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?) 

Views: 1485

Reply to This

Replies to This Discussion

I wonder if, when the Chaff description says "with a large collection of music adapted to the instrument"...if that simply meant they took tunes a fiddler might normally play in the keys of G or A for example, and transposed them for a banjo tuned to the keys of C or D.

Melodies, with some embellishment. Directed at a flute...due to range and keys.

Sort of like going on a gig with a Real Book nowdays.


Easy- one book can be both because it's just a tunebook- straight standard notation of the tune melodies...no 'arrangements' for particular instruments at all, as far as I can see.  They just have instrument-specific instruction in the beginnings of these tunebooks, it looks like.   It's not 'flute music'...it's just music.

Tim Twiss said:

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!

Possible....but not practical.

The point is....this book was NOT made to be a banjo book. It was conveniently redirected.


The Hamilton Library article footnotes lead directly to Weidlich's Book. If you read the section in his book on the Preceptor, he makes it clear that his reasons for saying this are based on his idea that the natural range of the banjo is only up to the tenth fret.  - exactly what I was saying earlier when talking about knowledge gleamed from 4 string string playing. 

Strumelia said:

I wonder if, when the Chaff description says "with a large collection of music adapted to the instrument"...if that simply meant they took tunes a fiddler might normally play in the keys of G or A for example, and transposed them for a banjo tuned to the keys of C or D.

Why are those 2 books the same?

This is a book that is guilty of capitalizing on a trend for gain. The subsequent tutors at least had some thought into making the stuff playable....

Take any flute or fiddle book....put a name on it, and call it a banjo book.

True....that IS the source of much material. Look at the end of Buckley's 1860.....but he at least let you know.

I got no beef with the music. It's just NOT a "banjo" book.

I have Elias Howe's Preceptor for the Accordeon, 1843, about 4-5 years before he decided to be Gumbo Chaff.  Is it the same music?  My recollection is that the accordeon one matches a flute one, except that fingerings are written in for the accordeon (i.e. button numbers, not finger numbers).  Then it became obsolete almost at once, when the opposite system of reed arrangement (pressing vs. drawing, on the bellows) won out.

Anyway I concur in the previously stated opinion that his definition of "arranged" for an instrument just referred to that sort of tweaking of his basic music plates.

I posted one page from the accordeon book, when somebody asked (in March 2009).  This link may or may not go to it -- I'm signed in, so it wants to give me the right to delete it, etc. and I clipped that off the url.


You're right Tim- aside from the first couple of pages,  Chaff seems not much of a 'banjo instructional book'. It's not a book of banjo arrangements, nor a book of 'flute music' either.  It (and the flute book standard notation section as well) is a straight up tune book of popular minstrel melodies of the timesBut therein may lie its value. 

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.   :)  

These are almost all vocal selections....which was the name of the game then. I actually prefer to get my source material from Levy's first to reference actual vocal lines. You can then see how these melodies have been squared up a bit to fit an instrumentalist.

Aah well that's like how solo fiddle tunes with open phrasing get squared up or evened out to be used for communal playing. Same thing with unaccompanied ballads.  Sadly, I know nothing about Levy.

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.

Reply to Discussion



John Masciale created this Ning Network.

© 2020   Created by John Masciale.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service