Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

Once again, a forum topic in the Banjo Hangout sort of took a twist and became a debate about print sources vs. "ear" to summarize it. There is such a school of thought that the banjo books do not represent an accurate reflection of playing during this time. Thus...no way to know. I don't claim that I know, but certainly there is something to it (the printed page). Don't want to start a controversy here, but it is a great topic. 

I believe that the books did not create the style of the day. I think they reflect what was already going on. I don't think the tutors appeared, and everybody became influenced by it. I contend that the tutors reflect what was going on...with skillful and accurate transcriptions of styles and pieces. It was a reflection of the culture. If all they wanted to do was make money, I think the books would be way shittier...but they are good...and obviously took a great deal of toil. I think that the songs that were vocal pieces were widely interpreted in many ways, but not what I am adressing. I am speaking of the hundreds of songs in these books. You can see a continuity. Why would one book come out...and then another...and another.....basically the same? They must be based in reality. Why wouldn't somebody play and repeat cool versions of poplular songs.

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I've always played by ear on many instruments, except the fiddle and the minstrel banjo where it's GOT to be right. That says something about minstrel music.. doesn't it? I'm asking.

The clawhammer players aren't making judgements on minstrel music over there, are they?

I've sworn off those topics over there.  For whatever reason this comes up fairly frequently.  And it seems to be the same sort of thing... innocent questions that turn into an inquisition.

The facts are that with these modern computer-machines and interwebs they could find the answer very easy, so I am already suspicious of the underlying motives. 

Baur, Armstrong, Converse, etc, all wrote that it was a good representation of how to play the banjo (in that era).

Stewart published "old time banjo songs" exactly like they were published in the early instruction books.

Late 19th century books explaining how to play stroke style have the very same info that the early books had.

Heck, the ABM pretty much covers every detail, from how to play each note, to his opinion on how the banjo should sound.

Even with that, they all wrote of the horrible tub pounder that beat on his banjo by ear-- with that we will never know what was being talked about.

Long story short, we like it.  I find hours of entertainment just grabbing a book and playing through page by page.  I like the folks in our group that get together in a barn and argue all night.

I love the banjos we play.

Who cares about the attacks?  We should make a effort to ignore them and not give them any energy.

That is a great place to talk about mainstream versions of history and the full gamut of "old time" folk styles. As long as we stay on topic, this is a great place to discuss popular historical music of the minstrel stage (and what amateurs might have been doing who were into that music).  Research and documentation is what makes this site different.

That just fine-- that is why there are two sites.  

I've never checked, but are attacks made on bluegrass?  That is another commercial venture that has had a very strong influence on the banjo.

I stay active over there because there may be some folks that are potenially interested in this stuff that would not gain exposure to it otherwise. Hopes are to shed a positive light on it...but it is odd how it becomes twisted so quickly. I usually don't, but occasionally I hang in there and hammer out an opinion....based in facts and reality.

We do have a number of members on this site who have joined as a result of the Banjo Hangout.  Some of this argument sounds like the reenactorism "If they could have, they would have." 

There are two different cultures at work between old time playing and minstrel playing.  In old time if you can't play by ear you're at a  handicap.  Beginners pretty much just have to learn how to play by ear it to experience the full joy of the enterprise.  The roots of the minstrel music started out the same.  There is no question of that.  I love the tutors because they introduce many great tunes which are not commonly played in the old time community and because some of the very cool techniques have been neglected or lost in the aural tradition.  When I first tried my hand at the minstrel method around twenty years ago it was a very lonely endeavor.  I live in peidmont North Carolina, home (at least at one time) to Allen Jabbour, Tommy Thompson, Cece Conway, Nowell Creadick, Dink Roberts, etc.  It was the perfect place to learn old time banjo.  Yet nobody, but nobody played the minstrel technique.  Bob Flesher, who I met at Galax,  was the only person I personally knew who did.  So the only way to learn this stuff was through the books, either the notation or tabs.  Also the people who have learned this material in the past twenty years mostly are scattered around, making it difficult to form groups.  There is nothing wrong with learning this music through the texts, but I personally do not believe it a mortal sin to learn some of these tunes by ear, either.  The variations and improvisation were always part of the tradition.  As banjo style turned into guitar style the whole thing, of course, changed.  It would be very difficult to learn classic banjo pieces by ear.  But I reaaly do think the early stuff, which is my favorite stuff, should be fair game for an aural tradition of transmission and improvisation. --Rob

I think those tutor pieces are a snapshot in time. They may be a result of improvised, morphed songs. The fact that they are written down so precisely leads one to think that it was a good way to play it. I contend that popular tunes like Jonny Boker for example lend themselves to a pool of variations. By reading the tutors and seeing Levy's music site, you can better piece together a picture of what may have gone on. Tunes that have multiple variations are good study pieces. Then, look at the variations bob Winans put out...especially that tune. But...play them all for perspective.

I have yet to see anybody improvise on, or improve upon material like Hobson's Jig, Ethiopian Cracovienne, Darkey's Jig......should I go on and on? Different tune pools. Perhaps our skill level and understanding in this century in this genre is not what it once was.


Yes, pieces like "Frank Converse's Jig" are pretty polished on their own. The additions of triplets and varied patterns don't change it much to notice.

Tim--Though I don't disagree with your premise, nonetheless, Bob Flesher has a really nice variation of Hobson's Jig in his instruction book.  When I play this tune I always use some version of this  variation as I go through the tune .  I think it makes it more interesting.  I have always thought that this particular piece is an early "africanized" tune  as I can imagine it being played on a kalimba.--Rob

Rob...I think perhaps there is a line where the tune change is discernable.....enough to be a big deal. I don't see Flesher's changes enough to make it that much different. It is still so close....it could have been his version that became the first written one (had that one been written down)...who knows. Perhaps we are talking of variations., changes, and transmition by ear in different realms. To me...these fall in the same pot. The music is essentially unchanged. The melodic and harmonic structure do not get altered.

I have to wonder if each player tends to change the music over time.  It could be an interesting experiment to record a piece of music, have some people listen to it, learn to play it, and then play it over a period of months, maybe 6 months.  Then have each one record what they are playing.  I'll bet there will be some significant differences.

For an academic view of this ongoing conversation, visit a previous thread that looks at transmission, variation, and publishing in the 19th century: http://minstrelbanjo.ning.com/forum/topics/a-place-where-scholarshi...

John--  I believe you are exactly right.  If my memory serves me correctly, I think Allen Jabbour once mentioned that Henry Reed, his motherlode of tune origins, seldom played the same tune consistently from one sitting to another.--Rob

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