Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

 I just wondering what yall do.  I belong to the Cane Island Vols. who fought in the Texas Ind. 1836.

Most of the guys are really  into black powder guns, etc.  I dont even have a blackpowder weapon. When I joined them , they said all they wanted me to do is play around camp for atmosphere. Which suits me fine.

Mostly harp & spoons. {Now real banjo, when I learn}  When you go to events to you go as a soldier or civilian?  Im not really interested in getting into the marching etc.  Just want to hang and play music.

 What do you do?


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BOB, just because you taught me to play, gave me my first shot at being on stage, mentored me as a builder, built my first fretless banjo, schooled me in stage craft, supported me when I was down, kept me learning new stuff and keeping me connected with the banjo by sharing your knowledge and research...that doesn't mean your old....or maybe it does?


It does mean that you are great mentor and sage to many of us here, directly or indirectly. 

I started in 2002 with the 87th PA Volunteer Infantry. Four of us started pickin' around the evening campfire (guitar, fiddle, banjo and I was on mandolin) and that turned into the Susquehanna Travellers. I switched to fretless banjo in 2008 after meeting Greg Adams at a Carolina Chocolate Drops concert in York, Pa. Greg was kind enough to answer my beginner questions and even gave me an impromptu lesson after their "jam session."

9 years and a few personnel changes later, only one of us is still actively reenacting, but as a group we have had pretty good success. Our performances are now as civilians, but we still enjoy attending events and playing for anyone who will listen, whether they're soldiers, civilians or 'taters.
Hi Steve. I reenact as a civilian. My impression is a banjo playing medicine show "doctor." The other two folks in our little trio (guitar and fiddle) both do some reenacting as soldiers (one is with the 5th Co. Washington Artillery, and the other is with the Louisiana State Militia, 10th Brigade), and some as civilians. When they do civilian impressions, one is a Reverend and the other is a country squire. Anyway, good luck on the banjo, and have fun with the reenacting!

My reenacting started in 1974 with an interest in Mountain Man and then Revolutionary War (infantryman) in upstate New York (around the Saratoga Springs area), just in time for the nationa's Bicentennial. I graduated to Civil War reenacting as an artilleryman in 1993, two years after we moved to the Baton Rouge, Louisiana area. So I'm pretty familiar with the fur-trapping thing, the pony-tailed soldier thing, and the Confederate / Federal thing. All along, I've enjoyed playing and singing the period music for whatever period we portrayed. And when our group (a trio called Roscoe, Lee & Abadie) performs, we perform as civilians. I play guitar, limberjack, tambourine, bones, jawbone, jew's harp, spoons, and harmonica. I hope to be good enough to play banjo by the end of this year. God willing, and with the help of folks such as yourselves - and all the great videos available here - I expect to meet that goal. Assuming that to be the case, then we'll have two fellows in our group who can play banjo. Our banjo man is Vicnent Abadie, who is also a member of this list and encouraged me to get mre actively involved in what's going on here.


I found - in my admittedly highly limited experience over the last 37 years - that the folks doing Mountain Man and Rev War seem far more particular about, and meticulous in their attention to, details at every single level. And now I'm fighting some of the same batttles many of you probably are, too: Ashokan Farewll, Cripple Creek, I'll Fly Away, and many other post-period songs are often requested by the crowds (including reenactors) - and we reject those wholesale. We always have a period substitution for those songs, which softens our refusal (and we never reject their requests in a self-righteous manner, but in a way that we hope educates them a little).


Banjo is a fairly recent interest of mine. In fact, it's become so interesting to me that I'm about to start construction of two that I have in mind, one being a gourd banjo and the other ... not...lol. The second will have a wooden pot or rim, and both will have similar necks. I'm happy so far with my material choices, including the heads and strings. This site has been most helpful, and I've also had the opportunity to observe closely and have extended conversations with an exceptionally good minstrel-style banjo player in our artillery reeenacting group, a fellow by the name of Alvin C. "Cooky" Reaux. He's a member of the 5th Company - Washington Artillery of new Orleans / 6th Massachusetts Light Artillery group of which I'm a member (and a Corporal), and he and I have been struggling our way to a more authentic sound over the last 17 years and more.


Though this is not banjo-related, I have to tell you that it's through our pursuit of a more authentic sound that I finally did one or two things right when it came to a guitar. I had been using several cheap guitars (a Montana, three Burswoods, and a couple of no-name parlor guitars that were junk when they were new, and at 30+ years odl when I got them, not improved) because I was dumb enough to jeopardize my 1965 Martin D-28 by taking it out in all weather. I got smart after a while to leave it at home, and to take the crappy guitars instead.


