Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

From Slave Songs of the United States, 1867

Views: 308

Comment by Brian Kimerer on March 20, 2016 at 8:25am

That is a very nice tune, but what I am hearing as Paul plays it is not what I am seeing when I follow along with the written music. I understand that the music notation is an incomplete transcription of the music itself, but the difference is more than just expression; I am hearing notes played that are not on the sheet, e.g. in the third measure. It also sounds as though some of the written notes are silent in the performance, such as the leading note of the last measure. That gives the music a syncopation that is not apparent in the written score.

As a novice, I am wondering how you pulled the music out of that minimal description of it in the notation. For those of us with with less experience, how do we squeeze music out of the dots on the page?

Comment by Timothy Twiss on March 20, 2016 at 9:37am

I agree, and I bet they are very accurate....but it does beg the point that transcribing is much like translating....a skill that requires the interpretation and discretion of the receptor who is making it black and white with notation. I think these are remarkable. I also think it should give us cause to look at the tutors and some of the transcriptions there. When is it an accurate rendition...and when not?  Are not many of those snapshots in time also? 

Comment by Paul Draper on March 20, 2016 at 9:59am
Brian - that is a great question. I'll try to answer as best I can - I'm not extremely articulate when it comes to explaining my process - even less so while balancing a bowl of oatmeal on my lap... I started out with the melody notes exactly as transcribed. My goal was to sing those notes as they are written, while playing a banjo accompaniment which more or less hits those notes. After playing many times on the banjo the simple melody exactly as written, I started to incorporate some "banjo characteristics" i.e. thumb strings and drop-thumb on to the 2nd string. I tried to maintain the over-all melody, but as you pointed out it was necessary to add some notes, subtract some notes, and substitute notes. I figured this was acceptable as an accompaniment to my singing of the melody line. Now, how did I figure out a banjo part? Not to be glib, but I just let my fingers do what they do when they play banjo. I did this until I came up with something that was comfortable to play and I thought sounded ok. The syncopation is quite easy - it happens rather naturally in banjo playing whenever you miss a string. I know this is not a very good analysis of my process. Sometimes the more I analyse the process, the more it falls apart. My playing is held together by thin threads....
Comment by Brian Kimerer on March 20, 2016 at 10:30am

Thank you for the explanation. I am attempting this music somewhat in isolation, so I don't know if the process I go through is a dead end or not. I think I go through a process similar to the one that you have described... without the oatmeal... but my fingers do not yet come up with such nice embellishments. For example, they have never told me to leave out a note for a syncopated effect. They did discover once quite by accident the marvelous minor second chord that makes the banjo really twang.

As an aside, I hang out more with visual artists than I do musicians. I have been painting far longer than I have been playing the banjo. We get the same sort of questions and give the same sort of answers.

Q: "Why did you put that color there?"

A: "Because it is correct".

Being in the arts is not an exact science.

Comment by Timothy Twiss on March 20, 2016 at 10:51am

Thanks for those comments Paul.

Comment by Strumelia on March 20, 2016 at 10:54am

Paul that was a great description of how you came up with a 'banjo arrangement' to back up your singing the unadorned melody part.  We all know that when we play banjo, we don't merely play melody notes only- we use the thumb string as syncopated note, we brush chords and other stringhs, add pull-offs and hammer on notes, and use a themb to drop onto other strings, etc etc.  These 'banjo moves' are not done on fiddle for example- the fiddle has its own characteristic 'fiddle moves'.  So when we are presented with a written plain melody line of a tune, we have to kind of let our familiar 'banjo moves' happen, and suggest themselves as we play the melody.  Like Paul, I find this happens most if I don't overthink it- I just first find the melody and start playing it, and the thumb string is usually the first thing that asserts itself, followed by other typical banjo moves.  This can happen over many playings.  Once some of it is taking shape as a banjo version, I can then more consciously experiment in adding some little 'banjo move' or ornamental bit that might sound interesting and less generic.  The extent of the banjo 'arrangement' depends a lot also on whether you are intending to sing or if it's going to remain instrumental.

Comment by Timothy Twiss on March 20, 2016 at 11:23am

The melody is the dominant thing

Comment by Strumelia on March 20, 2016 at 11:30am

Yeah, without the melody we might as well be playing hammered dulcimers.   =8-0  (lololol just kiddinnnnng!)

Comment by Timothy Twiss on March 20, 2016 at 8:57pm

Relating to the idea that music in print can somehow represent a performance in the past......the one I have a strong impression of in that sense is "Whoop Jamboree" from Rice 1858. It sounds like one that may be done a bit different all the time...and being an improvisation  developed from "Juba"....anybody else hear "Juba " in this??

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