Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

A place where scholarship and personal, experiential musical instinct successfully intersect?

Hello everyone,

For those of you with access to Jstor who enjoy "geeking-out" with 19th century popular music the way that I do, please find the following article: John Spitzer. 1994. ‘Oh! Susannah’: Oral Transmission and Tune Transformation. Journal of the American Musicological Society 47, no. 1. (Spring): 90-136.

For one of my graduate school course assignments I was given the task of identifying a prize winning journal article and analyzing its claims. I selected Spitzer's article, which won the Society of American Music's Irving Lowens Memorial Article Award (http://american-music.org/awards/PreviousLowensAwards.php) (accessed October 25, 2009).

Here is the author's abstract:
(begin quote)
Early prints of "Oh! Susanna" by Stephen Foster transmit versions of the tune that differ strikingly from one another [30 versions from at least 16 publishers]. It is likely that these variants arose as "Susanna" was orally transmitted among minstrel-show performers. Variant readings are compared in order to establish a stemma that shows not only the filiation of sources, but also the ways in which oral and written aspects were mixed in the transmission of "Susanna." The variants in versions of "Susanna" demonstrate four general tendencies of oral transmission: (I) a tendency to alter rhythms in order to clarify the beat; (2) a tendency to pentatonicize the melody; (3) a tendency for a salient harmony to draw the melody to the chord root; and (4) a tendency to eliminate differences between parallel passages. Analysis reveals that the four tendencies are also present in the transmitted versions of other songs from the repertory of nineteenth-century American minstrelsy.
(end author's quote)

As one who thrives on systematic approaches to most everything, I was very pleased to read this article. I felt as though the author's conclusions should hold meaning to our community of interpreters of 19th century popular music, not just the readership of the AMS journal. What I think is most relevant about this article to my own approach in interpreting and arranging period music for banjo is that this is a great example of how academic inquiry can be meaningfully repurposed into my "interpretive tool box." On some levels, there is a real common sense to what Spitzer presents. It also adds weight to my personal attempts at being as intentional as possible with all that I do (from strict emulation of the written page to flexible variation in a performance context). For those who have a more vernacular or oral approach to period music, you may find that Spitzer's claims align with your personal conclusions gained through years of experience! Perhaps, in the end, you will agree that this is an important instance where scholarship and personal, experiential interpretation successfully intersect.

Anyhow, I am enthusiastic about looking at this music from multiple perspectives. I wanted to share that with you.

Thank you,

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I'd like to read the whole article.

Does he take into consideration that Foster gave copies to just about anybody he could including many prominent minstrel performers? Perhaps when he hand copied them he made changes or corrections.

Would plagiarism qualify as oral transmission? Perhaps in a rush to have a version ready to preform by copying others acts, troops would not quite get it right, then have a version published as "the original."

I have also wondered if the different versions were "arrangements" as a way to circumvent copyrights and the chance of a lawsuit.

It would also be interesting to establish if professional performers used the published copies, intended for mass market, or manuscript arrangements passed around and hand copied.

It is also interesting that "minstrel show" arrangements from the height of the era are not known (by me) or common. For example a published folio with parts for banjo, accordion, violin, piano, and rhythm sections with multiple vocal harmonies in similar format to the pieces written for banjo and guitar clubs much later.

As a side note, one of my pointless and unexplained pet-peeves (we all have them) is when people refer to Stephen Foster's work as "folk music" or "children's songs." I guess I feel like the guy deserves a lot more credit for writing some of the most popular songs in the history of the world.

Rant is over, on with the discussion.

Joel Hooks.

This article looks fantastic. I look forward to reading it and sharing my thoughts with you and everyone here.

Did Prof Smith ever see a copy of Converse's Analytical Guide? I guess all of the later published musical pieces were for use as a guide for "ear learning."

I also suppose that that logic could be applied to Gottschalk's actual pianoforte piece "The Banjo" for all the piano players who would have learned it by ear.

