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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All this is unfortunate as I have long wished I could get some of these makers I know who grow gourds for banjo making and other art to grow me a 1923 wide necked Tubaphone or a 5 string version of a Bacon Silver Bell

It was the product of years of work where i got an education on the strengths of real musical history from music historians outside of the banjo, old time music, and folk music world where I learned how much of what I knew as a folkie old time music buff etc etc was dead wrong once I had to produce documented research.  There were so many things in that which were products of my raising my ideas with music historians like the composer Joseph Byrd and Jeff Todd Titon known for his work on the blues and kentucky fiddling (though he is an excellent old time banjoist) and the great and generous David Evans (who is a great guitarist and does have a fine old banjo from Boston sitting in his closet unplayed since the 1960s).   It was also fortified and inspired by the rigor and previous work of our own Robert Winans.  Both Bob Winans and Greg Adams, no strangers to this site, helped a lot in that.

Paul Ely Smith said:


Ah, the Bacon Silver Bell!  I always have thought that design was the best of that era.  My solution there was to get a Bacon Blue Ribbon plectrum (same tone ring) and make a 5-string neck.  It is a fine sound, but I can't seem to take my hands off the gourd banjo these days.  By the way, "Why African Americans Put the Banjo Down" in Hidden in the Mix is an outstanding study of African American banjo history!  I am lost in that book currently, but I had to go straight to the banjo chapter first, of course--Great work!...  Cheers, Paul

this is far off topic, but I always wished that Earl Scruggs had played a Silver Bell instead of that Gibson.   Chuck Ogsbury who makes the Odes and made the Omes, the finest production crafted banjos being made today models his tone rings on that silver bell

Dan'l,  I can certainly agree to disagree on some things with you.  I'm not really looking for fights with others who love playing banjos.   :)

People who study it cannot defintely mention more than one or two song sung by anyone in the United States (other than direct African immigrants)  that originated in AFrica.  There are a few anecdotal references to things people find familiar in West Africa and Dena Epstein and Lomax and others have reported songs in West African language still sung in the early 20th century in the Georgia and Carolina costal area,  but it isnt the question of songs that anyone claims originates in Africa, but of a musical approach that characterizes West African music, largely although there must also be large central African influence, but  of a set of rhythmic and harmonic and structural approaches to music that scholars of musicology believe reflect African American patterns in contrast to European American, African or European or for that matter Asian patterns.

Musicologists believe many many tunes whatever their origin tunes assoiated with earky minstrelsy certainly either embody or attempt to embody this musical approach,

It isnt a question of direct derivation of a tune but its structure,   A good examp[le of this which might be applied to the performance of many minstrel tunes I know of--and I dont know of many0-- would be my desription of the fiddle tunes approach Joe Thompson used in an article for Harvard and Oxford UP's dictionary of African American biography which goes "Joe Thompson’s fiddling focused tunes into sets of strongly accented eight-beat phrases in scales that added the flatted fifths to the minor pentatonic scale. He repeated these phrases with melodic and rhythmic variations, usually following lower-pitched phrases with higher-pitched phrases repeated fewer times. Neither banjo nor fiddle was restricted to pure rhythm or lead; instead, they each created counter melodies that drove a relentless propulsive dance groove."

Not that this is an exclusive definition of African American music but it provides something.  Take a look at the analysis of how minstrel banjo tunes can be used to learn African American syncopation and musical approaches on Bob Winans Web site

Strumelia said:

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,


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.   :)

John, a quick update. I just spent all day yesterday at Hoppin' John's Festival here in NC playing with Rob Morrison, Dave Kirchner, James Pentecost, Dan Gibson and Bryant Henderson. It was rainy the whole day and everyone else was having trouble with their skin heads not playing  - a good test for my gourd - which was almost unaffected and I was able to play it just like it was a plastic head. I think it's because Pete Ross leaves more of the gourd and therefore has less surface area to be effected by the humidity. 

John Masciale said:

Mark, have you played on a 40 degree night with lots of humidity? On such a night I've needed to heat up the head on  both my hoop banjos and gourd banjos.

John Masciale said:

Howe liked writing collections of music, primarily for instrumentalists.  He lumped together instrumental tunes with vocal ones.  I like going to sheet music collections like Levy to look up the original piano scores for a number of these tunes.  Our book I Like That Good Old Song came from all original piano sheet music of the era.  Howe's work is invaluable in looking at popular melodies of the time.  It is amazing how many of the tunes in the instructors have lyrics, but not everything comes from vocal sources.  I have to think that in many cases lyrics were added to popular melodies such as Come, Haste to the Wedding.  Other tunes are clearly instrumental, including many of the hornpipes, polkas, waltzes, etc. Many of these are intended for dance.  So I see dance music (tunes), and singing music (songs).  Then of course there are pieces from classical sources, and Opera, again both instrumental and vocal.

I hope folks don't mind a newbie jumping into the conversation and bringing a dormant thread back to life.  I just wanted to make some observations regarding Elias Howe.  Howe, as a young man, played violin and discovered that he could go to other violinists, cop their tunes (many of which were of Irish and Scottish origin), and sell them.  He also acquired tunes from other tune books.  Over time he amassed a huge collection of American and British Isles tunes, which he sold on street corners and door-to-door.  He also re-packaged those tunes in a variety of forms so that he could expand his market to players of other instruments.  Eventually his collection grew so large and profitable that he was able to sell it, in 1850, to the Oliver Ditson Company.  A part of that transfer was a non-competition clause that required Howe to desist from publishing any music for a period of ten years.

In a sense, Howe was later a competitor of Boucher.  Both supplied the U. S. Army with drums.  Abraham Lincoln offered Howe the position of Director of Bands for the U. S. Army but by 1860, he was no longer constrained by his agreement with Ditson from publishing.  Leaving music publishing would have been a costly move.  He also manufactured instruments, including drums, and the U. S. Army was a major customer.  He was the principal supplier to the Massachusetts regiments. 

Howe was a close friend (and his wife was a cousin) of Massachusetts Senator Henry Wilson (who may, at one point, have leaked war plans to a southern lady with whom he became infatuated, and who later served as Grant's Vice President).  Wilson chaired the Committee on Military Affairs, and, as a staunch Republican, was in a position to influence Lincoln's appointments.  This may explain why Howe was offered the Army Band Director position, which he declined. 

As a further aside, a descendant of the Howe family shared an anecdote with me involving this Elias Howe and the Elias Howe who is better known as the inventor of the sewing machine.  Both lived in the same town at one point.  Henry Wilson was in the habit of sending his friend copies of the Congressional Record.  Often, however, they were inadvertently delivered to the other Elias Howe.  The two men apparently didn't get along and the Howe who erroneously received his namesake's copies of the Congressional Record would often refuse to return them to their rightful owner, further straining an already chilly relationship according to family stories passed down through the years.

Sorry for veering off topic but the mention of Howe and some of his links to the people and events of the period we're focusing on struck me as possibly of interest to some folks here.

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