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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One of the distinguishing differences between the banjo and most African lutes is the flat fingerboard.  The 18th century examples of banjos have flat fingerboards, so I would think that a flat fingerboard on a gourd banjo is entirely appropriate.  With regards to the bass string, a number of tunes in Briggs do not use the bass string.  I think it's a fair assumption that some of these tunes probably come from before the addition of that string.  If that's true, then the tuning on these older instruments would be the same, and the bass string was just an addition.  This is purely conjecture on my part.

 

Spot on John. Very few in Briggs and only one note in all of Gumbo Chaff's Preceptor.

Strumelia - The Preceptor shows a diagram of an C Tuning then mentions a D Tuning (Briggs). But most of the tunes play out of D, as if this was the newest popular tuning. 

In West Africa, it is not uncommon to find players using a variety of tunings to fit the song/singer.  That this practice is used by banjo-players in the clawhammer tradition seems to be another retention of West African performance practice.  I have seen as many as three strings being fingered on West African plucked lutes, but two is the usual (as with the ekonting).  I suspect that the player in the 1815 painting is indeed playing a gourd instrument, and they can be substantial in size--mine are both around 11".  One thing standard in African lutes that I have not seen in reproduction gourd banjos (except my own) is that the head is traditionally not just supported by the sides of the gourd, but also by the neck as it goes across the gourd (or hollowed-out wood).  I suspect this is because most gourd banjo makers are using minstrel-era hoop banjos as a model, but I question whether that design is authentic.  Anyway, this bracing not only improves the tone but also offers support to a sagging head in humid/cool conditions.  On cool nights in West Africa (not too many of those, but...), I think it is common to heat up the head of a lute or drum by waving a torch near it. 

Mark- the C tuning you mention here- was it merely a step lower than the Briggs D tuning, or did it have different intervals than the D tuning?  Can you possibly show the diagram of the C tuning?

Mark Weems said:

Strumelia - The Preceptor shows a diagram of an C Tuning then mentions a D Tuning (Briggs). But most of the tunes play out of D, as if this was the newest popular tuning. 

Oh yes...that flute book with a banjo on the cover. THAT was clever marketing.

Aaaah, never mind, I found it online  :)  Thanks!



Strumelia said:

Mark- the C tuning you mention here- was it merely a step lower than the Briggs D tuning, or did it have different intervals than the D tuning?  Can you possibly show the diagram of the C tuning?

So, please tell me if I'm mistaken or not here...I'm just trying to grasp the basics when looking at these old books which are sometimes a bit cryptic...

In the Gumbo Chaff 1851 preceptor book, they list the C tuning as:

cFCEG

and the D tuning as:

dGDFA

But it really means that the 2nd string in the D tuning is an F#, not just an F...because they are talking about the key of D which has an F# and a C# in it....correct?

Whereas the 4th string F in the C tuning is just a plain F (not an F#) because it's the key of C with no sharps or flats.

Is this right?  (I hope so!)

---------- and if this is so, then the C tuning is merely one whole step lower than the familiar Briggs D tuning.... ?

Notes from Hamilton Library.

  • The title is misleading for the true banjo beginner.  "All necessary instruction" consists of a.) how the strings are numbered, b.)  how to hold the banjo, and c.) how to tune the banjo in C and D.

Music Notes

  • The repertoire within consists, as the title implies, exclusively of minstrel songs.
  • These arrangements are not idiomatic to the banjo, and are perhaps modeled on those for flute or violin [5].

Here...glimpse inside the actual flute book.

http://kevinkellybookseller.com/chaff.html

Compare page 31 (which we can see of the flute book ) with page 11 of the banjo book. No effort to change anything at all! Now tell me....how can one book be both? That's crazy. You are taking flute music and using some backtracking logic to make it fit the banjo. It can't be both!

And the previous pages....we can see that page 30 of the flute book matches page 10 of the banjo book.

Yes i hear what you are saying Tim.  But I wouldn't call them 'arrangements' at all, for flute, banjo, fiddle, concertina, or otherwise-  they seem to be pretty much just straight melodies of the songs, written in standard notation.  The songs aren't 'arranged' for any instrument as far as I can see.  It's simply a tunebook of minstrel melodies, (with some banjo beginning tips in the beginning)- it's suitable for anyone to play on any instrument.  One could play the melody notes straight, as written, OR... a fiddler might add their own 'fiddly' ornaments such as double stops or bowing patterns... a flute player might add typical flute trills and breath/tongue phrasing (or whatever flautists do).  A banjo player might add pull-offs, glides, and hammer-ons.  I don't see it as much of a banjo instructional book, but neither is it a flute book or a fiddle book...I see it as just a basic 'tune book', with some banjo tunings and playing tips in the beginning.  

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