Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

This is a follow up on Curtis' comment in the chat room. We are both interested in learning if harmonicas were used by minstrel performers. I took some to the Sweeny event last year and played them during jam sessions in the evening, but not in front of the public. I know they were around during the Civil War and a lot of soldiers on both sides carried them because they were small and easy to carry. I am working on some tunes for the event in September this year.

Views: 1583

Reply to This

Replies to This Discussion

Hi Tom, by “harmonica” do you mean a ten hole “Richter” (now called diatonic) harmonica like a Marine Band model?  If so then I can write with confidence that it is unlikely that any soldier in the ACW would have even known what one was.  There is evidence that there might not have even been one in North America until just post war.  

I am not sure where the false history came from that placed harmonics in the pockets of ACW soldiers but most fingers point to the Hohner Company and their “department of propaganda” (seriously).  At some point in the 20th century they began to paint this nice story of newly freed slaves picking up discarded harmonicas from battlefields and playing the blues.  It was all fake.

Sadly it has been told and retold as fact.  Movies, books, and reenactors all now believe that harmonicas were common during the ACW despite that there is no primary documentation to support it.  This is one area where people are quick to ignore the lack of evidence.

 The popularity of the harmonica in the US can be traced back to one man, Joseph K. Emmett.  Emmett created a “Tyrolean” character in the 1870s named “Fritz.”  He used Fritz in plays and on stage and the act was an instant success.  Fritz would get into all sorts of “fish out of water” gags in his lederhosen and “Tyrolean” hick routine.  He sang songs and played a mouth blown miniature version of the German accordion (Richter harmonicas are designed to, and sound just like German accordions when played as intended).  His two big hits were “Emmett’s Lullaby” and “Sweet Violets.”

 There is a lot of stuff about Emmett on the web and is worth a google.

There were even signature models of harmonicas sold with his name stamped on the covers.

 You can hear a early recording of one of his hits here (not sung by him).  You will recognize the chorus.


By the 1880s harmonicas became common and by the late 1890s they were super popular getting lots of real estate in catalogs.


As far as Minstrelsy—the harmonica never once gets mentioned.  Emmett’s act of “Fritz” was a similar type of entertainment using the vehicle of a generic “Tyrolean” in place of the southern slave.  So that is sort of like a minstrel show.

 By the 1870s the Minstrel show begins to use pit orchestras to play most of the music.  They would feature soloists on instruments (like banjo) with orchestra accompaniment.  There were still plenty of smaller acts using the older instrument combinations.  I cannot remember finding a reference to the harmonica in minstrelsy and it would have been something I would have noticed.

 As minstrelsy transitioned into vaudeville one might have seen them.  There seems to have been a musician’s union strike at some point in the late 1920s that created a huge demand for them (as they were not “instruments” the players were not union members) and also started the orchestras that we now think of with “Peg O My Heart” and Borrah Minevich.  I am going from memory for this and I may be off by a decade.

In summary, there were few if any harmonicas used during the ACW.

I was able to locate the only early (and useful) harmonica instruction book that was published before the 20th century.  As with most documents I get, I posted a scan of it on the Internet Archive.  Emmett is mentioned in the intro as well as it includes some of his tunes (I was blown away when I first saw that as I had already concluded that the popularity began with him.

Book here...


It is a good instruction book and even teaches to read in other keys without changing the harmonica.  As there was no music printed for harmonica the book is really teaching how to read vocal parts and vamp chord with tongue blocking.  I was surprised when I worked through it how good it was.  I've let my harmonica playing go as I now focus on banjo but at one time I could play a number of the pieces published in this book.

Thanks for the links Joel. Very interesting.

Harmonica, 1835; in the Hohner Harmonica Museum, Trossingen, Ger.

Hohner Museum in Germany, 1835.


For more about the harmonica in the U.S.

Hi Mark, thanks for posting.  One of the interesting things about the internet is that we can now check sources and claims of facts.  In the above linked article the early claimed reference to The Musical World and Times of April 9, 1853 insulates that the article claims that James Bazin was building free reed instruments and presents the strong presumption that he was building harmonicas (as we know them) if taken with the context of the article.

Here is that article.


The article at no time claims that he built anything that would resemble in form the Richter Harmonica as we know it today.