Cooky Reaux told me of his travails in finding good strings for his minstrel banjo, made a fellow out of California, as I recall (though his name is long forgotten). It's a wonderful instrument, and projects exteremely well - booms like a bass drum. He urged me to abandon bronze or steel strings in favor of nylon, so on five occasions I tried the strings he recommended (used on his classical guitar) and hated them. They wouldn't stay in tune through three verses of a song, broke very easily, and sucked in general. Then I found a guitar I fell in love with - a Republic RP-1, which is by far the finest guitar I've ever had. That shocked me since it was $349, delivered. I have to admit that I like it better than the Martin, and the Martin's been in our family since 1965 and has a wonderful tone. \


And I did something else that made the Republic parlor guitar perfect for me, and for our group: I started paying more than $4 a set for strings...lol. I only use nylgut, and those things sound great and last a good, long time. They resonate well, and they sound right. If I ever want to go back to bronze or steel, the bracing in the Republic guitar will handle them, just like the early C.F. Martin guitar it's based on.


The lesson learned there is not to try to get by with cheap strings, and I've taken that to heart in my choice of strings for my banjos.


In our reenacting circles, our reenacting group is known for being where the party is. I don't mean just for drinking, though our folks - men and women - are no slouches at that - but where the fun is to be had, day or night. We sing and play and recite poetry and whoop and holler and receive all visitors with open arms. One thing a number of us really like to do (and our trio is often in camp) is to engage other reenactors and civilians when they come through our camp. Under my tent fly, there's always room for folks to come sit and visit with us. My wife and I always have plenty of peanuts and period candy (reproduction, of course, as 160-year-old candy would just be gross...lol), and we're not shy about offering folks something to drink (root beer or ginger beer or lemonade or water during the day). We let kids step in and play some of the limberjacks I make and sell, and we always brag on them and accuse them of being 'ringers' - "Say! Are you SURE you've never played one before?! You're too good at this not to be a professional!" - and we've taught kids how to play the jew's harp and spoons, too.


We play and sing from a songbook of roughly 200 songs or so, though not all are minstrel show tunes. It's a rather eclectic mix, and one that challenges us at times.


Our trio performs for dances, and used to perform on the riverboats American Queen, Delta Queen, and Mississippi Queen before Hurricane Katrina wrecked that industry and bankrupted Majestic America Lines, owners of the three riverboats. We perform at plantation homes, for historical societies and museums, Civil War reenactments, home school association proms, and anywhere we get a chance. We're performed for the opening of an envelope. At Civil War events, we almost always provide the music for the worship services. In fact, we're about to self-publish a hymnal I compiled (along with some sermons, a catechism or two, and some other goodies) that we'll be doing hadcover so they'll last. I beleive I've got some 90 hymns / spirituals in it. It's titled Hymns for the Camp.


We also do the occasional sermon. My bona fides were as a Baptist minister, and I've preached to Presbyterian congregations, too. We can offer serious sermons of the period, and we also offer a burlesque of a sermon titled Fling Down Jezebel. That sermon will be on our Spirituals of the Old South CD, which we hope to have finished by July, along with a period Holiday Songs of the Old South CD.


Joe Ayers set the standard for our approach to the banjo. We've listened to many others who have had an influence on us, as well, but Mr. Ayers was the first.


A fellow I worked for once said of me, "I asked him the time, and he told me how to build a watch." All I could say to that was, "And you'll never have to ask me for the time again, will you?"  I apologize for having taken up so much of your time and bandwidth, and hope that I actually answered the discussion question somewhat along the way. I do intend to keep my 'mouth' shut from this point out, and will enjoy lurking and learning.


Thanks to all of you for helping educate folks such as I. As matthew 25:35 says, "I was a stranger and ye took me in." (And not like the fellows at the Faro table took me in, either.) It is yet to be seen whether you'll let me stay in, as I may well have already worn out my welcome.


Thanks so much for the forum and all!


Chuck Lee 

Unfortunately, I'm not the maker of Chuck Lee banjos - yet...lol. I expect to tackle my first two pretty shortly.


