Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

Hi, all. I'm brand new to this site, so if this is not the appropriate way to communicate to members, please forgive me. 

I played a little modern bluegrass banjo many years ago, and recently have been building gourd banjos. Being able to actual play the things would be great lol. 

Can anyone point me in the direction learning resources, sheet music, arrangements, and perhaps tips to arranging old tunes, as well. I figured out pretty quickly that the bluegrass 3 finger picking style won't get me far here. 

Thanks everyone, and any assistance would be gratefully received. 

Dane Donato

PS If I am doing this right, here is a pic of a recent banjo along with my own ugly mug. Still a few tiny bugs to work out, but overall, very happy with the sound of the instrument. 

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Welcome Dane! 

Ugly mug??... not!

That gourd looks nice too!

Look along the top row of links on the site here and explore the link called "resources"- you'll find all kinds of great free starter info and lessons too.  Plus if you like some of what you find, you can purchase cds or books as well to delve into it more deeply.   Tim's beginner videos might be a good start.  You'll want to be in minstrel/Briggs tuning to get a handle on minstrel/stroke style playing.   Perfect for your gourds!   :)

Hi Dane!  That gourd looks great.   Check out the videos under the 'Lessons' tab (http://minstrelbanjo.ning.com/page/lessons)  They should get you off to a good start (and will mention other resources to look at like Briggs' Banjo Instructor of 1855 and Phil Rice's Banjo Method from 1858.  

Thanks to both of you. I actually came across them after posting. Thanks so much for taking the time to respond to my questions. It is appreciated. Thanks about the banjo, as well. I think a wider neck for my next build will be better for this style of playing. 

Those lessons are really well done. I went through them, made some sounds, and actually feel I can play in this style. Foggy Mountain Breakdown doesn't appeal to my soul, but these old 19th century tunes are so cool and fun. 

Dan'l, my primary interest is the African origins of the instrument. I'm not sure anyone will ever know the technique of an enslaved musician from say 1790, of course. This I guess leaves the stroke style. I am familiar with some of the later techniques, such as two and three finger picking, up picking, down picking, etc of the mountain musicians.  I do plan on building at least one tacked banjo in addition to gourd banjos. One in particular I find pretty cool is illustrated in Sloan's "Making Musical Instruments," an instrument from England. 

This is why musicologists are all insane :) As a college professor once told me, the more you learn, the more you learn you don't know. A thought along those lines is that you can make exact reconstructions of all those wonderful instruments, but it will be impossible in almost all instances to be able to play them as they were intended to be played. It is fortunate that there is such a wealth of information available on the minstrel period, and it also can be an excellent catalyst to confront the darker side of race relations in America. 

As I see it, you can read, discuss, and research banjo origins in depth as you go along.  In the meantime, enjoy your wonderful instrument and dig into any beginner lessons you can find here on MinstrelBanjo site.  I found the tunes Juba, Calabash Dance, Old Joe, and Camptown Hornpipe to be particularly helpful as my own 'first tunes' to get familiar with stroke style playing.  Try them out!   :)

I've spent a whole career (as a cultural anthropologist) thinking about issues just such as this.   Remember that enslaved Africans, representing a wide variety of indigenous groups, came to the Americas from different parts of West Africa.  (There are now excellent databases tracing the routes of specific slave ships.)  For a long while it was argued that the institution of slavery stripped away much of what was "African" from the earliest slave communities in the New World.  And this is at least partially true for African musical traditions, since the use of drums was specifically prohibited by slave owners who feared that they could be used as a means of communication.   Banjo-like instruments--and there was probably a variety of such instruments in the Americas representing the different origins of their makers--seem to have been at least tolerated by slave owners.  In fact, early accounts suggest that slave musicians were often called upon to entertain whites on social occasions, including Christmas or New Years gatherings.  Just how the instruments were played isn't very clear, since few of the early accounts offer that level of detail.  That's why ethnomusicologists have focused on contemporary West African instruments and playing styles as analogous to what might have prevailed in the Americas 200 years ago.  Another complicating factor is that violins (and likely European melodies and musical conventions, sacred and secular) were introduced into the black musical repertoire very early on, presumably at the behest of white owners.  So Dane Donato is on the mark in saying "the more you learn, the more you learn you don't know."  My personal guess is that the word "variety" characterizes the early period, in terms of both banjos and playing styles.               

