Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

I enjoyed all the discussion about tempos. Thought I would freshen up the topic for another round.

Regarding tempos, I was reflecting on jazz standards. They are called standards because everybody playes them. Think of the variety you get in each version. Does this in any way relate to our genre? I know the goal may be to recreate an old event...but that just leads us all to play the same...does it not? I guess understanding it has value, but I still think it should be alive...dynamic....creative.

Perhaps there is a line also....vocal tunes are subject to this....but what about the written and arranged pieces? How much do you vary a specifically arranged piece until it bears no resemblence to the original. Many of these tunes are almost the same anyway.

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If we were to pick a tune and a tempo, there would still be subtle differences in the way different people approach the tune.  It will all sound very much alike, but you can pick out different people playing because of their individual preferences and abilities.  Especially on banjo, where it seems people love adding an extra note or syncopation here or there.  Think about Bob Winan's talk this summer at the gathering. 

In the preface in "O'Neill's Music Of Ireland," it's made very clear NOT to play the tunes as written, that the placement of ornaments, the triplets, grace notes ... etc ... are up to the player. And every good Irish fiddler knows that the more fiddlers you add to the soup, the more he'd better 'tighten it up,' cool it on excessive ornamentation, and find a steady tempo, especially if dancers are present. Our early banjo music doesn't seem to have many notated ornaments, but I bet the old guys were pretty fancy at times.

Good discussion Tim. I think that for me, the goal has never been "to recreate an old event". We are not 19th century people and never will be, no matter how often we play dress up or period correct instruments etc. That does not mean that we don't have a whole lot to learn from them. As in all genres, there often is tension between the strict traditionalists, and those who learn from the tradition in order to push it into new territory. And quite frankly, much of the new exploration is not very good - personally, I can't stand when bluegrass bands do pop songs for example - just sounds silly to me. However, if no sleuthing out and experimentation is done, then I think we might run the risk of having early banjo music remain a museum piece, something that people point at and stare at, but is not "alive...dynamic...creative." For me, banjo is an expression of culture, and a culture that I want to be alive, not stuck somewhere in a museum. It's the old "spirit of" versus "letter of the law" argument.

I'm not a very good stroke style player, but i do have some old-time fiddle/banjo/ballad experience where the same issues come into play. 

A song with lyrics can be played at a tempo where you can squeeze all the words in with no problem- yet there still might be no time to sing expressively or to let the words 'sink in' with the listener for effect. A song is a story, and I personally feel that good storytelling vocal dynamics are desirable.  I don't mean silly dramatics here, but a 'roll off the tongue' cadence and some expression and perhaps some 'make em wait for it' pauses that make the song more enjoyable.  We are gleaning material from minstrel shows, after all.

I feel that instrumental tunes are not completely free of these same approaches common to singing.  Just because they don't have words doesn't mean we can disregard all the things that can make a song more pleasurable to both musician and audience.  I feel anything you can do in singing dynamics can translate over to instrumental playing, and in instrumental pieces these things are a wonderful source of enhancements too often overlooked in favor of impressive technical gymnastics and speed.

I'm not saying everything should be played slowly.  In old-time music, the rush towards playing everything faster has continued for several decades now.  I prefer a greater range of tempos, which offers more variety.  Unfortunately what used to be considered moderate tempo 20 years ago is now considered by most old-time players to be insufferably slow.  One result for me personally is that my fiddler husband and I go to gatherings less often and play more together at home or with a very few friends.  Old-time festival session tempos have begun to sound a little more more like chipmunks playing on 78's.  Our answer to the rush to 'hard driving' session is what we call our 'Ultra wide/Low drive' sessions.  We play some things real slooow and greasy and some things very high energy.   We savor both, and we mindfully discuss the best tempo for each piece.  Sometimes we have a guest friend come and play with us or spend the weekend, and at the end of a slow tune they may say "Can we play that a little faster now?" and we simply say "No, we don't like it faster."   lol!!  Since it's our house, we can get away with it.   =8-P

I don't think there is any harm in sleuthing it out towards an early conception. This in itself will provide discussion and comparison. It should not, however, limit the new life and interpretations the music can offer. Just so it is sort of clear......what the intent is.

On the subject of Tempo, I am still a beginner to these songs, even when I learn them and they sound fairly tight, I still don't execute them in the same manner as some of our more proficient players are able to do. Then when it comes to trying to sing over a tune it becomes even harder and maintaining the tempo which I was in while learning the song completely changes. But this is part of the organic process when learning an instrument and then vocalizing,... it changes. But having some home base is good so you have something to go by.

