Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

Our church is celebrating it's 175th this year. What music for the church (this is a Baptist church) might have been written about this time (1834) that might transfer to a current banjo impression from this period? This is rural Michigan...perhaps a travelling musician passed through with the "latest" hymn...or folk music that was used in the church?

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I don't think a banjo would have been allowed inside a baptist church in 1834. It seems that until relatively recent times, most christian churches have deemed popular music as evil, the work of the devil. Until the very late 19th century the banjo was the instrument of the plantation slaves, crude and barbaric. It was also popular. So it is the devil's work and will ruin the children and destroy society.

I am no expert, it is just the impression I get from stuff I have read.
These young women do some amazing Sacred Harp (shape note) music clawhammer style:


"The Sacred Harp" was first published in 1844, but shape note music is considerably older. Another popular shape note hymnal is "Southern Harmony" first published in 1835. Rock of Ages was written in 1830 and appears in there. I think it could be a good choice and might be the most popular hymn that was written in the 1830s. It is certainly one of my favorites!

I will email you a copy of an article I found on "folk hymns" from the early 1800s that you mind find interesting.

The Old 100th was still a popular church tune. The melody we know today as the doxology, but the words are basically from psalm 100.

Other hymns that we might know today that are from before that particular time are:

Ah, Holy Jesus
All Creatures of Our God and King
All Glory, Laud, and Honor
All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name
All People That on Earth Do Dwell
Amazing Grace
And Can It Be
When I Survey the Wondrous Cross
Rock of Ages
Jesus, Lover of My Soul

I can document most of these if you need the documentation. Jesus, Lover of My Soul was 1834, by Charles Wesley.
I had to do a little research, but my favorite hymn on banjo On Jordan's Stormy Banks I Stand was written in 1787. This was a very popular song, and was quite often sung in camp meetings of the day, so it would be appropriate on banjo. Besides, it's fun to play.
Well, since we are ignoring discussing the appropriateness of the banjo in a mid 19th century church, I give you this...

I'm one of those World's Foremost Authority types, in this area (including the Sacred Harp). And I agree with what deuceswilde said, about Baptists in 1834. No banjos need apply. On the other hand, there was a wealth of folk hymn tunes available, and they'd have sung them (especially those in the Southern Harmony, although its first edition is technically a year later, 1835). By 1834 Baptists were just beginning to publish tunes in hymn books, so the sources earlier than that are singing-school books -- not designed for worship, but for learning to sing in parts. Most of the repertoire published that early was diatonic (w/o bothersome modulations, accidentals and what-have-you), and a lot was hexatonic or even pentatonic -- all of which lends itself to performance on an instrument with what amounts to a drone string. I see nothing wrong with your doing a banjo "impression" of this old material in any church that lets you do so, nowadays -- which is what you suggested.

The actual foremost authorities, for Baptists, are friends of mine: Paul Richardson, David Music, Harry Eskew, maybe Merril Smoak... If you really want to study up, I'd recommend the recent titles "Singing Baptists" (an anthology of good articles); "I will sing the wondrous story," http://www.mupress.org/webpages/books/H682.html ; or anything by the late Wm. J. Reynolds.

Btw "the World's Foremost Authority" is a character portrayed for some decades by Prof. Irwin Corey, whose oeuvre I recommend -- but apart from sharing a certain preference for humor (or at least irony), I'm not trying to compete with him.

Hi, Tim!
I'm writing this before running out the door, so I can't site references for you. I read a most interesting article in an early Christian publication criticizing church music. In many denominations at this time only Psalms are acceptable for singing. There is also a very pointed critique on the melodies chosen. It seems the song leader would simply select one of the common melodies and start singing the lyrics, whether or not the words fit the rythmn. The critique suggested it might be helpful to have the lyric and melodic meters match so the phrases don't end in odd places

When my home church celebrated the 350th anniversary of the denomination in America, we had a song leader. Interestingly worship teams seem to be reverting to this idea. (but that's a different topic). Of course at that service, I don't know how much research was put into the songs (this was when I was in college)

Of course, anything written by Issac Watts is early enough.

I have found cyberhymnal.com to be a good source of lyrics, melodies, & history.
The question of banjo with chuch music is interesting. I completely agree with everyone here who stated that banjo would not have been played in a church service. I can think of far too many reasons why it simply would not have been done.

However, that is not to say that a christian man who played banjo would not have also played hymns outside of church, for his own prayer and praise. Of course, this probably applied to a handful of people, and would have been the exception rather than the rule, especially in 1834.

There are records of banjo playing soldiers in the various armies during the civil war including hymns in their repetoire.
Thanks for all the good input on this topic. I think I will choose "The Solid Rock" from 1834, creating an impression of an wandering fellow from the East Coast with a "new" tune. I'll just use a simple accompaniment and share the lyrics. I'm sure the idea of "new" music will carry lots of humor into the presentation.

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