Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

O! Susanna and the Four String Gourd Banjo

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Comment by Tim Twiss on February 4, 2014 at 10:53pm
Excellent Mark. Thanks. Keep going with the other tunes. We should also talk of their popularity in Minstrel playbills. This relates significantly to the song choice in the book, more than the adaptability of the instrument to play them. Heavy vocal tunes. Let's pull up the Levy's original versions.
Comment by Paul Draper on February 5, 2014 at 9:45am

Mark, I understand what you're saying and it makes sense.  But for this tune there's no reason it can't be played out of the 1st position on a 4 stringer since the lowest note is a D.  To play it an octave higher is a personal choice, and I was just curious why it would be written that way.

Comment by Mark Weems on February 5, 2014 at 11:11am

Yes, on that particular piece you can play it in first position. But again, when you play European melodies on a four string banjo, which is what Sweeny learned to play on, you need to be comfortable playing in those positions. I'm not making an argument that most players of the time played that way. Most probably did bum ditty in first position. Billy Whitlock, for instance, had only been playing a year or two when he is on the stage in NYC - how good could he really get that quickly? But in 1840, Sweeny had most likely been playing banjo for 15 or 20 years and could probably lay down anything from some funky, rhythmic dance tune for John Diamond, to very classical sounding melodic arrangements for Opera spoofs. When the instrument goes to register itself in the stuff shirt hands of Victorian Europeans, why wouldn't it do so melodically, as any other instrument does?  This approach is of course problematic as a basic working methodology, because as we all know, use of that thumb string and the rhythmic qualities of he banjo is what really sets it apart as an instrument, hence the real need for Briggs and the subsequent tutors.


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