Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

Does a gourd banjo with a wide neck qualify as a Minstrel Banjo?

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I suspect that this thread might elicit a considerable semantic battle, so at the risk of firing the first shot, i will say a few things.


Mostly, this depends on your definition of "minstrel banjo." If you are considering the word to refer to a living tradition of instrument building, then pretty much anything you want to call a minstrel banjo is a minstrel banjo. If you are referring to the instrument in the historical sense, then it has to conform (in most peoples' minds) to a certain set of aesthetics and specifications. Still, it's not that simple, as you'd be limiting that set of aesthetics and specifications in order to comport with a set of historical aesthetics and specifications that never existed in the first place--minstrel banjos were ridiculous (in a beautiful way) and, by nature, of infinite variation. Judging by extant instruments and photographs, every possible approach to banjo making was taken during the minstrel era, which  resulted in a limitlessly diverse set of instruments, and thus any attempt to define a standard set of attributes common to all would likely fall short.


Furthermore, calling the historical instrument a "minstrel" banjo is, in a way, characterizing a particular set of instruments by how they were used, rather than how they were built. This is not unlike the way a lot of people talk about bluegrass banjos versus "old-time" banjos (a problematic way of classifying, since each can and has been used for both styles of music). Can we call Boucher banjos minstrel banjos if most were used by players who were not engaged in minstrelsy? Do we even have the ability to find that information? For this reason I prefer the term "early banjo," which I think is both more descriptive and more appropriately evocative.


That being said, I am not exactly clear as to what consistent and noteworthy differences there would have been between early banjos that were intended for private use and those intended for the minstrel stage. I can see trends, whereby early misntrels seemed to prize gaudy and notable decorations and appointments (swelled necks, silly peghead designs, marquetry, and other odds and ends), but there are plenty of early and or minstrel banjos that blur the lines between design based on showmanship and more modest goals.


Of course, another way to think about this would be to say that there is no evidence (that I know of) that would suggest that a gourd banjo was ever used on the misntrel stage, which means the short answer to your question is simply no.

Great question. I think you bring up something quite pertinent and resonant regarding where this community came from versus where it can go as we continue to uncover greater historical contexts.

Building on your question, is a "minstrel banjo" a banjo that can be documented as having been played by someone who did minstrelsy? If so, then perhaps it is a genuine "minstrel banjo" because of its provenance.

What about someone from the 1850s who purchased a banjo to play at home based on period instruction books? Were they actual minstrels if they did not set foot within a space designated for a minstrel performance? 

What about the idea that we (here in the 21st century) are all really fixated on antebellum and Civil War era banjos that could have been used in a wide variety of contexts that did not necessarily have anything to do with being used for minstrelsy?

Similarly, if the narrow use of "minstrel banjo" within our web-based ning-context is used to qualify something that is actually much more robust, perhaps we should consider additional names that evoke something more than minstrelsy. Might this be a way to portray a more accurate representation of the past?

Perhaps we can also consider Barry's question as something that deserves greater coverage as a talking point for our gathering at Antietam in June!

Once again, great question Barry.

Happy Monday,

Greg (the subversive problematizer)

haha. greg and i seem to be on the same page here (can you tell we're both librarians?)
my only reason for the question was ...... if I , as a gourd only banjo maker, make a gourd banjo with a wide neck and or a similar peghead shape, would I be misleading a person saying it is a Gourd minstel banjo?

(see above)


also, again, it all depends on what presumptions you make about that term as it is generally understood. i talk about this a bit in the "history" section of my website:


The five-string gourd banjo, then, is an amalgamation. It combines the modern five-string banjo, whose development is commonly credited to Joel Walker Sweeney (b. 1810, d. 1860) with its immediate predecessors, the three- and four-stringed gourd banjos played throughout the southern United States. The five-string gourd banjo represents a critical moment in the history of the banjo, when the instrument itself was becoming something totally different than the instruments that had preceded it.



Well, there just aren't any absolutes established to define it, as near as I can tell.  It is especially difficult being both an object and a style. I dislike it, and clearly remember at AEBG on Sunday morning an agreement that "Early Banjo" is a better term, for reasons stated above. Things stick, however....try to get people to quit saying "Rock Guitar"....style or instrument. Barry, I'm sure you've seen it, and it is an artist's rendering, but Sweeney is posed with a gourd body on at least one of his sheet music covers.   
In that case I will call it a Minstrel with additional info. Sorry to get everyone flustered.

No need for an apology. I think it is a great topic for discussion. 

Cool instrument...more angles please


Don't apologize for asking such a good question. That's the challenge of communicating in a digital forum. The spectrum of assertive and/or jovial vocal tones are hard to capture on a computer screen (i.e., I'm not sure any of us feel flustered) :-)

Your question and the follow-up responses remind us that we have multiple words available to us. It all comes down to how we use them!

Keep asking questions, come to AEBG IV in June, bring some of your banjos, and we can all keep talking there!


This is the wide neck minstrel. The other one was sold and had a one piece neck, This one is a beauty. I got them mixed up because I have only made two banjo with calfskin. I usually use goatskin because too me, calfskin is more elastic than goat. This banjo has some beautiful wood on it.
What is AEBG IV?
To me, the term minstrel banjo means an original or reproduction banjo from approximately 1840-1870, when minstrelsy was still more or less in its original stage and the banjo was a centerpiece of its instrumentation.  It's not a perfect definition, but it works for me.  Pete Ross told me that he thinks gourd banjos were used occasionally on the early minstrel stage.  I would like to hear more from him on that subject.  Hope he comes to the Gathering!

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