Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

I am curious if anyone has any information about the role of the fiddle (not classical "violin") in popular music during the 19th century/minstrel period, particularly in relation to the banjo. For example, was the fiddle played in minstrel shows or other forms of popular music or "folk" music? Was it paired with the banjo, as is common in Old Time music (or later with Bluegrass)? Are there tutors, like for the banjo (or any such historical record/ historical teaching materials)? What songs were played and what tunings were used?  Would a modern fiddle be historically accurate or is there a "period" fiddle? Any information would be appreciated.



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Dear Genford

To briefly respond to your question, the violin/fiddle is well-documented in minstrelsy during this early period. It was played with the banjo, percussion, and other melody instruments. In terms of minstrelsy, take a look at Bob Winans article on the topic of instrumentation. Also, just as we like to collect and go through a variety of banjo instruction and tune books, a wide variety of violin instruction and tune books were also being published and disseminated that would have included a variety of popular tunes from European art music and minstrel tunes to more vernacular pieces that made it into print. Back then, people were generally learning music with a mixed method approach, from learning by ear as well as learning to read music as a way of collecting and retaining melodies (e.g., William Sidney Mount and Dan Emmett).

Regarding making your fiddle/violin more historically accurate, a couple things you might do would be to experiment with gut strings and consider a period chin rest.

I'm sure you'll get some really good additional responses from folks on this site!

Best regards,


A period fiddle setup would include playing without a chin rest or shoulder rest, removing all fine tuners, and using gut strings. Wood tailpiece and tuners, etc. Several companies offer gut strings. I use Pirastro Chorda, which includes the period correct metal wrapped gut G string.
There are many period violin tutors that I have found online. Play around with some word searches on Google book and you should find them. If you have any trouble let me know and I will send you the titles of some I have found. A great source for tunes is Ryans Mammoth Collection. It dates to the 1870's or 80's but most of the tunes date to the Civil War or earlier, and the book contains some Dan Emmett tunes. This can be printed from Google book, or purchased via Mel Bay.

I have been grabbing every period tutor I can find, but as I am still learing to play the instrument I havent had time to study these sources enough to come to any grand conclusions about how the fiddle would have sounded in a minstrel setting. One thing I have noticed is that the tutors illustrate all the various bowing patterns that are typical of the Old Time and early bluegrass music traditions (various shuffles, etc), but so far I have not found any discussion of playing drones or double stops that are so popular in the OT and bluegrass traditions.

Hans Nathan's book about Dan Emmitt notes that on stage, the minstrel fiddler was very animated, describing the bowing as being pretty wild and seemingly uncontrolled. If this was indeed the case, I would imagine that the fiddle bits were pretty simple melodies.

After writing such a long reply, I again warn everyone that I am just beginning this fiddle adventure and I am sure there are more knowledgeable folks on here who will set us straight!

I haven't looked at any of the period fiddle tutors but I have noticed that the period accordeon tutors also contain nothing but simple melody lines, no use of double notes or the drones is mentioned at all. This seems odd to me because the very nature of the diatonic keyboard layout makes playing harmonies very easy. The drones, though not useful for every tune, really fill out the sound. It would be like a banjo tutor that omitted the fifth string. The period banjo tutors I've worked with do a much better job of bringing out the essence of the instrument. I'm skeptical that anyone used the accordeon tutors for more than learning the basic keyboard layout and then playing the tunes that might appeal to them as they skimmed through the rest of the book. So this goes back to the question we've discussed before: did the tutors capture the way the instruments were played? Banjo - I think so. Accordeon - no. Fiddle - from what Mike said above, maybe - at least they included bowing information. Dave Culgan

Wow! Those were some very awesome and informative responses, gentlemen.  I am about to take up the fiddle (mainly old time, maybe some bluegrass), and I was wondering if I might also be able to incorporate Minstrel songs into the repertoire.  This provides me with a great starting off point and enough resources to keep me busy for a long while.  Thanks again, so much!

I wonder if most banjo players from that period also learned to play by ear.  I think the tutors were just a way for a few to make money using their versions of commonly played tunes. 

I still they provided a great service....if all they wanted to do was make money, I don't think they would have put so much detail into the work. They would look more like the Gumbo Chaff Book. There was some mission of integrety there.

The other aspect of 19th C fiddle is the range of variations on how it's held.  Looking at paintings and photos from the time, you'll notice that the fiddle is sometimes held against the neck (on the left or right of the tailpiece) or held against the chest, usually just in from the left shoulder. The choice seems individual, though I've noticed a slight preference amongst Scots reference pictures for holding the fiddle against the neck to the right of the tailpiece.  

The left wrist is sometimes bent inwards against the neck of the fiddle.

The bow was sometimes held higher on the stick than is taught now, sometimes with the index finger about where the balance point is.  This leads to playing mostly with the top half of the bow, which is fine for jigs & reels.

I've found these variations quite comfortable, though as a classically-trained violinist it took some getting used to at first.

Enjoy learning the fiddle! 

Genford, I don't think there was likely only one official way of holding the fiddle back then.  It can be a very personal thing.  My husband is a great old-time fiddler, and he sometimes hold the fiddle under chin, sometimes at the shoulder, sometimes against the chest with left elbow resting on left leg.  He says it's just comfortable to change position now and then....likes it's no biggie.   :)    I sometimes change my banjo and arm positions too, for the same reason- variety equals comfort when playing for several hours.

Learning to play fiddle is a lifelong joy and challenge I hear.   Have fun!


I have been playing around with Google books, but not much luck.  I found, of course, the Ryan Collection, but none of my searches have been successful for finding any other tutors.  Can you still list up some of those titles for me?

Sure thing. I'll pull them out and post the titles on this discussion this weekend. Others may like to see them as well
Just to add to the fiddle position discussion....the period tutors describe what is the current classical position, but period photos and paintings do illustrate some variations. Though I must say that I have not seen a photo from 1865 or earlier showing the crook of the elbow position or chest position that one sees in old time music. But I have not seen every photo in the world, so if anyone has a pic I would love to see it. If you look at my profile picture, you will see two Federal soldiers, each using a different fiddle position and bow hold.

Thanks, Mike!

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