Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

Report on band performance at Battle of Aiken, SC, Civil War reenactment.

Lisa "Strumelia" had requested that I report back on how the weekend event at the Battle Of Aiken in South Carolina went. My band, the Camptown Shakers, traveled down on Friday, three of us in one car and we met our fiddler there, he was already in the area on a little vacation. My wife Tracy drove pretty much the whole way, a long 10 hour drive. We hadn’t ever traveled this far south, or anywhere for that matter to do a performance so when this opportunity came up through the event organizers I thought it would be a good idea for the band to play our music for some folks that hadn’t heard us before and that it might make for a nice sunny southern vacation from  the middle of February in the mid-Atlantic area.

 

It rained all the night the day we left and as we had been expecting the forecast wasn’t too good for Saturday either. It was raining and about 42 deg when we arrived at the reenactment site. I had brought three banjos with me, two for performing and one for a spare. I left my newest, a Terry Boucher from a kit, in the car and took down to the stage under the pavilion the two I’ve been traveling with for years; the old Wunderlich that I had recently changed over to nylguts (in anticipation of possibly selling it) and my old Dobson mongrel. I had also brought my banjo cooker, an 18th cent. reproduction brazier (sort of like a hibachi) and started a small charcoal fire. When I took the banjos out of their wrappings I could see the heads were pretty slack. I tightened up the hooks just about as much as I could without having the ends dig into the head at the rim edge but once the charcoal was lit I could pass the head over the heat and dry it as needed throughout the day. This was frequent because it pretty much rained all day and we just a few feet in, under roof. The nylguts did well, though they always feel a little slack to me on this relatively short scale Wunder Boucher ( I had selected the scale length 20 years ago when it was made). The Dobson with gut strings didn’t do as well. At one point I looked down and noticed that my 1st string was badly frayed where my right hand strikes the stings. During a break I untied it from the tailpiece and shifted it down a few inches using the excess string stored around the tuning peg. This put the frayed area just before the bridge, where I don’t usually play as much. I didn’t want to abandon this string yet, though when I did later in the day it was saved for use in the 5th string position. In its place I used a good used piece of gut, with extenders tied on above the nut and below the bridge to make it long enough. These stings aren’t terribly expensive but I always try to get as much use out of them as I can. Throughout the day we had a nice audience as spectators and reenactors took advantage of the pavilion and the chairs there to get out of the rain and listen to the music. After playing until the start of the battle we took a break until after dinner.

 

We came back at about 7:30 to get set up for the evening social. As is typical at these reenactments the dancing included enough people that sound reinforcement is requested. We had brought along our ancient PA system that only gets used about once a year but always works when set up. I don’t even change the levels on the mixer. Plug and play, but it is a pain to set it all up and even worse to get it all back in the truck at the end of the evening. We had invited an old friend, Pete Laberge, to be our dance master. I’ve been playing dances with Pete since the 70’s and Pete had recently moved to Aiken so he lived just a few miles away.

 

We were also joined that evening, and the Sunday afternoon by Kyle “Cuffie” Pretzle on rhythm bones. This was a huge treat for us. Kyle is a really expressive, tasteful and dynamic bones player. He rounded out our early minstrel band lineup and really filled out the sound.

 

The dance was huge success. I don’t know if they came in for that evening only, or were around for the whole event but there were dozens of cadets from the Citadel Military college in South Carolina. They were all enthusiastic dancers and there traditional uniforms fit right in with the Union and Confederate reenactors. With over a hundred dancers it was a long night but the band’s energy level, helped greatly by Kyle, was very high and by the time we did “Dixie’s Land” as our finale it had been a long day of playing the banjo.

 

Sunday was bright and sunny with the temperature hitting 70. We went back and played a few more hours, joined by Kyle again, to another enthusiastic audience. This time I was primarily playing my Bell Boucher and it rang out well with a head tempered by bright sunlight. Again when the boom of the cannons signaled the start of the battle reenactment we packed up, said our goodbyes, and started the long drive north. Dave Culgan

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Comment by Strumelia on February 26, 2013 at 10:30am

Wonderful account!  Thank you for taking the time to describe it all for us, especially the details on dealing with humidity issues. 

I remember the one time I brought a banjo camping that had a very thin 12" calfskin head, and gut strings.  It was rainy and very humid.  Luckily it had brackets I could adjust, it was amazing how much it sagged.  The thing that really made it unplayable for me though were the gut strings, which overnight had absorbed so much humidity that they were like plump strands of linguini al dente.  lol!  I had no Hibachi or campfire to help me.  I feel that Nylguts are a great choice for tough camping situations like this, but hats off to those who can make gut strings work somehow! 

Dave it must have been a wonderful treat to have bones maestro  Cuffie there to help make everything 'click'.   :)

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