertoires with performers of regular popular music and even European formal music.  

I think as soon as the alternative of a hoop or frame head for a banjo became known, it simply made more sense for most banjoists to use them and abandon gourd banjos because they were hard to make, fragile, and hard to maintain and not loud enough and didnt involve all the trouble involved obtaining, seasoning, cleaning, and otherwise working gourds into being banjos.

Hoops or frames were not "substitutes" for gourds.  They were and are better than gourds.    The geographical question isnt unimportant.   There is no information suggests that any major development in the history of the development of the physical banjo,  after the importation of the early gourd banjo, took place in the South as opposed to the North, this includes the fact that the ioldest recorded sighting of any  banjo in the US took place in NEW YORK CITY in the 1700s.   Even Sweeney had to tour the North and the British Isles to have some impact on the world as a banjo player and in popularizing the innovations in the banjo he is associated with.  Perhaps we might include Boucher being in the South, although we do not know whether Boucher made banjo or whether he simply was a central vendor of banjos others made,  but beyond him all the major makers that had impact,  all the major banjo entertainers who popularized the innovations in the instrument that folk makers by and large followed centered themselves in the northern industrial cities.

Minstrel banjo playing celebrates the eruption of the banjo as an URBAN NORTHERN and even European enterprise, spread by the national and even international character of popular entertainment and production  spread by newspapers, telegraphs, railroads, and steam ships.  Organizing the crafting or manufacture of instruments around gourds predates this development.  They are available in a limited area.   They are hard to grow in a standardized way.   They are not that adaptable to  be modified to suit the innovative ideas of both craftspersons and entertainers.

this is pretty much like the flat fingerboard question.  Africans arriving in the early modern new world entered a world where boards, often staves used to ship sugar, rum, and other products, were fairly plentiful compared to West Africa.  They saw European instruments with flat fingerboards.  That seemed to work a lot better than the round pole like necks used in WEst AFrica.   Likewise with violin like friction pegs compared to those ropes from West AFrica.  

We have not a single illustration or record of anyone anywhere in the New World playing a West AFrican lute with pole neck or ropes for tuning.  We have but one example in all of the Americas, from Brazil in the 19th century, of someone playing any West AFrican lute--not one in the banjo's lineage.    

I dont doubt that people did play these instruments in the Americas, but what I am trying to illustrate is that innovations along the line of the banjo's development were more attractive than the dropped features of West AFrican lutes,  and disappeared because people could make the music they needed easier with the new innovations.

Sane thing happened with gourd banjos.  Once the idea of making banjos with a  frame or hoop head became known it seemed much more useful and easy to do with the gourd banjo.    I would also add that probably even among AFrican Americans, the eruption of the commercial banjo entertainment and manufacturing industry in the late 1830s and 1840s made the banjo more popular and its playing more widespread.    For many it wasnt the idea of the banjo organically growing out of gourd banjos but being encouraged by the reflected glow fo the minstrel banjoists, and their influence would have been felt

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