Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

First, the disclaimer: I know not what I do. I may have disremembered, misquoted, misplaced, waxed hyperbolic or simply forgot. No spotted owls were eaten without the proper Mornay sauce having been ladled properly over each. Rolling verbosity knob to 12...

I had several things in mind whilst preparing for AEBG III, most of which flew out the window when it came time to pack. I forgot the chargers for my cell-phone & camera and all the sheet music I had so carefully tabbed out for the Classic-style “Sleeper Cell” group. I also left all my travel snacks and my big road atlas. I did, however, remember to bring along some banjos. Thank God for that!

At my age, an 11hr trip is no longer a “jaunt”. It is usually a boring, tiring and weary thing. If I have learned anything over the years, it is that one’s mind begs occupation. When I was shooting in competition (19th cent “Trapdoor” rifles among them), usually all over the Southeast, I was given a book on tape…which was a life saver. These recordings are like owning your own time-machine. On the Wed. prior to AEBG, I procured two books on CD. 11hrs goes by like a rocket. In fact, I was so engrossed during the return trip; I missed an exit and didn’t notice for 30 minutes.

So, I arrived in Hagerstown uneventfully Thursday evening. My room at the Clarion/Harrisburg Convention Center was a tad on the “needs updating” side but all was clean and well kept. The bed was only marginally softer than the board floor in the Pry House Barn and the A/C unit had a fine imitation of an 18-wheeler’s Jake Brake going…but when tired, anything remotely horizontal will do.

On Friday, I decided to make for the Pry House around noon. It was a beautiful day, mid 80’s with a bit of a breeze and lots of blue sky. I found George Wunderlich wandering about the barn, cleaning and setting up chairs, etc. After a warm greeting, I found a broom and attempted to look like I was helping out. After only a few minutes of chasing cobwebs, a pair of swells pull up in an excruciatingly small “Mini Cooper”, extricated themselves and ambled up the drive. It was Carl Anderton and Joel Hooks, nattily dressed and grinning from ear-to-ear. I’ll let them tell their own stories…but they were bubbling over with tales of their road trip. I can tell you that I was a jealous puppy listening to their exploits.

Of course, we popped out a few banjos and set to enjoying ourselves inside the barn. Although we initially played some more modern “1880’s” popular tunes (George had to leave for a few minutes and like naughty schoolboys, we lit up the ‘modern’ banjos while the teacher was out), it didn’t quite feel right…so we put away the fretted girls and dragged out the fretless ladies we all love so well. Soon, more and more people started showing up and we spent a great afternoon thumping the banjo, jumping up to greet someone, thumping some more, talking, greeting the next person, thumping, etc., etc.

Time flies! I never did get any lunch, forgot to stay hydrated, etc. It was getting close to 6pm when we broke for supper…heading down to the Tavern in Sharpsburg (only a few minutes away). They have a “Beer Garden” out back and we pushed a couple of picnic tables together so that we could all sit around and yak. The food was fine for “pub grub” and the beer was cold (and I was thirsty). Whoever invented the 16oz beer-can should be given a medal!

We returned to the Barn and spent the rest of the evening making music, renewing old friendships and carving out new ones. This went on, for me, until about midnight when I bade all and sundry farewell for the evening and, leaving my banjos in the care of those spending the night in the barn, retired to the motel. I dare say I was fast asleep before my head hit the pillow.

Saturday morning, I made it to the barn just as the first lecture was starting. Bob Winans’ continuing exploration of the Dan Emmett manuscripts is simply fascinating. He keeps dropping teasers about an impending book…hurry up Bob! ;-) I really enjoyed his take on the repeating African rhythm elements found in this music. Interesting (to me) that he blocked out repetitive sections and showed how they were varied throughout a given piece. One of the first things I do when I ‘transliterate’ a piece from notation to tablature is to look for any such things; not for any wonderful insight into the music…but to make the process more efficient. Cutting and pasting sections is much faster than keying in individual notes.

