Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

Please read this and offer your take on this 19th Century view...is this tongue in cheek, or an inherent view of the time?

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Sorry, here it is.

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Need context? It is from Frank Converse..."Banjo Reminiscences". Available online or in a book.

Sad, but this is a typical viewpoint of the time.  We can admire the musicality of people like Emmett and Converse, and wince at their racism.  When looking at them we have to realize that they were no different than most of their contemporaries regarding the issue of race.  What makes them remarkable is that they are willing to pick up that "humble negro instrument," and to learn to master it in spite of any connotations that might reflect on them for doing so.  They probably didn't look at it this way, but what ultimately happened was the beginning of the merging of black and white cultures into an American culture.  The resulting music was unique in the world, and it could only have happened here.

Superiority seemed to be an inherent "fact", and not an attitude of hatred.

Reading that quote, it reminds me of things I have actually heard modern bluegrass players discuss. They even say the 'primitive' instruments played by slaves weren't banjos at all, and that the 'real banjo' was invented by (white) performers (like Sweeney) later on.

There are a lot of people who feel this way, I'd wager even here and now on this site.  One can agree or disagree, or ague about it...but just sayin'... people still say these kinds of things today, albeit usually using wording carefully chosen to get around sounding offensive.

Much of what John and Strumelia said is what came to my mind when I read it.  It makes my skin crawl reading statements such as "ignorant negroes".  It's one of the aspects of the Civil War era that gives reenacting it a bitter taste.  Though I suppose we can't leave out the bitter lest we forget it, nor know what "sweet" can be. 

 

The result of the overlying idea that one race can take an instrument and "make it better" or "master it", because some thought the negroe didn't have the capacity to do so, is quite the history leason, and as John points out, something that "could only have happened here". 

 

When I play, and why I chose to take up, the minstrel era banjo, is more to learn first hand how unique it is and why.  Irnoci how, from today's perspective, the white man of the 19th century comes out the ignorant looking one.   

Strumelia-I agree. I hear this argument all the time. We've made some advancements, but I (we) have to accept the fact that there are people who still consider me less of a person. Less capable. Less...It's just sad. 

Digging into the minstrel world in enlightening, but reminds me that people, all of us, have so much to learn about each other.  :)

Sorry I said nothing about the original quote. But, I too, agree with John

oops-students are filing in...signing off.

I'm sure many of the talented musicians who were slaves had already 'mastered' playing the instrument long before their masters 'mastered' it by playing their own more familiar European flavored music on it.

I wonder if, at a point where there was intercourse among musicians, if there was a respect that transcended those attitudes and barriers of the time?

Way Up North in Dixie references a letter from George Root to the Snowdon family offering them money so that he could come, live,  and study with them for a month.  Yes, there was a fair amount of interchange between black and white musicians.  We tend to look back and think things were totally segregated.  That is not really the truth.

Truth of the matter is one person or a group of people took an idea and expanded on it for better or worse. As pertaining to the quote Tim posted; unfortunately the sensibilities of the populace during that period are reflected in that particular quote. Who's is the author of that piece and where did their views on race sit?

Clearly very biased towards a white  persons ability to engineer such an instrument over that of a black man. Let us imagine both men had the same opportunities, education and resources afforded to them. This and both being equally interested in the instrument,..who knows what the negro banjo player would have expanded on had he the opportunity. Just a thought. 

Converse's "inherent fact" is absolutely racist, and the hatred contained therein is subtle.  I think this quote demonstrates how oblivious most white musicians were to the parallel development of African-American musical genius.  To say there is no evidence of African-American mastery of the banjo is plain ignorance.  The overwhelming influence and contributions of African-American musicians demonstrated in the 20th century, once there was recording technology adequate to preserve their work, is testament to centuries of musical mastery, but the evidence is there throughout the 19th c.  It didn't come out of nowhere...duh...  Virtually any musical development understood to be uniquely "American" can be traced to African-American roots, and one of the odd recurring facts of American music history, from the minstrels and Gottschalk, through ragtime, jazz, blues, "rhythm and blues", to Vanilla Ice is that white musicians would take a second-rate imitation of African-American music and make a fortune off it.  Another recurring phenomenon is that a few white musicians would often develop great music out of that exchange; there is no doubt that happened, too, with minstrel banjo being an early example.  But the idea that Frank Converse had any sense of what was going on in the African-American musical communities in the South before the Great Migration is ridiculous; he didn't even seem to understand the roots of minstrelsy.  It's as though Frank thought Elvis invented rock 'n' roll. 

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