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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What are the earliest known tutors. Is it Briggs?

I also think the dance connection is important, perhaps more so than we realize. As fashions changed, dances evolved with them.  Colonial era dances were impossible in Civil War era dresses, so dances had to change. The music may well have evolved with it. Dance steps done by different races, classes, and regional populations may well have been very different. The music for these different dances may have used different rhythmic emphasis.  There was a dance in the 1920's called The Grizzly Bear. It included an embrace involving a certain amount of "fondling" and was NOT done in "polite society."  But some of the dance steps are nearly lost as well. Literacy, and evolving technology also plays a part. Home made music was basic entertainment for most people, prior to radio and widespread education. We think nothing of sitting down to a newspaper, or a good book, or various electronic entertainments, but in the 19th century people who hadn't learned to read had no such outlet.  Whoever you are, you're reading my verbose pomposity right now, for what it's worth. :-)  For those who didn't play an instrument, singing,  dancing, and story telling were major amusements. Some people who were literate learned from the tutors, others from face to face teaching, some by listening and copying as best they could. Did they make a few mistakes- or develop a personal style?

"Style is based on limitations."- John Hartford

"I tried to play what I liked to hear, but I made some mistakes. Those mistakes are what people call the Chuck Berry Style."- Chuck Berry

As to the original question, if asked by a listener what style I am playing, I say variously songs common in the early to mid 19th century, or Old Time mountain Folk music, depending on what I am playing. This isn't really any more or less accurate than Minstrel Style, but if someone has a preconception of Minstrel Music, it avoids a long dissertation that may end up clouding the issue more than clarifying it. Once you add in my lack of command of language, it could be very cloudy! I try to talk more about the songs and their origins than the style of music. Explaining that a song dates to a certain era and was used for dancing, or as a campaign song, etc, usually is sufficient info for most listeners. I'm not convinced the term "Minstrel Music" was used during what we call the Minstrel Period in any case.

Paul 

Great points Paul. 

And isn't 'Juba' more than just the minstrel style banjo tune?- aside from the tune we are familiar with now, I thought Juba was a whole style of singing, dancing, and African-influenced body-patting/clapping in rhythms - sort of a one man band which ties in with your reference to home made entertainment.  i do find it hard to envision well heeled city folk going to banjo academies in Boston to 'get down' with Juba moves though... lol!

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