The second excellent presentation of the day was given by Carl Anderton. Carl has been researching the life and times of Frank B. Converse and he walked us thru Mr. Converse’s travels, musical life and personal life. Fascinating stuff! Carl did a great job of taking us along for the ride.

Joel Hooks and I scooted off for lunch at an Italian place in Boonsboro. Good pizza! Joel is just about as you would expect: a late 19th cent. banjoist/entrepreneur trapped in the 21st century. Joel is the manufacturer and sole proprietor of those wonderful brass thimbles everyone at AEBG III was wearing. Sunday morning I was laughing at all the “Thimble tats” I saw…the brass corrodes and turns your finger green (it washes right off). Everybody had a green finger by Sunday. Joel’s current raison d’être is to seek out any and all information about S.S. Stewart…and a better bloodhound probably doesn’t exist. I knew we’d be comfortable friends from simply reading the online forums (and I’m a fan of Stewart anyway), it is a very cool thing to meet someone face to face and find out one’s instincts are in good working order.

After lunch, we returned to an “in progress” presentation by Lucas Bowman. He has evidently taken Bob Carlin’s “Stalking Joel Sweeney” book (actually titled: “The Birth of the Banjo: Joel Walker Sweeney and Early Minstrelsy”) and applied all the various Sweeney date and place references to maps and demographics. I keep saying “fascinating” but I was mesmerized by how this graphic presentation allows one to see so much more. Now I have to go back and re-read Carlin’s book. I wish I had Lucas’ slides to look at while I read it again!

We also had some “show ‘n’ tell” from Rob Morrison. Rob is a collector, restorer and a fine player to boot. He brought along a few of his of banjos and we all had a good time exploring them. Bob Winans also brought his Teed “closed back” banjo out for show ‘n’ tell: it is an yet another strange design that, although it looks like an early Dobson…it ain’t! It does have a pot suspended from a top-tension type of device (called a “spider”) but how it tensions the head appears different from the Dobson patent certainly on the surface, at least.

After about 4pm, we started preparing for the Saturday evening concert. I talked Joel into performing a guitar-style duo of “New York March”, from the Converse Greenback book. We didn’t get much of a turnout from the general public (maybe 10 people or so) but I think they got a great concert with lots of variety, singing and banjo thumping. George did his usual comic emcee duties. When it was all over…I got to thinking, “where’s the finale?”

So, picture a rather large (ok, fat) old Alabama boy running about like Andy Hardy trying to get the gang to “…give ‘em a bang-up ending!” Well, I got everyone (what? 15?) to grab their banjo, go up front and play “Briggs Jig”. Man, we pinned their ears back! Then Carl dropped right into “Old Dan Tucker” and we indeed sent them off with a bang!

Most folks went their various ways off to dinner after that and I found myself down at the Tavern with Joel Hooks, James Hartel, his lovely wife and Chuck Krepley. Again, good food, good conversation and time flew…we barely made it back in time for George’s discussion/presentation on Boucher banjos. I’m once again amazed at the level of investigation George has applied to this maker…I mean microscopic, literally. If you need to know…George is the guru! What a wonderful thing to pull up after dark to a barn made in 1844 and find George sitting in a pool of light at a woodworking bench talking about making banjos contemporary with the barn itself. It was a soft and quiet night, just perfect for such a discussion.

Of course, we broke that magical stillness with the loud and raucous shout of the banjo, the jingle and buzz of the tambourine and voices singing long into the night. The ghosts were quiet…I think they were listening and smiling to themselves.

Sunday morning was a planning session and as you may have read, AEBG IV, V, VII and VIII are already set with actual dates (last full weekend in June). I’m sure there will be much discussion on the forum about this…so stay tuned.