It seems that Jas. Buckley and Ditson & Co. went through an terrible amount of trouble putting together really good arraignments not intending them to be played. It sure came in handy when I was learning "Japanese Grand March" by ear.

The subject of simplified methods should also be looked at regarding notation. They are few and far between and the music in them is very basic and leaves something to be desired.

If ear playing were as common as you would have us believe, (it is possible) we should examine how the current banjo community players avoid any formal music as much as possible. Learning to play from recordings and TAB.

Yet in the 1850-60s there was no recordings, or tab that we know of. Even when the "patent methods" became available they were the exception and not the rule.

Then there is the fact the reading most of this simple one line music is just that, simple. No kidding, it is really easy to play from sight. I know, I have only been reading notation for a month.

Wash your mind of all modern musical crutches. Reading music is easy. Look at how quickly children learn to use new technology.

Is it so difficult to believe that when there was no TV or radio, a child, or adult, could not learn how to connect a small dot on a line to where a string should be stopped on a fingerboard?

The possibility of variations in performance cannot be doubted. The theory that songs were picked up by ear is very likely.

But to assume the music literacy was the exception and not common would be to grossly underestimate people.

Mostly because it is not hard to learn. School children all over the world play from notation with no trouble.

As far a memories from 40 years ago are considered for accuracy, as well a most "oral tradition" there is science to consider.

I have posted this many times. Google "eyewitness testimony." Science has proven our memory sucks.

Texas has had 38 exonerations and counting. In most of those cases the people were convicted based on eyewitness testimony as evidence. DNA proved their innocence. Our bad memories put innocent people in prison.

Then there is nostalgia. I bet the same time he was playing his gourd he had to walk to 20 miles school in 10 feet of snow, up hill and barefoot.

We also lie to show how good, or bad the old times were. Sometimes we really believe what we say even if it is exaggerated.

Back to the original topic.

I think "Oh! Susanna" is a bad specimen to examine. It has the exception of being an instant worldwide sensation against it. It stands to reason that someone in India (with a very different music scale and theory, and yes, there is period evidence that it made it to India) would sing a different version than a slave in the south.
Thank you Dan'l for your reply and Deuceswilde for your responses and willingness to contribute to a conversation.

Yes, as Dan'l suggests, my posting about this article is certainly not as a directive. For me, at this point, it's all about the toolbox and becoming acquainted with a variety of approaches. I created this post because I am interested in the variety of ways in which people come to know period music and, more specifically, how it can be applied to the early banjo. I have benefited from getting to know a lot of people and perspectives, especially in the last decade (from professional and vernacular musicians to academic and non-academic scholars). I am fascinated by the multiple modes in which people interpret content, whether it be through Spitzer's stemma, Smith's structural analysis of Gottschalk, the early banjo tutors, or the innovations that musicians apply to period pieces and instruments through personal experience.

If you can get your hands on the Spitzer article, he does address other factors besides oral, written, or mixed transmission and applies the concepts to other tunes besides Oh! Susanna.

Dan'l, thanks for reminding us about the Smith article. I really need to revisit it and will certainly make the time to do so in the near future!

I hope some folks will have the time to take a look at this article. It'd be interesting to see what other perspectives are out there.

I have to get back to writing a paper (organology is fun!)

Talk to you soon,

Dan'l said:
I feel the only reliable record we have of how these tunes were certainly played are in the Banjo Tutors authored by Minstrel performers, none other.

I think Greg only brought up the Spitzer article as an interesting avenue for the study of period music, in no way a directive as to how we a musicians should be playing period tunes.

The Fred Mather quote was appropriate in context because he was a known musician commenting on conditions at the time. Paul Ely Smith is another credentialed music researcher who offered his own conclusions based on his research, again no directives on how we musicians should be playing period tunes.

I feel it's interesting to discuss the musical environment of the period we are interested in. Certainly there's no point in excluding alternate yet equally verifyable historical information. It is a forum after all.

Dan Wykes

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