I, as well as others are skeptical of the various early harmonicas in museum collections. The Bazin "harmonica" in the collection of the MFA is pictured here in this slide show...

http://www.mfa.org/node/9488  the date of "about 1830 or 1840" is pretty vague.  It is also not a Richter pattern and tuned harmonica.  It looks very prototype and consistent with the article only if I am reading the descriptions correctly, they MFA may be late with their date.  He also abandoned the idea to make proto accordions. 

Most people are also skeptic of the early Hohner harmonica you posted a photo of.  Hohner is notorious for lying and stretching their history.  They even claimed to have a letter from Abe Lincoln writing to say he takes his harmonica everywhere.  That letter never existed and was a advertising gimmick of the 1920s.


Is there evidence of the concertina being used in minstrel shows before the war?  (Antebellum Period)

I'm typing off the top of my head.  I have an 1852 Wheatstone but I doubt if the concertina gained much widespread popularity in the U.S. prior to that.  More importantly (and again, I'm presuming), I cannot imagine a portrayal of the enslaved on plantations depicted in minstrel shows playing music on rather expensive concertinas.  I might be proven wrong....all speculation.

The reason I asked was on behalf of Tom Taggart's question about harmonica in minstrel shows.  The concertina and the harmonica have a very similar sound.  The concertina shows up in America about 1840 and because it was so compact & portable (and sounds great) it shows up in civil war photos being played by soldiers sometimes.  But it seems that neither instrument show up in minstrel shows of the Antebellum.  The story changes in the final 20 years of the century.  It might help to tighten the question a bit.  For instance we might rather ask "What instruments were played with "Early Banjos" before the war?"  And the war is a big line of demarcation.  In the Antebellum it is pretty much Banjos with percussion (bones, jawbone, large rim tambourine, triangle, and don't forget that Minstrels used their feet for percussion too), plus fiddles, and sometimes flutes of varying sizes.  Guitars and concertinas show up later in the century. But if anyone is looking for authenticity with regard to banjos before the war . . . then you are safe to pick up the aforementioned percussion instruments.  This drawing of an African American String Band is presented as "circa 1860."  Check out the concertina.

Yes, I would agree that there might be a vast difference between what was played in period minstrel shows and what was played in other venues of the period.  I would think minstrel shows had to limit themselves to depictions of the enslaved.  Though this site is referred to as "Minstrel Banjo", I sometimes feel that the title limits us.....or we allow it to limit us.  Personally, I'd like to see/hear attempts to play other period music on the 19th C banjo.  Surely, owners of banjos in that time played around with tunes they heard brass bands play, for example.  Yes, perhaps they learned from the tutorials but wouldn't they have explored other genres, as well?

Thanks Al, We are basically in violent agreement! ;-)  So . . . today, the majority of "early banjoists" tend to play mostly "tunes" and not so much "songs."  I am of the opinion that it was probaly exactly opposite in the Antebellum. Contemporary "early banjoists" play tunes more than songs simply because of the banjo tutors (the banjo books), but I doubt the tutors represent what was on the stage of a minstrel show, or at a circus performance.  Audiences in any type of "music hall," will enjoy a few tunes, but they clearly have a preference for songs.  And the other aspect  of the shows we don't discuss enough is dance.  We know that minstrels danced a lot (it was advertised on all the posters) and they were probably very skilled and probably played percussion while dancing. This is a very old theatric tradition that came from Europe . . . the "Tragecomdedia."  It is pretty much the same type of show.  In "Comedia," the butt of the jokes were the hicks . . . the suppossedly unsophisticated country folk.  So . . . same show in America . . . who in society do the city people think are the least sophisticaed?  Yep, Slaves.  That's my theory.  It' not that we Americans just woke up one day and dreamed all of this up.  It was an evolution based on a theatrical tradition going back centuries.    

I can't quite make out the concertina to see if it's supposed to depict an English or Anglo.  Not sure when Anglos came in.  It certainly looks to have many bellows!  My 1852 Wheatstone English has only four.

I agree . . . it looks very long . . . I zoomed in and counted eleven bellows!  Might be the artist took some liberty for dramatic effect  But I confess to knowing extremely little about the various types of 19th century concertina.  (I don't play one, but I enjoy them)  Pretty sure YOU are our subject matter expert on this one Al!

Reply to Discussion



John Masciale created this Ning Network.

© 2024   Created by John Masciale.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service