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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Mark, your wife and you sound incredible. I hope you have a CD !?!

Why thank you Terry. Sure, we have quite a few recordings. www.littlewindows.net

Well, I for one, would give a small body part to hear old Joe Sweeney shred on an electric gourd banjo plugged into a stack of Marshall's with a bass and drum kit!

Nicholas A Bechtel said:

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

Well there ya go...

Mark Weems said:

Well, I for one, would give a small body part to hear old Joe Sweeney shred on an electric gourd banjo plugged into a stack of Marshall's with a bass and drum kit!

Nicholas A Bechtel said:

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

In my presentation at the AEBG in June, my goal was to encourage stroke players to introduce variation into their playing (see my recent announcement here that I have posted material from that presentation on my website). I was very much concerned with rhythm in that presentation, but not specifically with tempo. I agree with Tim that trying to get inside the heads of early players is a worthwhile activity. But even if we were very successful at that, I doubt that we could come up with any viable single notion of an appropriate tempo for stroke banjo playing, not that I think Tim is looking for such a thing. Given what others in this discussion have pointed out about the tendency of contemporary revivalist players of old-time banjo (and fiddle) and also bluegrass banjoists to play with increasing speed, one can always fall back on the old advice, "Faster is not always better," especially since most of us have come to minstrel banjo from old-time or bluegrass. But, more to the point, variation must have been the order of the day regarding tempo, given the very nature of a minstrel show performance. The vast majority of the music in a minstrel show was vocal. Tempo would surely vary depending on the nature of the song (mostly sentimental vs comic) and the necessity to choose tempos which would easily accommodate the flow of the words so as to make them understandable. And as Strumelia wisely notes, a good singer would vary tempos within a song, speeding up or slowing down or delaying a bit for dramatic effect. An accompaniment on banjo could keep pace with the vocal variations, or, sometimes to great effect, the singer could could anticipate or delay a word while his banjo accompaniment stays strictly on the beat. Strictly instrumental music appeared mostly in two forms: music for dancing and performances to show instrumental virtuosity. The tempo for dance music would be determined, variably, by the dancers. Although instrumental virtuosity does not require up-tempo playing, the inclusion of lots of notes played rapidly certainly is a common way to show virtuosity. All that I have said here is fairly obvious, but it does suggest that tempo depends on a lot of variables. In terms of how this fact might influence your playing, this brings us back to Tim's idea of getting inside the heads of early banjo players, in the sense of thinking about what is the particular function (as above) of a piece you are about to play, and determine the tempo accordingly. At different times you might play the same piece at different tempos based on imagining different functions for it each time.

Bob, thanks for all that- terrific thoughts.

I would elaborate further on it this way as well-  just as when old-time fiddle tunes tend to now be played much faster once they are removed from their original function as a dance base, so might the minstrel songs be made faster once players aren't singing the words along with them.  It makes me ponder, because I'd wager that most of us newer members here are not primarily singers, and too we tend to play the tutor pieces as instrumentals because our main interest seems to be more in the banjo aspect of minstrel music.  I myself find it near impossible to sing while i'm playing.

If this becomes more of a trend in the apparent current increasing interest in minstrel music, ...the playing of stroke style banjo songs without the singing...then will we be seeing that same speeding up of tempo in general that we have seen in both the old-time and bluegrass circles?

P.S. I feel compelled to add that I am no expert in anything musical, but i do so much enjoy discussing thoughts and ideas on things musical...and that I feel honored to be allowed to do that here amongst so many of you who are more knowledgeable than I.

Bob's point of vocal / instrumental renditions..... I point back to the jazz analogy....think of Billie Holiday singing a tune, and then imagine the instrumental variations with extreme tempo variations. While music back then was not so much a vehicle for extended improvisation like jazz is today, I would feel certain that the instrumentals were speeded up sometimes. Look to the Briggs' book....mostly vocal tunes. These are ones that we petty much burn through. If you don't sing them, their appeal is limited.

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