As to your supposition thatartillerymen, being better educated than the gravel crunchers, might well have been more apt to be musically literate as well, I think there's a lot in what you said. In fact, we portray the Washington Artillery of New Orleans. As a State of Louisiana militia unit, when James burge Walton was their commnding officer in antebellum days, it was their practice to march top his home on the anniversary of his natal day and serenade him with his favorite songs, including light opera. A number of songs were written by members of the Washington Artillery, and one song (Upi-Dee) was dedicated to them. When James Dearing was promoted from private in the Washington Artillery to Captain in charge of Lee's Light Artillery, his messmates made a gift to him of a parlor guitar with a brass tailpiece into which was inscribed his name and the date of his promotion. There is a famous photograph of the Washington Artillery in camp before Shiloh in which one of their fellows is holding a violin. They had their own brass band in antebellum days, and during the war the Washington Artillery Varieties Company produced plays and musical entertainments for their fellow soldiers. While the first four companies of the Washington Artillery were in Virginia, they performed for the entertainment of James Longstreet, Robert E. lee, and President jefferson Davis. During the battle of Franklin I believe it was, they dragged a square piano out of a home and played it during lulls in their firing, sitting right along the railroad tracks - and that piano today sits in Memorial Hall on Camp Street in New Orleans, a fine Confederate museum. So yes - I think you're clearly right to think we would have been well represented musically. Besides, everyone knows that men with superior math skills tend to be good musicians, and vice versa.

Dan'l said:

Chuck - Are you the maker of Chuck Lee banjos? They are supremely good open-backs.


In any case thanks for chiming in.  We artillerists have one advantage in our impression, that the actual units had access to more wagons and bigger tents than infantry, and didn't have to tote rifles on the march (and if flying artillery everbody had a horse to strap extra stuff onto).  That all comes down to being able to carry a guitar or banjo with more ease than an infantryman on the march; a factor when justifying an impression.  Second advantage, the average artilleryman tended to be better educated than the average infantryman, as reading and figuring were required in servicing the "piece" (the cannon). So perhaps better educated in reading music as well? - though that's a supposition. 


As for music in camp, minstrel fare was the popular music of the time, but I agree there were likely many other tunes played in camp (including spirituals and chanteys in the folk taradition). In fact I don't think many of the songs played on banjo were the versions printed in the banjo tutors of the day - but I've seen the light now not to make too much of that because it's not important compared to learning the documented methods of play in the tutors, thereby playing the way we know some banjo players played.


I too discovered the RP-1 guitar, mine was $200 new with case.  And I have fitted it with Nylgut as well - though for strings 4-6 you may as well replace with metal-wound silk from a "folk guitar" set because that's all the Nylgut sets (or the actual period guitars)  have.

         I try really hard to maintain a braced three-finger plucking style and not use a plectrum, which were not used at the time.  I sometimes have to resort to plectrum for unfamiliar material or to be loud around louder instruments brought into camp.  Those darn mandolins, steel-string tone-ring banjos, and dreadnaught guitars don't belong but there they are.  Those darn concertinas do belong, but nobody's ever told me they can be played softly by a player who knows how (anyone know this?).


I've verified the RP-1's various dimensions are all within about 96% of an 1846 Martin, and I've replaced all Phillips screws on the machines with slotted, but can't do much about the tortoise binding or the too-large bridgeplate, which weren't likely though they could have rarely been that way.



You're correct, sir. The song Dixie was a great favorite of the Washington Artillery. As a send-off to the war, Rev. Benjamin Palmer - arguably one of the great lights of Presbyterianism in the 19th century - preached a sermon to them and other militia units gathered in Jackson Square. From there, the first four companies of the Washington Artillery marched to the train station, singing Dixie. Two of the men of the Washington Artillery died on the march to the train station - died of heat strokes. (That argues in favor of proper hydration, and having a summer uniform as well as a wool uniform.)


Carlo Patti was a name well known to the men of the Washington Artillery, of course. Bear in mind that when the invitation was publishedf abroad in the New Orlerans region that the Washington Artillery sought "Gentlemen" to apply for membership, they meant "gentlemen" in every sense of the word. These were men of prominence in commerce, religion and politics. James Burge Walton, for example, owned a wholesale grocery, and was one of the leadiers of the American ("Know Nothing") Party in Louisiana before the war. One of the men who would lead a company of the Washington Artillery later and would be promoted out of the Washington Artillery during the war was Cuthbert Slocum, whose name is still known in racing circles not as one of the founding members of the Metairie Racetrack (the track of which can still be followed in what became first Camp Tracy - named after the Washington Artillery's early commander who later become a Confederate general - and then Metairie Cemetery), but because he imported the first Arabian stallion into America. To join the Washington Artillery, you had to pay a $3 application fee to the Committee of Investigation who would research your background. A secret ballot was then taken, assuming your background was satisfactory; if you had one black ball cast against you, you were rejected from membership.


Their relatively high profiles in society and commerce is what led men like James Longstreet, for example, to go into a business partnership after the war with William and Edward Owen, both officers of the Washington Artillery who became friends of his during the war.


On a related topic, I have yet to be able to find a recording of any sort of a song popular with the Washington Artillery during the war titled "You Shan't Have Any Of My Peanuts" (at least that's what I recall its title as being). Have you heard this song?


