Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

It seems that slip jigs have pretty much lost favor in the US, except in Irish sessions.

They must've remained at least somewhat prevalent in the mid-19th C as they are included in Howe's 1,000 Jigs and Reels (1867) and Ryan's Mammoth Collection (1883) .

I may not have been around long enough to experience it but I do not recall ever hearing one played on minstrel banjo, though other Irish melodies (6/8 and others) find their way into our repertoire.  Anyone have any insights on this?

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I think the dance is quite complicated, as well as the music. Not just the timing, but half of them that I've tried to play on banjo and fiddle just don't seem to make sense somehow. When they do, they're beautiful actually. The dance is called the ballet of Irish dancing, lots of high stepping and sliding. A soft shoe dance.

Danny and I do 'The Butterfly' on the Boucher and Low D Whistle, we'll have to post a clip.

I think the word "archaic" sums it up-

"A hop jig (9/8) is another name for the archaic slip jig, a dance-tune formthat has seen decline over the last century..." -The Complete Book of Irish & Celtic 5-String Banjo by Tom Hanway

Some work out very well on the minstrel banjo, not just in the timing, but the melodies sound great on the low tuning. I'd like to hear Tim open 'O'Neil's Music Of Ireland' to the slip jig section and have a go at a couple.

One of the most popular country dances of the early 19th century was "Sir Roger de Coverly" which was (and still is) done to the three-part slip jig of the same name. This is the dance described so beautifully by Charles Dickens in "A Christmas Carol" in the section about old Mr. Fezziwig's party for his employees. This dance was one that almost everyone who danced would have known in early 19th century America and Canada. It was what you might call a "lowest common denominator" dance, that many groups at a party could have pulled together even without a caller. My grandmother (born in Toronto in 1885) knew how to do it. At some mysterious point, people started doing some of the Roger de Coverly moves to reels instead of 9/8 tunes and the dance morphed into what we know as the Virginia Reel. In Ontario it's better-known in its Virginia Reel incarnation, but is still sometimes danced as RDC as well.

Ian, I tried SRDC and found that it worked best (for me) in G.  At first it seemed not to work well so I went to D which worked alright but only if I raised the fourth string.  I have a perhaps unjustified aversion to retuning so I tried it again in G and found that it works pretty well there, after all.

Year's ago in Maine we would play Sir Roger for the Virginia Reel. I played it on a fretted banjo in G. It is one of my favorite tunes. I'll have to give it a go on the early banjo. I also remember it being called George Washington's favorite tune

Yes, I recall hearing that story, though sometimes I'm not sure if I also heard that about Washington and "Haste to the Wedding" which also works out fairly well on minstrel banjo in "G".  The thing I always wondered, though, is if it was really Washington's favorite tune.... or favorite dance as it seems that specific tunes went with specific dances, and I think especially so in that era.

Back on the original question. My non-academic gut feeling (just based on having gone through a lot of tune books from that era) is that by the time banjo books started coming out, slip jigs were regarded as pretty old-fashioned in the general social dance music scene. In some books I've seen them listed in the "old favorites" section as if they're something grandpa might enjoy. 

I guess that's what is a bit confusing to me.  Slip jigs appear in American tune books which post-date (by 20 years) the four regularly-referred to banjo tutorials of 1855-1865, yet they are not included in them.  6/8 tunes ARE included in the tutorials so I doubt that it was that 9/8 tunes simply didn't lend themselves easily to the minstrel-style of play.

I think maybe the difference between the tune books and the banjo tutors is that the tune books were being produced for musicians who were part of an already well-established musical tradition — fiddlers for the most part, playing a mix of old and new music in Anglo-Celtic styles that had been established in the century or so beforehand.

On the other hand, the creators of the banjo tutors were assembling a new hybrid repertoire for themselves and their students, from a whole range of musical traditions, African, Scottish, Irish, Polish, etc.  

The Scots/Irish tunes that appear in the early banjo books are mostly what you might call "core-repertoire" type tunes.  Many are the same ones that novice Celtic players today still learn first.

A lot of the 6/8 jigs in the banjo books (Rory O'More, Lannigan's Ball, Irish Washerwoman and the like) were also known in those days as the tunes to well-known songs. They had become mainstream.

The slip-jigs were (and are) just a little "further in", and possibly not the sort of tunes that the banjo book compilers would have been personally familiar with. It's an interesting line of discussion and something that's fun to speculate about.

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