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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What about looking at some of the period sheet music in Levy to see how the piano accompanied some of the same songs?

I've wondered about this stuff too. The backbeat - the "pah" in "oom-pah" or the "chuck" in "boom-chuck", has been an important part of fiddle tune accompaniment for a long time - but how long? If you look at some of the old books, that actually include accompaniment suggestions, (and there aren't very many that do - the Skye Collection is one) the suggested chords are generally shown equally divided into four beats per bar. https://archive.org/details/skyecollectionb00macdgoog The bass note/chord combo seems to have come later. I've got an 1893 "second fiddle" book for a dance band that has the fiddler playing offbeat chops, like a bluegrass mandolin player on some tunes.
Of course we don't know if everyone followed these instructions. My instinct is that the "modern" backbeat may be an Afro/Celtic fusion thing that may have spread to other styles out of the whole minstrel thing. Seems to me brass band music does that too. I wonder when that started. The Elias Howe brass books might hold a clue. It's all pretty mysterious - could be a good thesis for someone. And while we're at it - how did the "Bo-Diddley" riff find it's way into pipe band drumming before Bo ever made a record?

So… I may not be comprehending what this discussion is about.

Clearly I must not be, because it took me all of five minuets to find clear definitions of where the accent notes are found.

Converse Yellow, page 19.  "In playing a dotted eighth note and a sixteenth, accent, or play louder, the dotted eighth note."  I'm sure there is more, but I find that book tedious.

Converse Green, page 10, section titled "Accent."

Converse Banjoist 1871, page 8.

From 1870 on pretty much every banjo instruction book writes the same as is in the Green and the Banjoist.

One that is fresh on my mind is SSS' "American Banjo School."  Swaim uses the finale of Weston's "Seek no Further March" to illustrate how to accent the beat on the first, third, fifth, and seventh notes (complete with accent marks) over the chords.  That is a stroke style exercise.

I imagine the same sort of information would be found in other popular music instruction books.

So help me out here.  Six pages and none of the above was discussed.  Are you folks taking about something different?

Ian, we've GOT to be related. This crazy stuff keeps me up at night.



Ian Bell said:

I've wondered about this stuff too. The backbeat - the "pah" in "oom-pah" or the "chuck" in "boom-chuck", has been an important part of fiddle tune accompaniment for a long time - but how long? If you look at some of the old books, that actually include accompaniment suggestions, (and there aren't very many that do - the Skye Collection is one) the suggested chords are generally shown equally divided into four beats per bar. https://archive.org/details/skyecollectionb00macdgoog The bass note/chord combo seems to have come later. I've got an 1893 "second fiddle" book for a dance band that has the fiddler playing offbeat chops, like a bluegrass mandolin player on some tunes.
Of course we don't know if everyone followed these instructions. My instinct is that the "modern" backbeat may be an Afro/Celtic fusion thing that may have spread to other styles out of the whole minstrel thing. Seems to me brass band music does that too. I wonder when that started. The Elias Howe brass books might hold a clue. It's all pretty mysterious - could be a good thesis for someone. And while we're at it - how did the "Bo-Diddley" riff find it's way into pipe band drumming before Bo ever made a record?

OK, I buzzed through reading all of hte responces, trying to get a responce in in the waining minutes of the lunch hour.

Hmm, an indicator.  I'd go with dancing, such as the box waltz.  A simple 1-2-3, or in your head as you dance it "Step-2-3".  Polka's as well.  Now the question is, would the song be written for the dance or vice versa?  If the idea is to keep your step and not look the fool, then a good downbeat from the band is invaluable.

I see indicators in the military calls and tunes around and during the Civil War.  When you start to march, you step off on "1", your left foot, and the cadence played by the drums and fifes are all about keeping that strong down beat, especially good if you have a bass drum along.  Again, the music is there to aid the troops in marching orderly so they can be deployed orderly.

I'm on speculating, but I can't help but think that as soldier's marched if they were to sing a tune it would have a down beat to flow naturally with what they had drilled into them.

Just my two cents. :)

Since it was my thread, I would like to take one more shot at clarifying what I intended, with all due respect to any individual's current practices, opinions, and preferences. Does anyone have any historical evidence about how an ensemble would treat the accompaniment of this early music? Most Minstrel ensembles had the elements of an early drum kit present by means of at least tambo and bones. Somewhere in there is a beat...like the kick drum, the faster motion of the hi hat / cymbals, and the presence of an accented back beat. To what degree were each of these elements brought out to provide the kind of "drive" and excitement it created?

Tim, your knowledge of music and music theory is way over my head, so I will be responding with a question.  Does the accompaniment shown in the early tutorials address this at all?  Does the accompaniment offered on period sheet music in Levy address this?  Would the bass clef help in "Home Circle" c1859 or "Foster's Social Orchestra" c1854?   In the absence of recordings, I'm not sure where else we can turn.  I have a feeling that some of our responses were a source of frustration and I hope I'm not starting it all over again. ;)

I don't believe the sheet music really gives us that much. I was hoping for things like this ( see photos of "Never Give It Up So"  ) from the Hans Nathan Book. It still is his own guesswork, but at least it is something. I was hoping to find more accounts like this, either in notation or description.

I forget where the observation came from...Carlin's book perhaps, but it referred to the practice of early banjo soloists having a heavy foot keeping the beat on 1 2 3 4 while playing - most often standing. I think it even  referred to the musicians standing on a board to increase the rhythmic effect, especially like in a circus setting. If this set a precedent in how the pulse was kept, what became of the other instruments added to the known ensemble configuration. The Hans Nathan score indicates the rattle of the bones..( providing an accent ) on the back beat. If this acts in accordance with the pulse of the tambo, most likely one of those big dogs, perhaps we can imagine the earliest rhythm sections.

Yes, it came from the Hans Nathan book, pg. 190 . I posted the page. Very interesting...especially the verbal account.

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