Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

A quick answer will do ....Is there much difference in O/T fiddling compared to Minstrel fiddling.  I see plenty of fiddling photos . Is there a souce like the Minstrel sight?

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Barry--

Old time fiddling is such a broad category that in some cases it barely has much in common with itself.  There is New England fiddling, southern fiddling, Ozark fiddling, Texas fiddling, and Cajun fiddling to name just a few varieties.  There were probably more than one style of minstrel fiddling depending on the fiddler and his influences.  The fiddle was, at any rate, mostly in the role of second fiddle to the banjo in minstrelsy, more in the way of accompaniment than the lead.

That's a very good question, when you think about it.  I mean, we pretty much know EXACTLY what and how the banjo played in the early minstrel show, through our extensive collection of specifically MINSTREL banjo tutors, primmers, and song collections (such as the amazing collection of tunes in the 1859 Christy Minstrels' Banjo Tutor), but nothing for the fiddle exists like that.  I guess the best way to research it is to use the period fiddle books, which when I think about it have a lot of minstrel tunes in them.

One thing to bear in mind while thinking about fiddling at that time (mid-1800s) was that in the US and Canada there were already well-established traditions based on ethnicity and regionality.  The banjo/minstrel thing, at least as it related to most of the people who played it, was not part of any tradition that its practitioners had grown up with. Even though some of it had its roots in African musical traditions it seems to me to have been a "new fangled" way of playing music at the time.  It was fusion music played on a instrument that didn't even exist (in that form) a few decades earlier. Generally speaking banjo players never would have played any other sort of music on that instrument before they learned what we think of as "minstrel" music. Most of the fiddle players I suspect would have come at the "Afro-Celtic" fusion tune from whatever style they'd been brought up or trained in. 

 

This is still kind of true among our group since we're all coming from different musical backgrounds. I play jigs and hornpipes on the banjo as if I'd been playing them with Scots/Irish players in Ontario on other instruments for 30 or 40 years. I suspect something like this is true of most of us. No matter how diligently we follow the dots we're all going to play with different "accents".

 

We're all running new software through our old operating systems.

 

Which is all a long boring way of saying, "I think fiddle players in different part of the country would have had different stylistic approaches to these tunes". (bowing, ornamentation, etc.)

 

 

Barry--

I think I disagree a bit with Ian when he states that most people in the mid nineteenth century wouldn't have played any music other than minstrel music on a banjo.  There's pretty good evidence that the folks in the Appallachians were making banjos out of tin cans, screen door wire, stray cats, and anything else they could find to accompany fiddlers with.  These activities were more or less independent of minstrelsy, except for minstrelsy's roots.  Also there is the oral tradition Dink Roberts was part of that surely goes back to the nineteenth century, which is based on call and response and blues traditions.      

However, I'm not sure how helpful any of this is to you now.  I almost always play with a fiddler while doing historic presentations.  The fiddler I usually play with is named Norm Boggs.  We've played together for well over 30 years now.  Norm learned his style of fiddling from Byard Ray, a legendary North Carolina fiddler whose musical roots go back well into the nineteenth century.  Norm is also a scholar of the music and for many years taught courses on the Apallachian music tradition at St. Andrews College in Laurinburg, NC. 

Norm knows where the tunes came from and how they were preserved.  How tunes were played on the mintrel stage on a fiddle is anybody's guess, but basically Norm and I use the fiddle/banjo covention of playing in unison.  We listen to each other very carefully and try to play in a way that enhances what the other is doing.  For me this is usually a rhythmic thing and for Norm it may be bowing or phrasing.  Many of the tunes we play are straight out of the tutors, but many are just popular tunes of the time such as Camptown Races or Darlin' Nelly Gray.  I think we do a pretty good job of portraying the authentic sound of the music of the Civil War period.  Whether it sounded like this on the minstrel stage is questionable.--Rob Morrison

Rob,

 

Are we talking mid or later nineteenth century?  A lot of the (admittedly limited) evidence that I've come across says that banjos were somewhat rare in the 1840-s and 50's, and the minstrel style was indeed the predominant banjo style.  The Albert Baur memoirs, Converse memoirs, and SS Stewart journals all seem to back up this idea.  Of course, they might have been biased, but they seem to be pretty good historical references.

 

I guess I think of the "hillbilly" banjo as coming along more in the later part of the 19th century, as the minstrel banjo faded from importance. 


Rob Morrison said:

Barry--

I think I disagree a bit with Ian when he states that most people in the mid nineteenth century wouldn't have played any music other than minstrel music on a banjo.  There's pretty good evidence that the folks in the Appallachians were making banjos out of tin cans, screen door wire, stray cats, and anything else they could find to accompany fiddlers with.  These activities were more or less independent of minstrelsy, except for minstrelsy's roots.  Also there is the oral tradition Dink Roberts was part of that surely goes back to the nineteenth century, which is based on call and response and blues traditions.      

