Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

Ok, so I may be jumping the gun, being that I'm just getting into this and admittedly haven't read all the books on early banjos that are out there, only what is available on line.  But I've been thinking a lot due to Tim's recent post dipping hard into the relm of defining what we all as individual's or in groups want to, or attempt to convey when we play our banjos. 

 

If you Google "Minstrel" or "Minstrel Banjo" you'll get different results from Googling "Early Banjo" or "19th-Century Banjo".  "Minstrel" immediately brings up results linking to black face performance and all its connotations - mostly negative towards African Americans.  "Early Banjo" tends to bring up histories of the banjo as an instrument, removing human emotions, focusing on where it came from and how it got to become what it is today - in addition to how the music came to be. 

 

So, that being said, when I finally feel confident with my palying ability to dress up in my civilian, iron worker or farmer impression I've done at events from time to time or even if I'm not dressed up in my, I hesitate to say "I'm a 'Minstrel' Banjo player" to people.  I see myself more as: A guy who plays the banjo for his and his family and friend's enjoyment. 

 

If I'm dressed up in my impression,the questions I will need to answer and gap I need to fill are the "how and why"s;  "How did I get a banjo? hear of a banjo?  Why the banjo?"  The answer can vary from "I heard one/saw one once and built one of my own" to "I saw an add for them and bought one from Boucher...".  We know the instructions were out there to purchase (e.g. Briggs) for the individual to learn on their own.  I ask these questions in my head as I look at 19th century images of people obviously NOT dressed to perform black-face minstrel shows, but posing with a banjo in their normal attire.  I like to thinkg the people they knew would simply take the player at face value: a dude, or dad or their neighbor playing a banjo and catchy tune (or maybe not catchy to their ears), not a true performing minstrel. 

 

Out of my impression it gets easier, or does it?:  

 

I'm "a guy who plays a banjo that is made like it would have been made around mid-19th century - one adapted from an even earlier style that finds it's roots in Africa.  Sure it was used in minstrel shows, but I like it because it's darn cool and has a different sound in addition to a great history as an instrument." 

 

Fact is, race is still a sensitive issue.  I would be terribly embarassed if I broke out in song, belting out the first few lines of "Keemo Kimo" and an African American walks in, friend or not.  (If they're a friend they'd probably roll their eyes since they know the dorky history guy I am)  For me I feel much more comfortable singing any period song in my 19th-century garb at a Civil War event or place I was asked to play period tunes at.  It all adds context immediately and a sense of teaching history.  At home is at home and again, my wife knows the history dork I am! 

 

I'm going to compare it to my beard:  people at work see it and say "Growin that for reenacting?".  The fact is, I like the way I look in a beard, but apparently out of my garb it doesn't make sense to most people or people just make assumptions.  So to say I'm a "minstrel banjo player" just doesn't ring right for me, especially out of my garb.  I don't want a coworker to get curious and Google "Minstrel banjo", get the results I got and start questioning me about my black-face performance, or worse yet, not ask me questions and assume I support all those negative connotations that come with it, in or out of my impression.             

 

Maybe I'm sounding paranoid or over thinking it (I do that)?  ;)  Anyhow, just some thoughts, no insults meant to or directed at anyone!  Everyone on here shares in a common niche in music and I think that's just an awesome thing all its own!

 

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Don't overthink it, my friend. You'll waste precious practice time.

I like to say I play (and make) the BANJO, and tell people all the modern banjos are wanna-be banjos. hehe  I do.

Live, I'd rather ease into the talk, and let the music do the talking for a while. I love answering questions and I'm quite modest when I brag that I play the ones I make. I DO like to simply say BANJO just because everytime I whip out the Boucher, someone always says, "Now THAT'S a banjo!!!"  A couple gigs ago a couple was in the front and as usual, the lady blasted, "Now THAT'S a banjo!" Sitting next to her, her husband loudly asked, "What's that gearshift on top do?" Well, there's no such thing as a stupid question, but his wife didn't think so. He got a whack to the head. She clapped on every song and sang along to my Stephen Foster songs. He looked puzzled the whole time, ... concerning the lyrics or the gearshift, I didn't find out.

THANK YOU KINDLY Sir:

 You put into words what I was thinking when

 I did my blog post about just bein a banjo player.

 

Thanks for posting

 

R H

That tune to Terry right there, I was at the Midland Folk music festival later year. Terry & sons, were there teaching.. Awesome class too I might add. It was not all look at how I can play or who good I can do this or that 
.. Terry got into all the tunings that you never here much about and how eash it is to tone up or down to them... Then he turn Ryan and son Dan loose on us... I walked away feeling like I should have Terry a quarter for what he showed us... One of his key points was its a banjo... Don't over think it... 


Bell Banjos said:

I like to say I play (and make) the BANJO, and tell people all the modern banjos are wanna-be banjos. hehe  I do.

