Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

I am curious...what led you into this style of instrument and playing? I came fresh at it with ZERO banjo experience. I like history, and while learning more about the 4th Michigan at a muster in Jackson MIch, I stumbled upon the 2nd South Carolina Band on a cassette. Something really appealed to me about it. That led to finding Bob Flesher and his resources. Then I decided....should I noodle around aimlessly like a spacey new age musician, or try to play this style as it should be, just to see what it really was. I hooked up with Briggs' site where I got all my information, and encouragement. I bought  a decent instrument, some clothes and just started showing up at stuff. Then, AEBG happened, and it really pulled the picture together. I think the internet is great, because there were no players where I live....you really need to see the style. I guess it was a curiosity about something so obscure. Although it is an endless endevour, I still feel like I can "put my arms around it" grasp it, and understand it.

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Great forum thread Tim!

I have met many important thinkers on the early banjo over the years. I would like to recount the one that was instrumental in introducing me to the early tutors--Richard Greene (not the bluegrass fiddler, but a highly knowledgeable interpreter of period music and librarian from the Smithsonian).

I had been playing modern interpretations of Civil War era music with my former band since 1994. In 1996 we were playing at Antietam. In downtown Sharpsburg that weekend, I met Richard. He was playing on a porch with Jon Isaacson (banjo) and Brett Walker (bones). I had a great conversation with Richard about period music and several weeks later, he generously shared with me photocopies of some of the original tutors. It took me several years to figure out how to personally, objectively look beyond the disturbing racial elements to see that these tutors represented something extremely important. What really got my attention, by 1999/2000, was Bob Winans' 1976 article and the liner notes to his New World Record release. Reading them was an epiphany because it was the first objective, scholarly, intellectual wedge to aid me in trying to see these materials for what they really were--an entry point into an important historical crossroads between black and white, rich and poor, rural and urban, and issues regarding different types of musical literacy, knowledge, and communication. The list goes on. Subsequently, Cece Conway's African Banjo Roots in Appalachia and the Gura/Bollman book America's Instrument further inspired me to continue digging more deeply into the banjo tutors.

Again, these are just some of the many influences that have inspired me to not only immerse myself in these early materials as they pertain to minstrelsy and the Civil War era, but also challenge me to explore the much wider scope of the banjo's African American and multicultural history, especially its early history (ca 1620-1870).
I've been a piano player for years, and always wanted to learn banjo. When I started reenacting I quickly realized that there would be very occasions to play piano. I addition, I got tired of hearing Beatles songs around the campfire. So, I started in by making a banjo from a kit, and getting Bob Flesher's books.
Interesting how connected to reenacting it is. The music has such a strong life apart from that, but it seems to be the major portal for discovery.
Well then I guess somebody who doesn't reenact ought to speak up. Although I really need to change my avatar one of these days, and put up one with a banjo...

I've collected old instruments since I was a grownup, and one that I've had since 1964 is a homemade fretless from west central Kentucky that only has eight brackets. It might be anywhere from 1860 to 1900, but anyway it's primitive. I played more or less clawhammer (more claw than hammer, except on a couple of tunes). Tended to learn specific tunes from people I met -- mostly old guys in Tennessee, but also an English guy who lived in Nashville (Barry Murphy), and Mike Seeger. I was familiar with the 1840ish banjo at The Hermitage, because the Director there was a friend, and he showed it to me. I got to know Bob Winans and Tom Adler in the early 70s, I guess -- as fellow folklorists and researchers into banjo (and other instrumental) arcana. But I don't recall ever playing it with anybody else who played stroke style, or actually who even used gut strings, until AEBG II. I bought a Flesher kit banjo (someone in Alabama had built the kit), and went to that, because my wife and I had attended the closing concert of AEBG I, and enjoyed it -- except for the freezing part. And the only reason we knew about AEBG I was little notice of the concert, in the Washington Post, that I happened to see.

So, people reenact the CW; but hardly anybody reenacts the Minstrel Stage, anymore. To do so on a regular basis would tend to be tasteless. (I actually attended annual Kiwanis Club minstrel shows in Hopkinsville, KY around 1949-54, and my dad sang in them -- sometimes in blackface. That was before I took up the banjo; and as far as I remember nobody in that Kiwanis chapter played one, either. They did have bones players, and piano. The big draw was the humor, between the Interlocutor -- the mayor -- and the end men; and it was often unabashedly racist humor.) But in this somewhat more enlightened era -- apart from the campfires of CW reenactments, and the educational programs of a few folklorists and historic sites, what other venues are there?
But in this somewhat more enlightened era -- apart from the campfires of CW reenactments, and the educational programs of a few folklorists and historic sites, what other venues are there?

Now there is a problem to solve. I think other venues are out there. I hope the music has life beyond the above mentioned. There is so much exciting instrumental music available...it is a matter of how it is presented.
This is where public outreach and a little self-starting infrastructural initiatives come into play!

Tim Twiss said:
But in this somewhat more enlightened era -- apart from the campfires of CW reenactments, and the educational programs of a few folklorists and historic sites, what other venues are there?