However, I'm not sure how helpful any of this is to you now.  I almost always play with a fiddler while doing historic presentations.  The fiddler I usually play with is named Norm Boggs.  We've played together for well over 30 years now.  Norm learned his style of fiddling from Byard Ray, a legendary North Carolina fiddler whose musical roots go back well into the nineteenth century.  Norm is also a scholar of the music and for many years taught courses on the Apallachian music tradition at St. Andrews College in Laurinburg, NC. 

Norm knows where the tunes came from and how they were preserved.  How tunes were played on the mintrel stage on a fiddle is anybody's guess, but basically Norm and I use the fiddle/banjo covention of playing in unison.  We listen to each other very carefully and try to play in a way that enhances what the other is doing.  For me this is usually a rhythmic thing and for Norm it may be bowing or phrasing.  Many of the tunes we play are straight out of the tutors, but many are just popular tunes of the time such as Camptown Races or Darlin' Nelly Gray.  I think we do a pretty good job of portraying the authentic sound of the music of the Civil War period.  Whether it sounded like this on the minstrel stage is questionable.--Rob Morrison

You're right Rob.

I wasn't really thinking about the "folk" stream of banjo players when I said that - more about the people who, like us learned the techniques and tunes from Briggs, Converse etc. 

 

Burnt cork, gut strings, no chin rests= minstrel violin. Wire strings, blazing speed, extreme volume= old time.

Carl--

The basic proposition that banjo playing and banjo techniques made it to the Appalachian regions from African American players, without the intermediary of the minstrel stage, is laid out in Cece Conway's book "African Banjo Echoes in Appalachia."  Whether or not you give credence to her assertions, this book is a fascinating examination of the origins of the music we play and its transmission.  Cece doesn't ignore the early minstrel players and details their profound influence on banjo playing in this country.  She does however explore other avenues of dissemination of the music and of banjo playing in the South.  This isn't really an either/or kind of issue.
--Rob Morrison

Rob,

 

Are we talking mid or later nineteenth century?  A lot of the (admittedly limited) evidence that I've come across says that banjos were somewhat rare in the 1840-s and 50's, and the minstrel style was indeed the predominant banjo style.  The Albert Baur memoirs, Converse memoirs, and SS Stewart journals all seem to back up this idea.  Of course, they might have been biased, but they seem to be pretty good historical references.

 

I guess I think of the "hillbilly" banjo as coming along more in the later part of the 19th century, as the minstrel banjo faded from importance. 


Rob Morrison said:

Barry--

I think I disagree a bit with Ian when he states that most people in the mid nineteenth century wouldn't have played any music other than minstrel music on a banjo.  There's pretty good evidence that the folks in the Appallachians were making banjos out of tin cans, screen door wire, stray cats, and anything else they could find to accompany fiddlers with.  These activities were more or less independent of minstrelsy, except for minstrelsy's roots.  Also there is the oral tradition Dink Roberts was part of that surely goes back to the nineteenth century, which is based on call and response and blues traditions.      

However, I'm not sure how helpful any of this is to you now.  I almost always play with a fiddler while doing historic presentations.  The fiddler I usually play with is named Norm Boggs.  We've played together for well over 30 years now.  Norm learned his style of fiddling from Byard Ray, a legendary North Carolina fiddler whose musical roots go back well into the nineteenth century.  Norm is also a scholar of the music and for many years taught courses on the Apallachian music tradition at St. Andrews College in Laurinburg, NC. 

Norm knows where the tunes came from and how they were preserved.  How tunes were played on the mintrel stage on a fiddle is anybody's guess, but basically Norm and I use the fiddle/banjo covention of playing in unison.  We listen to each other very carefully and try to play in a way that enhances what the other is doing.  For me this is usually a rhythmic thing and for Norm it may be bowing or phrasing.  Many of the tunes we play are straight out of the tutors, but many are just popular tunes of the time such as Camptown Races or Darlin' Nelly Gray.  I think we do a pretty good job of portraying the authentic sound of the music of the Civil War period.  Whether it sounded like this on the minstrel stage is questionable.--Rob Morrison

Well Barry, so much for the quick answer you suggested!

Good chat none-the-less.

We do tend to veer off topic!  It's all good, however.  Rob, thank you for that answer, it was very well put.  I need to read Cee-Cee's book, I guess.  We'll hash all this out in a couple of months over a pint or five.

I ran across this on a Google search for "Mid-nineteenth century fiddle"

 

http://www.adventurousmusestore.com/servlet/the-295/authentic-19th-...
exactly what I was looking for Thanks Dan

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