Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

New Minstrel picker here--as background, I've been doing clawhammer for 30+ years, and it seems that the primary goal in clawhammer (for many) is to get as far away from the tab as possible (there are also those who shun us who tab in favor or ear-learning exclusively but that's another story) while still retaining some semblance of the initial tune. I guess old time in general, probably due to its oral tradition, is made up of its thousands of tunes, some of which resemble other tunes with different names, have he same name with different tunes, are combinations of tune parts with new names, etc.

Bottom line--I get the feeling that because Minstrel tunes come from written music, and the tabs have specific fingerings/attacks that are also written down, and after watching and listening at many of the available videos, I should strive play tunes as written; note-for-note, stroke-for-stroke, and keep the improvisation for clawhammer....YES? (and as Judge Judy would say: "This requires an answer of yes or no. When I need more information I'll ask another question"!  thanx.....hugh

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So this is kind of complicated, but try my best to answer based on my experience and preferences.

I think we underestimate the musicians we admire from the 19th century.  First and foremost, the tunes and songs published in the banjo tutors we have were stage tunes, played by professional musicians.  The banjo reached the masses because of its popularity as a stage instrument.  There weren't recordings back then, and while I'm sure some musicians were playing by ear, I'd bet many, or even most, could read music.  If we are going to attempt to recreate this music as it was played in the past, the sheet music we have is a safe way to do that, even though some players likely elaborated upon these tunes. 

As for improvisation, I'm not sure what you mean.  If you mean playing variations, then I do that for some tunes and not for others, but I always learn the "vanilla" tune as well.  I realize my improvisations may not be accurate, and that's a risk I take.  I do my best not to "clawhammer the music up" though by adding more modern clawhammer mannerisms into my playing.  As a musician who plays other types of music, improvisation implies something much larger and more spontaneous than the variations found in old-time and Irish traditional music.

 Many tunes seem to have been arranged to be played straight from the sheet music.  The Japanese Grand March is a great example, as well as the pieces from the Converse tutors.  These published tunes are very polished and nicely arranged, and I believe they were intended to be performed as published.

As far as the fingerings go, I almost always stick with the published ones unless I really feel comfortable with an alternative.  I try to keep things a bit more flexible than some players here do, but my playing is much more conservative than other players.  That's my own personal preference- you should do what's right for you in order to achieve whatever you'd like to.  

To summarize, this isn't the banjo you're used to :)  Try not to think of this music as a folk or oral tradition.  It was music was the popular music of the day and was (mostly) written by urban white professional banjoists who were composers and performers.  I realize this is an oversimplification since a few of these tunes are essentially re-purposed from Irish or older American tunes, but in the context of answering your question, I think this can be overlooked.

Some good points john.  But I myself would adjust your last paragraph to add a little clarification, because there is so often the overlap/conflict between 'professional minstrel stage/minstrel tutor' repertoire, and the folk/oral traditional and regional music that was also going on at the same time, during that same minstrel stage show time period.  Then, as now, there were many people playing the banjo, fiddle, and other 'folk' instruments during that time period who were not professionals, composers, or performers...nor even educated and literate.  Just working people making home made music to brighten their daily lives, dance or sing to.  We should keep in mind that not 'everyone' was reading/learning music from books and sheet music, or attending stage shows.  This is not to say that minstrel performer music and sheet music was not a huge influence on the general population's taste in music-  it was.  And the reverse is probably true as well- that the general populace' music taste influenced the music publishers and stage performers.  They likely all fed into each other.

So when you write:

To summarize, this isn't the banjo you're used to :)  Try not to think of this music as a folk or oral tradition.  It was music was the popular music of the day and was (mostly) written by urban white professional banjoists who were composers and performers. 

I might put it this way instead:

To summarize, this isn't the banjo you're used to :)  Try not to think of minstrel tutor books and minstrel era sheet music as a folk or oral tradition.  The tutor books and sheet music was the popular music of the day and was (mostly) written by urban white professional banjoists who were composers and performers. 

It's a fine line, but one that's important enough not to exclude (or overlook) altogether, in my view.   :)

This goes back to the discussion/debate we had at Antietam, which I very much enjoyed.  I'd be much more receptive to the idea that the banjo was being played by white "folk" musicians in the 1830s, 40s, and 50s once I see some evidence that shows just that.  Nearly everything I've read- academic and primary source- connects the rise of the banjo (as played by whites) directly to the minstrel show.  I'd be willing to argue that Irish "traditional" music was the popular "folk" music of the day, although even before the Civil War there were multiple Irish tune collections published, and I bet many people were learning tunes for dances and the parlor by reading sheet music.  If you're trying bridge the early 19th century and the rise of the banjo before the Civil War to old-time music, I'll hold my breath until evidence supporting this presents itself.  The way I see it, prior to the minstrel show and aside from a few isolated incidents, the banjo was played by slaves and free blacks.  What was played on it?  I guess we may never really know.  I'd make a broad guess that it was music influenced by both African and Irish music.

You have to assume that since banjos began to be commercially made in the 1840s that the average Joe on the street was buying and playing them from that time forward.  If not, then there would not be a commercial demand for the instrument, and the people making them would have gone out of business.  That also goes for the instruction manuals on how to play them (1850s).  You don't print a book unless there is sufficient demand for that book. There are also a number of "unknown" banjo players being photographed with their instruments.  I would date most of the photos that I have seen from the 1850s on. 

John,

I do assume this, I just don't believe that they were playing Irish or "old-time" music on them back in the 1850s.

