Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

Mid 19th Century Minstrel Tambourine

A great reproduction made by Dave Kirchner in Maryland. Goat skin head.

Views: 380

Comment by Mark Weems on Thursday

I think this discussion is very important as the tambourine and the banjo are the two prime instruments of early Minstrel ensembles. We need to think more about how they interacted. But as far as clicking of jingles goes, I find it impossible to believe that for over three thousand years of tambourine history, no one ever thought to click a jingle with their finger until the late 19th century.

Comment by Strumelia on Thursday

The Dale instructions for spinning the tambo remind me of banjo spinning.

Here's a very elderly but still entertaining Uncle Dave Macon (b.1870) spinning his banjo with his son Dorris on guitar: 


Uncle Dave was one of the last banjo players truly from the age of vaudeville (vaudeville being the last popular venue for minstrel shows, vaudeville itself dying off in the early 1930s).

And the spinning-of-skins-stretched-over-frames tradition continues...




Comment by Richard Graham on Thursday

Glen Velez and I collectively have some 12,000 images of frame drums covering this instrument's 6,000 year plus history. A few facts that have long been established regarding the history of these drums, among them is the introduction of sound altering accouterments to the drum's head or shell. Our first evidence of them comes from fairly late in the Greco-Roman world. Pellet bells were tied with leather straps affixed to the drum frame, disc jingles don't appear until the Roman Sarcophagus, "the Triumph of Bacchus" from 190 AD. Now given that cymbals are also quite ancient, that may seem extraordinary, but there is simply no evidence of them in the literature or the iconography. At that time the Roman tympanon was also a huge big bang in the frame drum's organological development. These organological changes and the development of new playing techniques are both inter-related phenomena, and the jingled drum we know today stem directly from that model. Ssuffice to say at this juncture these are the accepted facts by every archaeomusicologist I know. In nearly 2,000 years since this Roman innovation, there is simply no evidence of the drums jingles being clicked together until the late 19th century. Yet there are plenty of percussed idiophones that have the identical function around the Mediterranean, finger cymbals, castanets, and karkabhat, as well as a plethora of frame drums with disc jingles distributed over a third of the globe by then, yet NO evidence of this technique!! Why? I can't answer that. But then why did it take until the mid 20th century for Earl Scruggs to innovate major changes in banjo performance when the antecedents of that instrument date back to at least Middle Kingdom Egypt? Weren't there were plenty of strings and fingers to play them? The question isn't answerable. Yet I know of no evidence suggesting that his techniques preceded him. 

Comment by Richard Graham on Thursday

Mark Weems, please re-read my post. The African-American tambourinist didn't need to read that book, it was written ABOUT them and their tambourine techniques by an English composer. Besides, literary evidence suggests that most of the Black bandsmen didn't read music, but instead improvised their tightly choreographed parts at the head of the Jannisary-influenced Cold Stream Guards and similar bands in other European capitols. Now I'm also familiar with the above picture. The drum depicted here is identical to similar models in Ireland and the Caribbean. It was modeled after the tunable military tambourines that were marketed by a number of British makers such as Ward, Dale, and Monzani. All of these drums are ultimately influenced by 16th century instrument makers from the Marche region of Italy. These folk versions are hand made with apparently little access to finer tools and materials, hence their cruder appearance. Finally, there are a number of descriptions of the various hand techniques employed by Black tambourinists in Europe, the Caribbean, and the antebellum US, but you will have to wait for my publication as I have no intention of scooping myself after three decades of field work and research.

Comment by Richard Graham on Thursday

Strumelia ~ Dale's two innovations were the bone bushing to facilitate the spinning of the tambourine and an internal tuning system wherein the drum's frame was in two parts. There was the usual drum shell but also an internal ring that could be forced upwards into the head via screws set into the frame to tighten the skin and thus raise the drum's pitch. In a recent publication on a frame drum of the Jamaican Maroons, the ethnomusicologist Ken Bilby demonstrates the likely origin of this technology, citing my assessment of its ultimate origin in wicker bottom furniture making, so one should never be too surprised by the odd sources of cultural change! Now as to the thumb rolls Dale describes, each can be done with the middle finger as well as the thumb. There is also a figure 8 roll wherein the player can create a continuous friction roll on the drum. I have taught this technique to classical percussionist for 30 years as it seems to have disappeared from the percussive pedagogy. Another technique described in Dale are the "bafs," or moaning glissando created with a moistened or rosined middle finger. It is a staple of Kongolese drumming as well as in the "urlo" or cry of the Marchegiano tamburello. So its lineage is likely multi cultural. Dale's "running" of the jingles is done by rolling your hand along the side of the tambourine to make the jingles spin. This can be done individually or with several spinning at once. There is no clicking of the jingles described in Dale or in the other three tambourine manuals from the 18th and 19th centuries. Nor is it found anywhere else. Again, a recent dissertation on the Egyptian riq which discusses centuries of Arabic language materials also places that technique as one of the innovations of the late 19th century takht ensembles. My recent conversation with the author confirms this.

Comment by Mark Weems on Thursday

Richard, I understand the "safe space" value of documented evidence for the scholar, but the folk tradition rarely lines up with what is found in codified classical presentations represented by tutors and manuals. For instance, the early banjo tutors show one standard tuning to present tunes. Old-Time folk banjo players use scores of tunings. Likewise, if someone studied Carcassi's Guitar method (popular here in the U.S.) and determined that that was the way rural folk musicians were playing their instruments, they would be sorely mistaken. While I find Dale's interesting, I don't necessarily see how a professional military tambourine player from a Janissary influenced band in England in 1779 has a whole lot to do with what Uncle Joe was doing on a James River Virginia riverboat in 1837, any more than a Colonial English Fife and Drum Corp sounds like a Mississippi drum and cane flute band. Perhaps your upcoming book will clarify. I am certainly open to learning new things. Welcome to the site.

Comment by Strumelia on Friday

Richard you have put forth a formidable amount of posting immediately after joining. To be honest, it feels somewhat abrupt to me. Perhaps you could come up for air for a minute and introduce yourself to us in some way?  That would be nice! 
Many of us here on this site actually know each other for years, in real life, through gatherings, through personal videos, and over many an enjoyable and savored discussion. I for one would enjoy hearing a little bit about you and your musical likes, interests, and background. Such gestures of introduction make for an enjoyable and friendly site experience for all.

Comment by Mark Weems on Friday


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