I know I’ve forgotten many bits and pieces. At some point, we broke off into our “splinter cell” of classic-style play…Greg Adams, Bob Winans, Carl Anderton and myself playing 1890’s banjo duets; trading 1st and 2nd banjo parts. I played (ok, stumbled thru) 1st on “Whistling Rufus” and then played 2nd with Bob while Greg played 1st on “Honolulu Cakewalk”. Carl played 1st on “Calliope Rag” and “Smoky Mokes and then we sat and listened to Bob and Greg play Eno’s “A Ragtime Episode”. It was a great experience…but I can’t remember on what day it happened!

After Sunday’s brainstorming session, I made my good-bye’s, plugged in my book-on-CD and drove back home as fast as could be expected (Hey Tom! My new Outback averaged 31mpg @ an average speed of 70mph...!).

I am already missing my AEBG friends and looking forward to once again meeting in that old barn which holds so many memories.

Views: 49

Comment by Rob MacKillop on August 31, 2010 at 2:05am
Thanks for that, Marc. A good story, well told. Wish I had been there, of course.
Comment by Paul Certo on August 31, 2010 at 12:50pm
Sounds like good fun! Sure makes me wish I coulda been there. Hopefully another year. It didn't occur to me before this, but across the river, in Shepardstown, WVa, is Ohurley's General Store. They have an Old Time Jam on Thursday evenings. I happened to be in the area on vacation several years ago, and having a dulcimer with me, I went to the jam. It might have made a good side trip for some pre-Old Time banjoists to show up at. The folks there were very welcoming and friendly to this outsider. I haven't made it back, but hope to some day. I even bought a banjo book there.
Here's their web site, if any one is interested for the future:
Comment by Carl Anderton on August 31, 2010 at 5:45pm
Hey, now there were more than 10 people at the concert. General McClellan estimated their numbers at twenty thousand! I think there were at least thirty people there. And it didn't take much effort to talk Joel into playing with you--he was delighted. Your rendition of New York March was superb. I still can play those damn "drum chords!"

Next year it going to be exponentially greater--what with the involvement of the Antietam National Park people. So let's start practicing now, people. We need to get Rob on an airplane and get him here. Perhaps if he was sedated and then revived when he landed in Baltimore?...
Comment by Carl Anderton on August 31, 2010 at 5:49pm
Godammit--the "can" at the end of my first paragraph is supposed to be "can't."

Also--the Mini Cooper is not excruciatingly small--it's quite roomy on the inside. I love that car! It performed splendidly on the trip.
Comment by Trapdoor2 on August 31, 2010 at 7:25pm
LOL! Of course, I envy you your Mini S. I drive a Miata when the weather is good (like, not boiling hot...as this entire summer has been) so I understand how decieving an exterior can be. Roomy and lots of fun!

So, next year we're headed to Scotland with a tranquilizer gun?
Comment by Bob Winans on August 31, 2010 at 7:42pm
Nice narrative of the weekend, Marc; I certainly agree that it was a fun time. I had as much fun talking to people and getting to know the "newbies" as playing banjo.

Just to set the record straight on the "classic-style splinter cell," it occurred on Friday night, and I was the one playing first on "Honolulu Cakewalk." Carl also played 1st on "Smiler Rag" while I managed to find my old, handwritten 2nd part chord chart to accompany him.

Banjovially, Bob
Comment by Trapdoor2 on August 31, 2010 at 7:59pm
Thanks Bob. Things certainly started to run together. I should keep notes...but who could write when there is so much music to play?

I'm already plotting for next year's 'splinter cell'... ;-)
Comment by Greg Adams on September 6, 2010 at 12:31pm
To add to this reporting, below is what I've been posting on a variety of lists regarding this event. I hope it adds to the collective memory of AEBG III:

I am writing to let you know that George Wunderlich and Susan Rosenvold of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine are in the planning stages of making the Antietam Early Banjo Gathering (AEBG) a recurring event at the Pry House on the Antietam National Battlefield beginning on June 24-26, 2011 and the last full weekend in June in the following years through, I believe, 2015. We just completed AEBG III last month (August 27-29). Although it was a small event, it was a great success, not only because it took place at such a historically significant location, but largely because of the nature of the people who attended.

