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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HA! well said Paul.

Pat Boone is an even more obvious example with his recordings of "Tuti Frutti" and "Ain't That a Shame?".  

"White bucks" referred to more than his shoes!

Some people rip it off and do it a great disservice. Others, you can tell they like the music and want to do something good with it. Early Rolling Stones???

Yes, I agree.  There was a stark difference between Pat Boone's covers and Rolling Stones.

I agree, too, and I think Elvis (before he went into the Army) falls somewhere in the middle of the continuum between Pat Boone and the Stones.  I think Hans Nathan made a case for the earliest minstrels being students of African-American culture, there's Joseph Lamb for ragtime, Bix Beiderbecke in jazz, and so on...I also think there is plenty of evidence that quite a few white banjo and fiddle players in the 19th and early 20th centuries absorbed their music directly from African-Americans, and that is where we got a lot of what we think of as "traditional" music of the Appalachians, as well as "Cajun" music in the Mississippi Delta.  The pattern-oriented rhythmic playing of some of this music surely did not come from Europe and is demonstrated in minstrel tunes like "Juba" and a few others, indicating that some early minstrels heard the real thing, but that there were other white musicians learning music from African-American masters without minstrelsy as a filter.  As someone who himself will be a Dead White Guy someday, I can say with confidence that white folks can hear authentic African-American music and be deeply moved to integrate these voices into their own music.  Once you have heard the funk, you cannot un-hear it.  I think Converse was so focused on gaining recognition for his particular brand of banjo music from the solidly Eurocentric established music hierarchy of the late nineteenth century that he saw no value whatsoever in understanding African-American music, a position shared by most minstrel banjo players after the Civil War, which is a point also made by Hans Nathan, though at the moment I can't cite chapter and verse on that. 

Not "malicious" if you're white, but for black people he was a creator of a style of entertainment that marginalized their humanity for a long while in American history.  Minstrel stereotypes represented mainstream white preceptions of African-Americans.  The "ignorant darkey" that Converse mentions is a stereotype, and should be viewed as such.

Dan'l said:

     It cheapens the African-American contribution when we feel compelled (out of guilt I suppose) to elevate what they did in pre-Minstrel times, as if what they did wasn't enough. The white Joe Sweeney certainly wasn't malicious in his contacts with black musicians and he was a pioneer of of the Genre; and it's unfair to portray Converse as a race-hater based only on one musical assessement he made late in life - especially wrong to do so from our comfortable post-modern hindsight.


Easy for us to say.  

We did not grow up in a time when a race of people were traded as property.  

We did not live to see 600,000 people die over that subject.  

We did not live in New York City during the draft riots.

We did not live through the aftermath of that war and reconstruction.

Our good friends were not veterans of that war, with all the horrific stories that came with it.

We did not devote our life to developing a system of teaching the banjo and publish a dozen fantastic books.

We have not listed "Banjo Teacher" as our occupation on the census.

We did not fight for the rights of American Indians with our wives.

I'm not saying that his choice of words are pure as the driven snow.  But I am saying that his thoughts and opinions were influenced by factors that we have never known.

It also does not take away the fact that he left a fantastic body of work.  A portal of musical time travel.  He is the one that preserved popular banjo playing from that era.

And by his own admission-- his banjo playing was not learned from African Americans... well he did know Horace Weston.

Well stated Joel.  This comes back to  an earlier statement by Tim, which is that his viewpoint (Converse's) was considered "common knowledge."  Sometimes that common knowledge is the hardest thing to overcome.  I know someone who grew up in the 30s and 40s.  She once told me that her first experience with African Americans was sitting behind a couple of migrant workers in a theatre.  They were unwashed and smelled, and were rude throughout the movie.  That was her impression of African Americans for years.  Now you multiply this by the fact that slave were repressed, they were not allowed to read and write, and virtually everyone believed in white supremacy.  Impressions can be a hard thing to get past. 

I think we have to be careful about throwing around the word hatred.  There is a difference between hatred and ignorance.  There certainly was hatred, you can see it expressed by the KKK, and in the writing and music of the post war years (minstrel songs like "It's Bad to be a Nigger on St. Patrick's Day").  By the same token, there was a lot of ignorance on the part of people when it came to African Americans, their culture, their intelligence, their potential, their humanity. 

Remember even  Elvis and the Stone started out doing covers  of blues by African American artists.



Yes, to summarize Joel, it is difficult for us to put our arms around that perspective...the variables that create the zeitgeist of the time. There are racial attitudes carried over from my parent's generation that they do not consider hateful or unusual....it's just the way it was. The further you get away from it, the stranger it may look. When you are in the middle of it, and it is part of your life, it does not seem that way.

None the less, I think music may have transcended some of that...where the intercourse of ideas and music was at a basic and simple level. Musicians are always attracted to good music, in spite of the social norms that surround it. Where it goes and what they do with it once extracted is another story.  

You don't have to have hatred to be racist.

What do Christians have to do with it...did I miss something?

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