John. I'll take that as a YES.  Discussion over for me now on this issue.  thanx.....hugh

If you look at the old books you'll see they were absolutely playing Scottish & Irish music on them in the 1850s. In the Briggs book alone we have - Fisher's Hornpipe, Monymusk, and Alabama Joe - which is actually the Cornish hymn "Trelawney. Another that turns up in lots of books is "Bully for You" which is another name for the jig called "The Bottle of Brandy".

Ian, I mentioned in my first post that there are some Celtic tunes re-purposed for use in minstrelsy.  As for Bully for You, Converse published multiple Irish tunes, but first off this was later than the time frame I specified, and secondly these tunes were part of popular music and were published for performance or for the parlor.  I don't think you would have found an someone with an early banjo playing Irish tunes with a fiddler in a barn somewhere, for example.  Also, looking at the tutors and noting that some tunes have Irish origins (or are actually Irish tunes) does not mean that people played Irish music on the banjo back then.  Keep in mind that the minstrels publishing the tutors were largely Irishmen and Englishmen, so it's makes sense that they would raw upon their past experience (what they knew).

There were no real banjo tutors for the first 25 years or so of minstrelsy, so whatever people were playing, they didn't get it out of tutors.  Also, what I consider to be real minstrel tunes, as opposed to the much more complicated composed tunes played in guitar style, appeared in the first 25 or 30 years of minstrelsy.  Before 1860 most banjos were hand crafted in small quantities.  After 1860 and the industrial revolution, banjos were cranked out by the tens of thousands with inexpensive interchangeable parts.  There were certainly not tens  of thousands of professional banjo players running around.  Early minstrelsy was taught from musician to musician, mostly by ear.  Sure, Dan Emmett and some others were undoubtedly musically literate, but the early tunes are easy to learn by ear and invite improvisation.  Popular tunes like those of Steven Foster were probably mostly learned by ear, because they were written for piano. I play most Steven Foster by ear myself.  Yes, there are some great tunes in the tutors you probably shouldn't mess with much, but that's not true of most of the early minstrel tunes, many of which do have African, Irish, Scottish, and English antecedents.  To summarize, the first generation of minstrelsy and white folks playing the banjo was nothing if not an oral tradition.   

We don't know that, though.  It's possible they were handwriting these tunes out and sharing them that way.  One thing I've noticed since joining this community is that we impose a lot of our ideas of traditional music born out of the 1960s folk revival onto the early banjo.  I think we underestimate the musicians back then.  There was so much sheet music printed in the 19th century.  Some of it even appears in books like ladies' magazines, and so many of these are for piano.  Reading music wasn't viewed in a negative light like it is today by many folk musicians.  We have to keep in mind that learning to read music is really easy.  Young kids around the country do it today; there is no reason people couldn't learn to read music back then.  Without recordings or access to banjoists (as you said, there weren't many of them prior to 1860), learning to play the banjo by ear would have been a challenge, when there were many different tutors available to learn to read music.  I don't think it's correct, without supporting evidence, to assume that people learned piano music and tunes by ear, just because that's what traditional musicians do today.  And speaking of tradition, how in any way was minstrelsy a tradition?  Even in the earliest days, this was popular music performed on the stage- there's nothing traditional about that.  Like it or not, the majority of amateur banjo players in the antebellum period were likely white, urban, and middle-class.  Even what we now called Irish Traditional music had a popular edge to it back then, as well as a number of large, published volumes of tunes.  Irish music is undoubtedly a tradition in the modern era.

  As you said, before 1860 (essentially before Buckbee) there weren't very many banjos floating around, and at the same time there were hundreds of minstrel troupes.  I don't think there were banjo-playing folk musicians cranking out Celtic tunes in barns during this time period.

 If you're trying (to) bridge the early 19th century and the rise of the banjo before the Civil War to old-time music, I'll hold my breath until evidence supporting this presents itself.  The way I see it, prior to the minstrel show and aside from a few isolated incidents, the banjo was played by slaves and free blacks.

John, when I wrote: "Then, as now, there were many people playing the banjo, fiddle, and other 'folk' instruments during that time period who were not professionals, composers, or performers...nor even educated and literate.  Just working people making home made music to brighten their daily lives, dance or sing to.  We should keep in mind that not 'everyone' was reading/learning music from books and sheet music, or attending stage shows.",   ...I wasn't referring only to white people. I meant all common people who played music in their daily lives while at work or at play.... non-professionals/non-performers/non-composer-publishers ...who may have been poor, slaves, free, or working class... either black, white or from other cultures...  people who were playing music. 

I do assume this, I just don't believe that they were playing Irish or "old-time" music on (banjos) back in the 1850s.

I don't see that anyone is saying they were.  Let's remember that 'old-time music' is usually defined as music from the early stringband commercial recordings on 78's and onward.  Before that, music played by common folk was simply 'folk music', and what we might label today as 'traditional' music.

http://www.oldtimemusic.com/otdef.html

http://folkmusic.about.com/od/folkmusic101/p/OldTimeMusic.htm

If there were Irish tunes published in the early banjo tutor books, then we must assume 'people' were playing them on banjos at that time, right?   Would people have bought the tutor books and then not played the Irish tunes in them?

Like it or not, the majority of amateur banjo players in the antebellum period were likely white, urban, and middle-class.

How can you make such a sweeping definitive statement,  John?   From 1781-1860 ?  With all due respect, I must admit I find it a bit alarming.

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