I'm also scouting around to find the text and music to a play titled Pocahontas; or Ye Gentle Savage, which was a musical that the Washington Artillery Varieties Company performed in camp. I should that would be fun to perform or to watch, espcially since the female parts were performed by the men in camp.

Dan'l said:

It's my understanding that the Confederate words for the minstrel tune "Dixie" were first popularized by Carlo Patti in a performance  for the Washington Artillery just as the war was imminent.  Shortly afterwords Carlo, a well known viloinist and composer at the time, broke with his family and mustered in as a Confederate soldier for a while.  His sister Patti was a child singing sensation who had travelled with Carlo through many states and  Cuba before the war, whose picture somehow eneded up in the vest pocket of John Wilkes Booth when he was killed after war's end. She apparently sang for Lincoln at one point, and lived well into the recording era.  Carl Anderton of this group found some recordings and posted them a couple years ago. But this is to ramble... I've drifted too far from the post topic.



 I dont play Dixie, too many folk associate it w/ the wrong things.  They know the tune .  You could probably play the tune to 'Im a Good Ol Rebel,,, and nobody would be the wiser   Not that I would

We have several advantages when it comes to playing Dixie. We live and play in the Deep South (based in the Baton Rouge, Louisiana area), and the folks for whom we play are almost - ALMOST - universally disposed toward us playing it. And the three of us in our group are so old that we frankly don't much give a flip any more about what people think...lol. Too, we're in a fairly comfortable position, for we often have the opportunity to educate folks, which is why we don't 'soften' words in period minstrel tunes. We don't say 'people' when the song was written with 'darkey', or substitute other words if a song uses the word 'nigger'. The songs and the era must speak for themselves; and we speak for, and explain them, too, as needed. That being said, we also don't trot out 'Run, Nigger, Run' because ... well, to tell the truth, I'm probably more in need of a good butt-whipping than any man I know, but I still don't go out of my way to earn one. And our intention is never to hurt anyone's feelings or enflame their emotions, but to give them the experience of the 1850s. The language is just part of the age, whether good, bad or indifferent.


Unquestionably, your mileage and the mileage of many others may vary significantly from ours. We don't get heat over playing Dixie - we get requests for it. In all that we do, we hope to educate folks; and we try to do so by presenting ourselves as the "whole hog, hide and all'.


We love to play around the campfire, and we love to get folks involved in making music with us - especially kids, since they're generally less reluctant than adults to risk embarrassment and humiliation by trying out an instrument strange to them. Kids are used to not getting things just right the first, or tenth, or twentieth try, while we adults expect things to go right from the very start. Kids are much more fun...lol.


We take requests from time to time, but can't always do as they ask because we're normally paid to play a minimum number of hours...lol. What songs do you commonly get requests to play? Do you routinely get to play with the same assortment of fellows and instruments from event to event?

Speaking of Dixie's Land... Had some fun with this one during a performance at the UNION League of Philadelphia playing for President Lincoln (as impersonated by Christian Johnson) at his birthday celebration. He requested it, we sang it, and he even danced a little jig. This song is always a universal favorite. I sometimes like to throw in that verse: "Dis world was made in jist 6 days..". How many include the little walk around bit in between verses? We always do play it but have yet to get up and do any walking around, its hard for a trio to keep the music going and do any dancing around. Dave

For that matter, how many sing the lyrics:


I wish I was in the land of cotton, cinnamon seed and sandy bottom;

Look away, &tc.

Then away down South in fields of cotton, vinegar shoes & paper stockings,

Look away &tc....


Pork and cabbage in the pot, goes in cold and comes out hot;

Look away, &tc.

Vinegar put right on red beet always makes them fit to eat,

Look away, &tc.


I came across those lyrics in one of the Civil War collections in the Tilton Library at Tulane University in New Orleans, and a note with the collection said the lyrics were sung during the Civil War by Confederate soldiers (I believe it said Confederate soldiers of the Trans-Mississippi).


In your reenacting circles, do you find most camp musicians stick strictly to antebellum or Civil War songs; or do you have an elegant sufficiency of O Brother Where Art Thou, Flat & Scruggs, Wastin' Away In Margaritaville musical pollution at events? We find far too many of the latter sort, though not at every event we attend.

 Never heard those lyrivs , those are interesting.

 I would not play Buffet , Soggy Bottom boys etc.   I dont know much on banjo,,, but I know a bunch of songs on french harp. I  do play Foster songs ,,, which would not be correct for Texas INd . period.   But my hyprocisy ,, only goes so far.


I always sing the cinnamon seed lyrics. 


Then there is also


"Dar's Buckwheat cake an Injun batter,

De Darkies git fat, Ol massa gits fatter"

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