Live, I'd rather ease into the talk, and let the music do the talking for a while. I love answering questions and I'm quite modest when I brag that I play the ones I make. I DO like to simply say BANJO just because everytime I whip out the Boucher, someone always says, "Now THAT'S a banjo!!!"  A couple gigs ago a couple was in the front and as usual, the lady blasted, "Now THAT'S a banjo!" Sitting next to her, her husband loudly asked, "What's that gearshift on top do?" Well, there's no such thing as a stupid question, but his wife didn't think so. He got a whack to the head. She clapped on every song and sang along to my Stephen Foster songs. He looked puzzled the whole time, ... concerning the lyrics or the gearshift, I didn't find out.

Over thinking things banjo...

Well if one can't put into words such thoughts and ponderings here, of all places, then I guess there is no place to be able to exchange such feelings?   Lots of in depth discussions on the minutae of bridges, strings, gigs, tunebooks, history, ...why not this as well?

I think it's great to be able to have a place such as this to be able to discuss such intangible thoughts and sometimes inner conflicts.  Far better here than elsewhere, where one suffers the usual dismissive replies of "There ain't no notes on a banjo, you just play it!" or "Just play the damn thing!"

Where do I fall?  I'm not really sure where I would fall in other people's estimations, which vary relative to people's views and opinions.  I am always interested in the history of things, including things musical.  Things with a history seem to have more appeal to me than brand new things.  But I do love the sound and the textural aspects of 'just playing'.  I don't feel I fit neatly into one category or another.  I have always found ways to feel personally creative even when I am striving to play something faithful to an old recording.  I'm not sure if that answers your question.

Matthew wrote:

So, that being said, when I finally feel confident with my palying ability to dress up in my civilian, iron worker or farmer impression I've done at events from time to time or even if I'm not dressed up in my, I hesitate to say "I'm a 'Minstrel' Banjo player" to people.  I see myself more as: A guy who plays the banjo for his and his family and friend's enjoyment....

...We know the instructions were out there to purchase (e.g. Briggs) for the individual to learn on their own.  I ask these questions in my head as I look at 19th century images of people obviously NOT dressed to perform black-face minstrel shows, but posing with a banjo in their normal attire.  I like to thinkg the people they knew would simply take the player at face value: a dude, or dad or their neighbor playing a banjo and catchy tune (or maybe not catchy to their ears), not a true performing minstrel.

As an old-time banjo player with limited knowledge concerning minstrel playing, I'd like to know...directed towards anyone-

During the time period referred to as the 'Minstrel era" on this site, were all banjos being played in 'minstrel style' as defined by the tutor books?  Or do we know of various other playing styles and/or regional styles being played at that time as well?   And does the term 'minstrel style banjo' refer only to the particular playing style laid out in the tutor books, or is the term applied to the time period which might include all things banjo from that time period?   Thanks!

Dan'l,

The minstrel repertoire was printed, and in great volume.  However, it was generally printed as piano music.  This clouds things up quite a bit when you try to figure out how people might have played these tunes on a banjo.  The tutors are really the only banjo specific record we have.

how many of us have bought instructional books , and after getting just a bit of understanding,,,, take off on our own.  I know I do.  I have a harder time learning tab, than just listening.   I may not get it exact,,, but thats ok with me.

 I bet there was a LOT of experimenting going on.    Ive beeen told I hold my pick "wrong" for flatpicking and mandolin, but I can still play.

I think the people who music is in them ,, figure stuff out a lot by using their old noggin.    Have you evertried to  teach somebody how to strum, who didnt have the rhythm in them?  Its there or its not. whatever we want to call it.

Thanks, Dan'l !

Glad we got the books. Given the specificity of the notation....down to the 16th note rests, we can assume that it is a good representation of music played then. A snapshot....in time. 

The "folk" style of interpreting early American banjo music is well represented.  Pete Seger has been doing it for a long time.  Bobby Horton is an excellent example of cutting-edge folk style Civil War banjo music.  There are many others.

"Minstrel Banjo" as we know it today had its Genesis in the early 1970's, when Bob Winans asked himself "what did the banjo sound like during the Civil War?"  (I have specifically asked him about this)  To answer this he procured a copy of the Briggs Banjo Instructor and an original banjo, and started to study and practice.  Other players like Clarke Buehling and Joe Ayers were also researching and practicing this music around this time.  Add Bob Flesher to the mix and you have, in my opinion, some of the most influential practictioners of what became commonly refered to as "minstrel banjo."

What do all these banjo players have in common?  First and foremost, an exhaustive study of the banjos and the banjo tutors of the period.  Second, an application the style gleaned from those tutors to period sheet music.  That is the core of the genre as we know it today.  Great players like Greg and Tim have expanded on the work of the earliers players.  More and more luthiers and producing high-quality reproduction banjos.

More and more "clawhammer" people and exploring the "minstrel" style.  Most of them have no interest in Living History or reenacting, just dig a refreshing new approach to the banjo.

 Some people will prefer a "folk" interpretation of the banjo in the 19th century.  Were there other popular styles concurrent with the documented "minstrel" style?  The research is on going.

 Just remember, if not for Bob Winans and his contemporaries, and the Briggs Banjo Instructor, this genre would not exist as we know it today.

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