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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In any case, without further descent into the futility of decoding the relationship of institutional Christianity and racism in Converse's stated attitudes about his difficulties in "legitimizing" the banjo, the fact is that his views are clearly ignorant--he appears to know next to nothing about actual African-American music, though he is pretty cavalier in his bs-ing about it.  He seems to want to distance himself from that music as much as possible, so I suppose it is no surprise that he is misinformed about it.  Indeed, the example we often cite of that one piece he includes in the same work, where he claims to present a rare transcription of an actual African-American banjo player, he uses it to illustrate his own superior attitude, and I think it is dubious that he accurately represents the encounter (and I suspect he just made up the little tune, which I like anyway, whether or not it's authentic) because he seems so oblivious to actual African-American culture and music.  His attitudes go a long way in explaining why Scott Joplin's goal of "legitimizing" ragtime piano music was incomprehensible to most of his contemporaries, in spite of the subtlety of his compositions.  The conventional view was that African-American music was naive and primitive, and thus unworthy of serious inquiry.  Having just finished reading "Huckleberry Finn" to my 11-year-old, I think it is evident that not every white writer in late nineteenth-century America was so insensitive to the complexities of African-American culture.

Strictly my opinion- but I don't think we need to look any thing to "help to excuse Converse for his statement." Regardless of the time, location, etc, his statements are made out of ignorance. Any day and age, no matter how much we love a person, it's an ugly way to think.
I'm not perfect and I, too, have a lot to learn about people. I often think about lessons I've taught on cultures different from my own hoping I have given an accurate picture to my students.

John said....

"However, I don't see strong evidence to suggest that the majority of racists were Christian."

I should have recognized that this could be a touchy subject.  My statement wasn't meant to be an indictment on Christianity.  I said that most racists I have known and most American slaveholders undoubtedly considered themselves to be Christians.  That is quite different from saying most Christians I have known and most mid-19th C American Christians were racists.   If I questioned why Christianity became part of the discussion, it was probably because I sensed that a parallel was made between it and morality....and though there may be one, I don't think it takes a Christian (or an adherent to any other religion, for that matter) to live a moral existence, though, because mid-19th C America was inhabited by a large percentage of Christians, I suppose that is the reason the parallel was made.    Christians, like any other segment of society, come with all kinds of attitudes and agendas and have interpreted/cited scripture to justify those attitudes.  Perhaps they are not considered "true Christians".  I don't know.  Mid-19th C churches also split over the use of music.  As a handed-down family story goes, my G-G-Grandfather could not convince my G-G-Grandmother to join the church because she liked to dance.  

John said...

The northern branches of those churches were strongly anti-slavery.

Perhaps I'm being cynical here but, human nature being what it is, I suspect that if the climate/soil, etc., were reversed and cotton flourished in northern instead of southern states, so too would have the attitudes of northern and southern churches.

Yes, I put that up not to be defended ( or otherwise ) .....just observed. It puts many things in context.

I can understand that a certain amount of racism was thoughtless assumption for Converse and many other Americans in the 19th century, and Tim is right to point out that those of us over 50 recall those attitudes being expressed unselfconsciously all around us.  While it would be nice if Converse had taken Samuel Clemens' more nuanced view of racism, he was not unusual, and as I said before, his agenda with the banjo was served by his dismissal of the significance of African-American music.

I realize that what really irks me about his attitude is that, leaving racism aside entirely, he was complaining about how no one understands what he is trying to accomplish while hypocritically slamming a whole bunch of other musicians whose music he obviously didn't know very well.  I'm not altogether convinced he knows too much about the European classical tradition he seems to aspire to, either.  My impression is that he developed a very individual style and approach that owed a lot to a variety of influences and was difficult to put into any particular category.  It is nearly universal that people will ignorantly say about another group's music that it "all sounds the same" and is not nearly as wonderful as their music, but it is especially frustrating that someone, who clearly understands what it is to have their music and chosen instrument dismissed by the establishment, so casually ridicules another arguably more important musical tradition about which he is ignorant, simply to promote his own music.  Hypocrisy is ugly in any century.   

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