Thanks, Bob.

Touching on a some of these very sensitive issues, here is a link to a wonderful interview with the Carolina Chocolate Drops. While part of the piece is about the bones, you can hear and see some really fine banjo playing in the minstrel style, and some insightful comments about the old styles that may be lost to us. I personally absolutely love this group. If this link doesn't work, just google Carolina Chocolate Drops - instrument interview. 


Regarding how European style music and musical theory etc may have influenced black musicians, I have no idea if some or all music from West. Africa in the 1700 and 1800s was based on the diatonic scale, or even if they used written notation. I have known modern traditional musicians (fiddlers, for instance) who find the idea of reading music a burden or an obstacle to their own playing, and learn new songs and styles by ear. Certainly African musicians, like all musicians, enjoyed being exposed to new ideas and incorporating what they like and what worked into their own bag of musical tricks.

I recall meeting the composer of a rock opera in a bar in Cambridge (MA) some years ago. I was very excited to speak to him, and asked him if he had a score I could see, and it was as if I had said I love torturing puppies. I come from a classical perspective (oboist for many years, music major in college, etc), and so find those kinds of attitudes and prejudices very interesting. Valid for what you are doing, but foreign sometimes to my way of thinking and my background. That is why I probably still struggle with tab vs. written notation., and way prefer the latter. 

I just wanted to throw in an aside about African-American fiddling, since Bob Sayers brought up the violin.  Bowed one-stringed fiddles, generally with gourd bodies and skin heads, are found all over West Africa, and like the various banjo ancestors, they are known by various names--my favorite is "nyanyaur," which is clearly onamatopeoic.  Just as West African plucked-lute techniques came with the slave trade and were applied to the first banjos, and later, to guitars, so also did West African bowed lute performance practice come with West Africans and find application on the European violin.  This explains why comments about African slaves playing the violin pop up almost immediately on arrival in the Americas--it was a skill that was useful to Europeans, and people seem to have liked the way that African-Americans played dance music.  And, just as with the banjo, there is a whole range of mixtures of European and West African elements in American fiddling.  In the Northeast, you tend to find styles that are very close to their European antecedents, but if you head south you find more and more evidence of the driving rhythms characteristic of the one-stringed gourd fiddles of West Africa.  In fact, when you find examples of tunes played in both the British Isles and in the Southern US, you will find that the American versions tend to emphasize driving rhythms, breaking the linear melody down into repetitive patterns, and improvised embellishment, characteristics more common in West Africa than in European dance music.

I do wish we had more on how the early minstrels played fiddle, whether they consciously imitated the way African-Americans played, or not.  If the evolution of minstrel banjo technique is an indicator, they seem to have moved away from the way African-Americans were playing to create a style more consistent with European antecedents to better entertain their white audiences.  The minstrels were a profoundly creative group of entertainers, and had no agenda of preserving or even studying African-American traditions, so it's hard to know what they did with the fiddle in this regard.

This is such great food for thought, so thanks to everyone involved in this conversation. I was just out on my deck smoking a cigar (yes, bad for you, but so is processed food :) ), and thinking about roots music in general. In some hands, the old spirituals, ballads, and other songs are nice museum pieces, but the soul and spirit is gone. But in the right hands (and vocal chords), the music becomes real. Think of Kingston Trio vs. Odetta performing a black spiritual. I don't think for a second that you genetically inherit the ability to perform one style of music authentically based on your racial makeup or ethnicity, but the culture(s) you come from does inform and influence everything you do, say, think, and explore in some form or another, in small or not-so-small ways. Keeping your banjo in tune, of course, is strictly up to you. 

Paul (and Dane), Thanks for the input.  It hadn't occurred to me to think about West African bowed instruments!  That makes a lot of sense, given the (relatively) many early references to African American fiddlers.   Wow!  I guess this is why it's important to look at the whole musical context, instead of just fixating on banjo (as we banjophiles tend to do).  I guess my other question is about the influence of Western sacred (i.e., Christian) music on early African American instrumental and vocal music.     

In addition to gourd fiddles and gourd lutes, there were (and still are) also one-stringed mouth bows that are plucked and bent to make various notes, held against the mouth as a resonating chamber.  These bows, plucked/strummed/tapped by finger or plectrum, oftentimes had small gourds attached to increase the sound and resonance. Just another thing to add to the mix!

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