Now there is a problem to solve. I think other venues are out there. I hope the music has life beyond the above mentioned. There is so much exciting instrumental music available...it is a matter of how it is presented.
i have been hooked on banjo since the 60s, it first got my attention on a Buffalo Springfield recording, then i heard some Bluegrass on TV, & of course, Pete Seeger, but, what really changed everything for me was hearing a recording of Frank Proffitt playing one of his fretless Mt banjos...it was a transcendent moments (i first The New Lost City Ramblers later that same day). since then i've been following banjo threads where ever they lead; the multitude of old-timey styles, jug band, blues, & the past few yrs, minstrel style. alomg w/ playing banjo, i now build them... i haven't had this much fun since the 60s!!!

"......banjo, it's more than an instrument, it's a way of life!"
We have played in a variety of venues, primarily libraries. This coming week Elaine and I will be helping our daughter by playing for her American Theatre class at Indiana University. Elise is preparing the presentation and we are going to be there for background music/demonstration.

I think that there is probably more intrest out there than we think. Our main focus has been presenting the music as a lost piece of American history, and the roots of American music.
I think that there is probably more intrest out there than we think. Our main focus has been presenting the music as a lost piece of American history, and the roots of American music

I couldn't agree more.
I've said it here before, but I'll repeat it again to add another perspective to this thread. My hobby of the last ten plus years has been the study of the use and manufacture of woodworking hand tools (planes, saws, chisels, etc), especially during the 1830 to 1870 period. I love to read and research about that period. I am also a lifelong fan of bluegrass and oldtime music. I tried to learn to play the mandolin in the early 90s, but it didn't take. I didn't really think about the banjo much, although I did buy an issue of the Old-Time Herald in 1990 because it had plans on how to make your own banjo, so I guess there was already a seed of it in there somewhere. Then two or three years ago I saw an episode of the Woodwright's Shop on PBS with George Wunderlich showing how to make a Boucher banjo and I was hooked. It looked like something I could build, I loved the sound of the tunes he played, and he described it as low tuning and low tension with gut strings, which was appealing, as I always hated the steel strings on guitar and mandolin. And thank goodness for the Banjo Clubhouse, as being able to hear the tunes made it all the more real and appealing.

Despite not being a reenactor now, I would like to move in that direction one day. Not far from where I live is Sturbridge Village, which recreates an 1830s New England village. Eventually I would like to be a costumed volunteer there working in the blacksmith's shop or cooper's shop. One of the full time blacksmiths puts on musical performances on the fiddle and recorder and a couple of other instruments, but no banjo. I talked to him about it recently and he didn't think the banjo was played in rural New England in the 1830s. 1840s maybe, but not the 1830s. One of my goals is to find evidence to prove him wrong so that if I ever get a chance to volunteer there, I can bring my banjo with me! I know that there is evidence of slaves playing the banjo in Newport, RI in the 1700s, but I need to focus more on rural New England to make my case.

Brian
Brian Welch said:
Not far from where I live is Sturbridge Village, which recreates an 1830s New England village. Eventually I would like to be a costumed volunteer there working in the blacksmith's shop or cooper's shop. One of the full time blacksmiths puts on musical performances on the fiddle and recorder and a couple of other instruments, but no banjo. I talked to him about it recently and he didn't think the banjo was played in rural New England in the 1830s. 1840s maybe, but not the 1830s. One of my goals is to find evidence to prove him wrong so that if I ever get a chance to volunteer there, I can bring my banjo with me! I know that there is evidence of slaves playing the banjo in Newport, RI in the 1700s, but I need to focus more on rural New England to make my case.

If you scan down this note about Art Schrader's collection (including some of the early Elias Howe instruction books) you will see that he worked at Sturbridge Village (as a musical reenactor) for many years. I don't think he played banjo, there (if anywhere) -- mainly guitars, and he was a balladeer. But also a serious researcher into early American music, and especially broadsides. I just mention it, in case you want to inform yourself about what has gone on there, previously.

http://www.americanantiquarian.org/acquisitions200504.htm
I got interested in banjos thru listening to my parents recordings of Eddie Peabody. My dad bought me a Kay 5-string when I was 13 (1970), thinking it was what Eddie was playing...(which, of course, was a plectrum banjo). I played it about twice before it got hung up as a 'wall hanger'. I started again in 1978, learning bluegrass via the Scruggs book. Sometime early on, I was given a copy of BNL (Banjo Newsletter) which had an 1870's version of "Spanish Fandango" in it...and I thought it was "cool" to learn an early style. FF to 1992 when I heard Clarke Buehling play onstage at the Tennessee Banjo Institute...that hooked me solid on the Classic tunes. I also bought a little yellow book at the vendor store there...Converse. I never did attempt to play anything out of the Converse book but kept it around as a curiosity, I liked learning the history of the instrument and eventually bought all of the early era reprints. Because I'm genetically predisposed to collect stuff, I am now well on my way to having originals for all of 'em.

Sometime in the late '90's I became aware of Bob Flesher's minstrel efforts and began to lust after one of his kits. In 2003 I had an opportunity to buy one of Dan Knowles' fine minstrel banjos and sat down with Bob Flesher's "Stroke Style" book to learn all the tunes. Now look where that got me!

Since I play a variety of styles, I have had the opportunity to introduce the early banjo to both bluegrass and clawhammer audiences (and found them appreciative). I am scheduled to teach (clawhammer, classic and stroke if anyone wants it) at Jack Hatfield's "Smoky Mountain Banjo Academy" in May and part of that will be my "Banjo History" routine. Because of you guys, I can talk intelligently (up to the limits of my pitiful IQ) about the early stuff!

I'm not a reenactor (though the pull is strong), I simply like the instrument, the history and the tunes that go with it.

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