For me the whole attraction with this PERIOD MUSIC is just that... I like the period from which all this evolved and I want it to sound like it. I want to stay with the method of the stroke style. And I agree with Mark whole heartily, as you might not want to hear a pop song Bluegrass-a-fied, nor do I want to hear one of these songs made to sound like a contemporary country song.  What is really cool, is  that the tone from these banjos can blend into a nice tapestry of sound with other like instruments when creating new songs. These banjo's have such a nostalgic sound. I guess, in the end anyone can have creative license over how they want to portray this music, right? You just can't say that your covering Minstrel style songs when your bringing something new to the method, and interpretation.  When seeking something old and traditional you don't want to hear it done in a modern way....At least I don't

Beginners ... don't sell yourselves short. What a beautiful sound it is to hear a minstrel tune, simply played at a medium tempo. That's the only reason I ever got into this.

Amen Terry.   What a wonderful reminder.    :)

Not wanting to belabor a point (but i will anyway)...my husband and I can play old-time tunes pretty fast if we want.  But at home we often play things nice and slow or medium tempo.  Here's an example, with me on my gourd banjo.  Every time we play this tune with friends, they ask to speed it up, they say it sounds too drag-y.  I always resist, because every time we play it faster as a favor, it just loses its beauty and mystery, and it only makes me sad, to know how lovely it could have been.

On the other hand, jigs and hornpipes and such do cry out for a certain momentum!

Tim, can you clarify what you mean by "I don't think there is any harm in sleuthing it out towards an early conception."  I am not really sure what you mean to say in that sentence...?  What's an early conception?

It so is...and it evokes a feeling that hits me very hard in my gut, can't explain it. I also Dress up and reenact, not trying or actually live in a bygone era but there is a familiarity that I find comforting, and am able to go back and shake hands with an era that feels familiar. Nothing wrong with representing history, and giving it an accurate interpretation. Thanks for the beginner encouragement...it's coming along.

 

Bell Banjos said:

Beginners ... don't sell yourselves short. What a beautiful sound it is to hear a minstrel tune, simply played at a medium tempo. That's the only reason I ever got into this.

What I meant was....I don't see anything wrong with trying to capture the sound of the early players...getting inside their head with good instruments, repertoire, and music. I meant that as long as people don't declare their version as gospel, I'm good with it. I value this forum as a tool to explore interpretations. It is better to say"I don't care for it" as opposed to "It's wrong". I still like the idea of trying to figure out where it all came from. Any historian will share the same passion.

Ah, I see what you were saying.  Yes, absolutely.

I'm sure if we were able to go back in time and actually hear/see this music being played, we would find that a lot of our guesses have been correct...but there'd be a lot of eye-opening surprises as well, especially in terms of creative variation. 

I remember what a surprise it was for me years ago to 'discover' the huge popularity of off color double-entendre mainstream postcards sent through the mail around 1910.  I was so naive to think most folks were pretty straight-laced back then!   ;)

Well spoken Strumelia. I'm quite familiar with the current speed and small-mindedness of the old-time community. My wife and I have a duo called Little Windows. We often sing unaccompanied ballads or play tunes at speeds that we believe were more appropriate for the era, and everyone thinks that it is so slow. It is easy to  allow the pace of modern life to limit our ability to approach broader musical formats (just like watching older, slow moving movies is such a drag for younger people). Just reflect for instance, on the speed at which Roscoe Holcombe sang a song verses how that same piece would be done today!   

http://www.littlewindows.net/music/homesacross.mp3


Strumelia said:

I'm not a very good stroke style player, but i do have some old-time fiddle/banjo/ballad experience where the same issues come into play. 

A song with lyrics can be played at a tempo where you can squeeze all the words in with no problem- yet there still might be no time to sing expressively or to let the words 'sink in' with the listener for effect. A song is a story, and I personally feel that good storytelling vocal dynamics are desirable.  I don't mean silly dramatics here, but a 'roll off the tongue' cadence and some expression and perhaps some 'make em wait for it' pauses that make the song more enjoyable.  We are gleaning material from minstrel shows, after all.

I feel that instrumental tunes are not completely free of these same approaches common to singing.  Just because they don't have words doesn't mean we can disregard all the things that can make a song more pleasurable to both musician and audience.  I feel anything you can do in singing dynamics can translate over to instrumental playing, and in instrumental pieces these things are a wonderful source of enhancements too often overlooked in favor of impressive technical gymnastics and speed.

I'm not saying everything should be played slowly.  In old-time music, the rush towards playing everything faster has continued for several decades now.  I prefer a greater range of tempos, which offers more variety.  Unfortunately what used to be considered moderate tempo 20 years ago is now considered by most old-time players to be insufferably slow.  One result for me personally is that my fiddler husband and I go to gatherings less often and play more together at home or with a very few friends.  Old-time festival session tempos have begun to sound a little more more like chipmunks playing on 78's.  Our answer to the rush to 'hard driving' session is what we call our 'Ultra wide/Low drive' sessions.  We play some things real slooow and greasy and some things very high energy.   We savor both, and we mindfully discuss the best tempo for each piece.  Sometimes we have a guest friend come and play with us or spend the weekend, and at the end of a slow tune they may say "Can we play that a little faster now?" and we simply say "No, we don't like it faster."   lol!!  Since it's our house, we can get away with it.   =8-P

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