Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

One thing we really do not know about playing this old music....is where does the beat lay? Was there a greater emphasis on the downbeat, or the backbeat? It works either way. Some performers use one...some the other. I don't know that there are any historical indicators. Any opinions?

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I think a lot of this music begs for a strong downbeat. Some of the older stuff just flies and is so easy when you just simply hit hard on the downbeats. That's what I've found with the tunes I've experimented with anyway.

That's a good question, Tim. Beginners should be told that it's far more difficult to play without a pulse, whether it's on 1 and 3 or 2 and 4. And personally, I feel there's a whole lotta rhythm lacking as a whole in most music I hear. Even myself. It's a great experience to play with some old timers. They've got it.

I usually emphasize the down beat as well. It's easier for me to keep a consistent, strong rhythm while stomping my foot on the down. However, the occasional backbeat can add some interesting variety.

What about the percussionists you all work with....and if you have a few in the group? You essentially have a small trap kit going. Does anything "naturally" seem to develop?

I agree with Mark.

I also find that while most old-time music seems to emphasize the downbeat (1 & 3), bluegrass music seems to more emphasize the backbeat (2 & 4).  You hear this in the guitar, bass fiddle, and the mandolin chopping.

Sometimes when i'm playing in oldtime sessions, a guitar player or a bass player joins in and does a very heavy backbeat chunking, which suddenly makes everything sounds really bluegrassy.  Plus they often 'step on' the 1 beat, making it happen a fraction early over and over, speeding things up.  i confess that as a banjo player working to keep a steady rhythm, I sometimes find such things annoying.   I'm not really sure exactly why this backbeat thing happened so strongly in bluegrass, but it was there from the beginning with Bill Monroe on mando in the late 1930's, for sure.  Maybe it's just a jazz/ragtime/swing characteristic?

Studying the accompaniments written down for period pieces is one way to gather information. The Buckley 1860 has a lot, much of which implies a backbeat (eighth note figures with a block chord on the "and" ). The Christy's stuff has accompaniments following the bum ditty rhythm...which seems to go either way.

I go more by how it feels.

If you say in your head:

I ...been WORKin on the RAIL, .... ROAD, ....     

well that's on the 1 & 4 'normal' downbeat.

Changing it to a backbeat emphasis would give you:

BEEN workin ON the rail, .... road, ....

...just too strange and unpleasant?

Hmm.  I guess, without thinking.....and as you know, Tim.....when you're singing, I chop the back beat.

I don't have any reason for it other than it feels most comfortable.  Whether right or wrong, it seems to definitely be right the few times we've added a tuba (playing the downbeat).  Then it seems to fill and fit together, well.   Regarding Terry's comment about old-timers.  I remember talking to a friend who moved to Bloomington, Ind. in the late 1970s, where all the fiddle players of our age group seemed to play melody on the down beat (and down bow) and then accented the backbeat (with an up bow).....and I mean constantly with no variation.  To tell you the truth, I thought it got a little obnoxious after a while.  My friend told me that he overheard one of the old timers say, "These young hippie fiddlers......all rhythmn and no melody!"

I know we play how we feel....but we can only be a product of our current culture and environment. I was hoping also for evidence of period practice. Both ways feel right to us, I realize. This also may be a conversation best emphasized by recordings to enlist the degrees of each approach.

Al, that's funny!   lolol..!  

Of course the '70's 'hippy fiddlers' are now the 'oldtimers'/geezers.

Brian talks about midwestern fiddlers I think using what he calls a 'sawstroke' style all the time- is that what you are talking about?

These things do so often come back to fiddlers, don't they?  (damn!)

Tim....I just 'got' the title of this thread... LOL!  ;D   (took me long enough)

The thetic beat of a melody will not necessarily dictate the accompaniment.

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