Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

Mark Weems posted this comment of Ian Bells video. As a new player to this music I get confused what is a proper tempo. Some songs sound great and bring that 19th century feel, or what stimulates that feel to me when listening to a piece in a particular Tempo.  Then some, for me, are too slow, then some are too fast. My question to all you seasoned players of this music; What is the typical tempo, or is that something that is up to the musician him or herself to decide. Some sheet music will have a tempo right at the top but most do not.

 lastly, is there a 19th Century tempo.  I like this phrase, and want to know what is the tempo.

 I like Ian's version of Boatman's Dance,...is that what is meant by 19th century tempo?

Thank you people, I will take my answers off the air.

Views: 411

Comment by Tim Twiss on October 4, 2012 at 1:08pm

It is a gift and a curse to not know for certain. One has to play the music at a numbr of tempos to determine a good feel. Subjective. Personally, I spend a lot of time in the LOC period dance demonstrations. It is here that some sense of a proper dance tempo may be found, as witnessed by the motions of the body. Since much of the music we play is related to dance tempos, one can safely extract some sense of proper timing. It is also thought that the vocal tunes may have been slower, to compensate for announciation in crowded hall. I honestly don't know where they fall sometimes. I play and play at different tempos...and sometimes something just clicks....like we hit the mind of the past. I don't like them too fast, but often too slowly is just a bit over the top. (IMHO). Still...anything goes for an artistic interpretation. 

Comment by Tim Twiss on October 4, 2012 at 1:15pm

An added PS....almost everything i play and record...when I hear it back, it is faster than i thought. So, i have the habit of counting it out "one slower" now.

Comment by Mark Weems on October 4, 2012 at 1:48pm

I always felt that many are playing this stuff with a sense of Presentism, meaning forcing contemporary feelings on another historical period. Many of the videos posted on this site, which were originally done as songs, are impossible to enunciate, particularly in a period music hall, without loss of clarity and vocal nuance, if they were sung at these speeds. And although the banjo tutors have no tempo indicators, a handful of the earliest sheet music does. We also have all the tempo indicators for the Stephen Foster material. I have found no early sheet music with an indicator of more than Allegretto, which would imply 115-120 beats per minute, except for one very interesting fact that I've discovered - modern tempo is different from early and mid-nineteenth century tempo. [See link below] According to a study of Metronomes in the 19th century, tempo markings have increased between 15 and 25 bpm (beats per minute). In other words, when we see a piece marked "Moderato", as many of these historical pieces are, in 1843 say, they would have been played at 84 bpm rather than with the modern range of 108-120 (these also vary a bit metronome to metronome, which makes it all a little confusing). This would all imply that maybe we've been playing this stuff too fast. As far as instrumental pieces go, however, I agree with Tim that they are in the end "indicators", open to an individuals interpretation as to how he feels at any given moment. There are times when I really like to turn on the speed as well! Great topic that I hope more contribute too.


Comment by Ian Bell on October 4, 2012 at 5:10pm

I sang it at the speed at which I thought I could best "sell" the lyrics.

Comment by Tim Twiss on October 4, 2012 at 5:18pm

Emperical evidence ......try it.

Get the instrument, learn the tune, execute the technique, and if possible ...imagine the environment. Try lots of things. I love hearing interpretations. It khelps me make up my mind what feels best. I mostly gravitate towrds the slower tempo. It is up to musician's skill to make it "groove'. I learned that lesson with funk in the 70's.....the elusive pocket is there...just gotta find it...and settle in.

Comment by Bell Banjos on October 4, 2012 at 5:50pm

The groove is just behind me, I usually go too fast.. Oh, and has anyone REALLY noticed how this music BEGS to be hit hard on the downbeat? Most of these tunes, especially the earlier ones come to life when you play them like a march. They float around with ease when you do. Try emphasizing the 1 and 3 so much that folks start bobbing their heads and something magical starts to happen. ..AND some of those notes / phrases fall into their obvious place and the melody reveals itself in a new way. Try it. Slow down, emphasize the down beat notes and barely  touch the off beat notes.

Comment by Strumelia on October 4, 2012 at 6:17pm

Obviously it's hard to sing a song faster than you can sing the words- quality takes a rapid dive.  So singing and playing can regulate its own speed to a certain extent, unless a singer doesn't realize that they are singing the words faster than people can understand them...which I guess does happen. I love to savor the words of a song and absorb them as a story when i listen.  Sometimes the story is everything!

As a contra dancer, I know how unpleasant it is when the band plays a dance tune too slowly or too fast.  If they misjudge good dance tempo frequently, they won't be called upon very often to play dances!  Again, self-regulated to some extent, by the dancers.

I notice many minstrel pieces are titled as jigs, polkas, hornpipes, waltzes...all of which are dances that have acceptable speed standards for dancers.  Is this accepted dance tempo just generally ignored when playing them without dancers? 

In Old-time music, most of what is played these days are fiddle tunes that were originally played for social dancing purposes. Over time, the community dance part of the equation was removed and the fiddle tunes were jacked up for intense 'session playing' at festivals and giant music camp jams.  Nowadays, much of old-time music is played at speeds two or three times as fast as anyone could possibly dance to.   My husband and I lament that 'festival style' is swallowing up and flattening everything in its path, and we tend to avoid such frantic festival playing.  If I see one more old-time string band describing itself in print with the term 'hard driving', I think I may hurl.    lol

Comment by Ian Bell on October 4, 2012 at 6:24pm

Back to Dan'l's bluegrass reference, my favourite tempo for a lot of different types of music is what I think of the the "Bill Monroe Mid-tempo Bounce". Think, "Can't You Calling" or "Little Cabin Home On The Hill". I think it's the same pocket Tim was talking about in funk - just wearing a different hat than Bootsy Collins did. Ry Cooder is another master of picking the perfect tempo.

Comment by Strumelia on October 4, 2012 at 6:32pm

Terry , you're absolutely right about the off beats.  Bluegrass music, with its emphasis on the string bass and the mandolin chord chopping, hits down hard on the offbeat- the 2 and 4 of a four beat measure.  That's a huge difference from the older 'old-time music'.  Old-time music and fiddle tunes emphasize the 1 & 3 beats, not the off beats.  This is extremely important to the feel of the music.

Many guitar players with a background in folk, jazz, or bluegrass, will join in an old-time session and start playing like they've always played, chunking down hard on the offbeat.  This is considered poor awareness, mostly they are not aware of it until someone points it out to them.  Then they are amazed that they didn't notice it themselves. Our 'pop music ears' have been spoon fed lots of offbeat and jazzed up rhythms all our lives, so much so that's it's almost second nature. Such rhythm can be too modern for some of the older stuff and change the whole feel of it.

Of course rhythm and tempo are two different things, and i don't mean to get off the topic.

Comment by Bell Banjos on October 4, 2012 at 6:38pm

"Our 'pop music ears' have been spoon fed lots of offbeat and jazzed up rhythms all our lives, so much so that's it's almost second nature." BINGO, Strumelia.


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