The event strikes a balance between research-based presentations and workshops, mentoring sessions, and collaboration between musicians for a Saturday afternoon public concert. The presentations are based on some of the latest research into mostly mid-19th century banjo culture, which is largely focused on blackface minstrelsy and seeking to understand the banjo's provenance as an African American instrument. Those musicians who attended included about 15 banjo players, several fiddlers, and several capable percussionists performing in ensembles and contextualizing the pieces they were playing.

As I've mentioned in a couple other locations, some of this year's highlights included Bob Winans on the African American musical elements in the Dan Emmett manuscripts (which will be part of a forthcoming book), banjo whiz Carl Anderton discussing his research into 19th century banjo luminary Frank Converse's life and outputs, George Wunderlich explaining facets of early commercial banjo manufacturer William Boucher's banjo construction practices, and Lucas Bowman, who is finishing up his MA in Geography from Appalachian State University, on the geographic implications behind Joel Sweeney's performance routes (1836-1842) (Bowman's research builds on the work that Bob Carlin presents in his Birth of the Banjo book on J.W. Sweeney). Texas banjo player Joel Hooks even brought along a box full of the downstroke thimbles he is now producing (http://thejoelhooks.com/Site/Buy_Thimbles.html).

We also had a show-and-tell period where folks were able to share their latest banjo and music acquisitions. Banjo builders Pete Ross, Jim Hartel, Dave Kirschner, and Jack Gellerstedt were on hand to talk about their work and knowledge regarding banjo construction. As an aside, we even had a small breakout group of people working on late 19th century classic fingerstyle/ragtime pieces, which grew out of the banjo's mid-19th century commercial publications.

But there are two other points that I really want to emphasize in the value of this event. First is the nurturing sense of community that was present throughout the entire weekend. The event was marked by people of varying skill levels, ranging from those with advanced music reading and performance skills to those who had very little experience with early banjo music, but who were quite capable old-time banjo players. The music we played focused largely on banjo instruction books from the 1850s-1880s, which primarily uses a downstroke playing technique, but also, increasingly throughout this time period (especially beginning in 1865), a guitar style/influenced upstroke fingerstyle technique. The fact that not everyone in attendance was able to read music off the page did not prevent learning new pieces or opportunities to develop new skills and repertoire. For example, I had the opportunity to teach about 6-8 of the weekend's attendees how to play "Genuine Negro Jig" by rote, but based on my reading of the original sheet music in the Dan Emmett manuscripts (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rZdNF8Rvay4). Everyone learned how to do it on fretless reproduction 19th century banjos. It was amazing.

The second point I want to emphasize is that in order for us to come together to explore this music, satisfying our affinity for the banjo, its music, and how it makes us feel, we could not do it without a willingness to acknowledge, attempt to address, and discuss issues regarding race, the depicted treatment of women and other minority groups, slavery, appropriation, and exploitation. These are points that are inextricably tied to banjo history. Because this event (and other similar events) are now taking place, we are creating opportunities to explore these perspectives as part of what is hopefully a larger cultural process both within and beyond the banjo revival community.

I realize that 19th century banjo music is a niche within a niche, but I wanted to emphasize that some very important developments are taking place on this front and I don't want inquisitive people to miss out on an opportunity to become more active participants in this community, the dialogue that is being created, and the potential impact that this course of study might have on the bigger issues that a deeper understanding of banjo history can afford to the general public.

Ultimately, thank you for reading. Keep your eye on the National Museum of Civil War Medicine and other events that are forward-thinking enough to include programming that highlights these wider aspects of banjo history. Also, you can learn more about what some members of this community are doing by going to http://minstrelbanjo.ning.com/. Here you will find blogs, forums, links to videos, and photographs as it pertains to the latest trends in people's exploration of the 19th century banjo.

Best regards,


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