Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

I've been watching several tutorials about Clawhammer since Mark Weems mentioned this. One thing is the concept of "down". Down in the right hand motion can be directed straight toward the head of the instrument. it can also be interpreted as aiming toward the floor. How do you all interpret this?

Another difference is watching the brush of clawhammer where the first finger and the thumb make contact with the string in a slight delay, whereas Stroke style has the finger and thumb making contact with the string at exactly the same time. 

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One problem is that some of this is subjective....hard to categorize some things in a chart.  As Mark says, there are many flavors of oldtime/folk/clawhammer/whatever you might call it.  One person might say a particular style uses the thumb for rhythm more, while another person might say the thumb is used more melodically in that style.  It's tough!  The tutors wrote out everything very specifically according to their authors.  And we can guess that the specifics they wrote about were likely not the 'only' thing going on at the time concerning people playing banjo in so many different places and scenarios...but the tutors are the bulk of what survived over time in written form.



Timothy Twiss said:

Someone smart should make a Venn Diagram. 

Hmm...maybe we can advertise for someone.   ;-D

LOL, I haven't thought about Venn Diagrams in about 40 yrs...

Well, "folk" banjo did exist for centuries before minstrel musicians appeared, and they only appeared because of Joel Walker Sweeny's influence on 3 of the Virginia Minstrels, Buckley etc., and he was, as far as we know, a "folk" musician himself, not reading music nor probably caring to. So yes, in a way, "Minstrel Banjo" should be thought of not as something in and of itself, something suddenly invented in the 1840's, but as an urban, northern attempt to codify into a classical form already pre-existing folk forms.

Timothy Twiss said:

Someone smart should make a Venn Diagram. There must be overlapping....and unique elements.

Or maybe we are all fooled....there is no such thing as Minstrel Banjo.

Well, there is something to it...this particular style. 600 written songs and a consistent message in pedagogy over time means something. It was real and did exist to somebody in that form

Perhaps we need to reinvent the language....and some can be 19th Century Tutor Practitioners. 

I have been lurking on this thread for a few days now, and this is all very interesting, but the language is confusing me. Did we ever answer the question what  "down" means? I am looking at the Converse instructions, "to enable the performer to strike the strings nearly at a right angle with the drum". I guess that means "down" is moving toward the head? He is talking about the direction of the movement, not the direction of the finger?

The next part is even more confusing.

"When the angle of action is very oblique, the execution will be more laborious, and the liability of striking the wrong string - the next above - increased".

I am reading this as "oblique" means parallel to the head?

If you strike the second string going down toward the head, your finger will land on the first string and maybe the third string because all of the strings are at the same height above the head. Doesn't that dampen the other strings?

Sorry for the naive questions. I am self-taught so nobody has shown me how to do this. The videos are 2D and way too fast to see what is actually going on. I can see the top of somebody's hand moving, but what is actually going on with the strings is usually hidden from view.

You are absolutely right about that Tim. My only problem is with assuming that banjo in the 1820's sounded exactly like Briggs, or Rice, or Converse etc., when we all know that this whole thing starts as an African-American instrument, used for playing their music, and ends up in Middle Class parlors playing European classical music. To me, the Tutors represent the middle part of that journey. I think the language of "Minstrel Banjo" for the tutor era is fine.

Timothy Twiss said:

Well, there is something to it...this particular style. 600 written songs and a consistent message in pedagogy over time means something. It was real and did exist to somebody in that form

Perhaps we need to reinvent the language....and some can be 19th Century Tutor Practitioners. 

It's a snapshot on a timeline. 

I never heard that about banjo in the 1820's being like Briggs.


I pretty much concur with your interpretation of the angles. "Oblique" deserves some attention we may not be able to discuss without demonstration....real people. I disagree about the Strike interfering with the others. Done well, it is fine...the music is monophonic in general and notes are separated anyway.
Brian Kimerer said:

I have been lurking on this thread for a few days now, and this is all very interesting, but the language is confusing me. Did we ever answer the question what  "down" means? I am looking at the Converse instructions, "to enable the performer to strike the strings nearly at a right angle with the drum". I guess that means "down" is moving toward the head? He is talking about the direction of the movement, not the direction of the finger?

The next part is even more confusing.

"When the angle of action is very oblique, the execution will be more laborious, and the liability of striking the wrong string - the next above - increased".

I am reading this as "oblique" means parallel to the head?

If you strike the second string going down toward the head, your finger will land on the first string and maybe the third string because all of the strings are at the same height above the head. Doesn't that dampen the other strings?

Sorry for the naive questions. I am self-taught so nobody has shown me how to do this. The videos are 2D and way too fast to see what is actually going on. I can see the top of somebody's hand moving, but what is actually going on with the strings is usually hidden from view.

Yes to your down...and yes to oblique, going across the strings parallel to the head.   i.e. the angle of the nail on that plane to the string. 

Mark, can you explain further your thoughts on why you think there is an association with Briggs, Rice and Converse etc and very early banjo playing?

Mark Weems said:

You are absolutely right about that Tim. My only problem is with assuming that banjo in the 1820's sounded exactly like Briggs, or Rice, or Converse etc., when we all know that this whole thing starts as an African-American instrument, used for playing their music, and ends up in Middle Class parlors playing European classical music. To me, the Tutors represent the middle part of that journey. I think the language of "Minstrel Banjo" for the tutor era is fine.

Timothy Twiss said:

Well, there is something to it...this particular style. 600 written songs and a consistent message in pedagogy over time means something. It was real and did exist to somebody in that form

Perhaps we need to reinvent the language....and some can be 19th Century Tutor Practitioners. 

Mark just posted a terrific vid demonstrating the link between oldtime banjo and stroke banjo:

http://minstrelbanjo.ning.com/video/butler-s-jig-converse-1865?xg_s...

It really brings this into clear focus.

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