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.

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Must have been a classy joint.
The other article is from a review of a show at Barnum's museum. I thought it interesting that reviewer commented on the mouth organ being used by schoolchildren so there was some familiarity there.

Hi Tom, these clippings must represent advertising gimmicks created years later by Hohner in order to sell harmonicas.

No Mark, I found them on the LOC website in the newspapers cited. I have the whole page they come from, but just posted the relevant material for easier viewing.

I know Wes. I was just joking. Thanks for finding and posting!


Here is an interesting mention of a mouth organ from the War in '63.


Hm! ANOTHER smoking gun! Thanks Mark. Now to put a fine point on it ... were "mouth organs" used in early Minstrel Shows? Well, Wes came up with one example ... but I suspect not much ... heck, the same with the guitar! I believe Antebellum Minstrel shows were pretty much JUST banjos, fiddles and lots of percussion (bones, tambourine, triangle) and lots of singing, dancing, and gags ... BUT, were amateur musicians mixing mouth organ and guitar WITH banjo (and any other instruments on hand)? I have NO DOUBT. So, getting back to the original question. Yes! Play your harmonica or concertina with confidence, but probably best not to call it "Minstrel" lest critics criticize. ;-) We have basically self inflicted our own injuries by using this term "Minstrel" so broadly.
I often find myself struggling with historical accuracy vs just making music. While I love facts I love to make stuff more and I feel like that urge has been around with humans forever. I am believer that those folks made due with what they had. Play the tin cup, or your thigh meats just gimme a beat man.

I played with a friend of mine and he used a melodica. It very much has harmonica/concertina vibes. It sounded great but I know there were no melodicas back then so it's just something relagated to my studio. And I think it is deff because of me thinking in terms of the minstrel stage so often.

thanks for all the help on this question.   I play minstrel style but in camp life of a soldier, that Is why I asked about the use of the harmonica.  I have seem many photos of guitars being used in civil war camp music, but don't recall ever coming across a harmonica.  I have seen music of the civil war come a long way in it's historical accuracy due to people such as everyone here who helps correctly portray period music.  We use it in our group, and will continue to do so based upon what I have read here.   Thanks everyone for you input. 


Curtis writes: "I play minstrel style but in the camp life of a soldier . . . "  There is that term "Minstrel" again . . . and we, on this forum, get tripped up a lot by that term that we have created (the collective "we").  I am not picking on you Curtis, I am speaking to the general forum.  If one of us says "I play early banjo minstrel style," most of us would infer that to mean stroke style . . . but to be technically correct, it could also include "guitar-style."  And if one of us says "I play Minstrel Music" then most of us might well think of an actual mid 19th century Minstrel Show, which, in all likelihood would not have included guitars or mouth organs.  It would be out of the norm as real mid century minstrel performers presented themselves as providing an Authentic "Ethiopian" Recreation (in the jargon of the day).  (Which of course they were not, but so what)  But, if one of us says "I play American popular music from the mid 19th century and I perform in Civil War reenactments," then that is entirely different, and a much broader range of instrumentation is appropriate. Example: A Minstrel Show performance of Oh! Susanna would appropriately be accompanied with early banjo and percussion such as bones and jawbone ... and, to a mid 19th century audience, that would pass muster as an authentic Ethiopian performance (so they would think).  But "Oh Susanna" played by a group of amateurs from the mid 19th century ... just for their own enjoyment and entertainment ... that ensemble could have any available instrument that was available during the period, and then it is simply amateurs enjoying a popular song (as might have occurred in a Civil War camp) . . . it is not a Minstrel Show.  In short, we are the cause of this confusion. I guess we are stuck with it now ... but in general I am personally dropping the term.  It is too problematic.

I just made an interesting discovery.  I have a small collection of sheet music covers for several early American minstrel troupes (1840s-50s).  It appears that the instrumental lineup was fairly standardized at that time:  banjo, bones, tambourine, and either violin or accordion--but not both.  That makes sense, since both would have served the same function as melody instruments (to accompany singing, etc.).  I've attached a couple of images of early troupes that included accordions in their lineup.   

Excellent Bob. The Ethiopian Serenaders were in the 1840s I believe. When we combine the iconography with the date of the publication of the sheet music ...or the date of an advertisement for a Minstrel Show or Circus, then we are standing on pretty solid ground. Oh - and check out the triangle! We often forget about it but it shows up in several period illustrations of Minstrel bands.

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