Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

Plenty of references to go by. There is the Levy Sheet music collection, the Ethiopian Glee Book, Briggs, Rice, and Buckley 1860 ( Joe Sweeney Jig ) as well as Weidlich and Fleshers tab.

Play and discuss at will.

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My book, the Music of Old Joe Sweeny, contains three different tab/notation versions of the song. One is a tab version of the straight melody as found on the 1840 sheet music, the other two versions are what we would tend to identify more today as "banjo versions". 

One thing I just noticed in the original sheet music were the fermatas at the end of each vocal phrase. I have never done that, nor heard anyone do that. That is something I will experiment with as I do it this week.

These are phrasing things overlooked, much like Jim Along Josey.

I'll check that out in my copy of your book, Mark!

Mark Weems said:

My book, the Music of Old Joe Sweeny, contains three different tab/notation versions of the song. One is a tab version of the straight melody as found on the 1840 sheet music, the other two versions are what we would tend to identify more today as "banjo versions". 

Tim, can you explain to folks what a 'fermata' is ?  Yes, these phrasings/pauses are there because it is a song.

I think it's too easy to sweep aside the fact that so many of these pieces are SONGS, and approach them as fancy music exercises.  There's a danger of flattening them all into a sort of sameness.  No to mention they get played way faster than anyone can sing them (or dance to them), and over time it just becomes the standard way to play them.  This happens a lot in oldtime music as well.



Tim Twiss said:

One thing I just noticed in the original sheet music were the fermatas at the end of each vocal phrase. I have never done that, nor heard anyone do that. That is something I will experiment with as I do it this week.

These are phrasing things overlooked, much like Jim Along Josey.

A fermata is a note that us held for dramatic effect. No set length to it really, but it is signifies a break in the action.

True, we can never understand the original performance of a piece of music without hearing it, but there are so many clues available to us.....we can be music detectives and try.

What you said Lisa......and we find that in modern times, illustrated by jazz. If you listen to the original song being sung in say, the swing era and then hear the bebop instrumental jam later, they are just...different things. Honor the tune.

Strumelia said:

Tim, can you explain to folks what a 'fermata' is ?  Yes, these phrasings/pauses are there because it is a song.

I think it's too easy to sweep aside the fact that so many of these pieces are SONGS, and approach them as fancy music exercises.  There's a danger of flattening them all into a sort of sameness.  No to mention they get played way faster than anyone can sing them (or dance to them), and over time it just becomes the standard way to play them.  This happens a lot in oldtime music as well.



Tim Twiss said:

One thing I just noticed in the original sheet music were the fermatas at the end of each vocal phrase. I have never done that, nor heard anyone do that. That is something I will experiment with as I do it this week.

These are phrasing things overlooked, much like Jim Along Josey.

But in lkooking aty Briggs, with his frequent use of fermata's they are almost always marked on barlines, not notes. I always read them as his way of marking a fine, since they are pretty much routinely at the end of the tunes.

Preach it Sister Lisa!

Strumelia said:

Tim, can you explain to folks what a 'fermata' is ?  Yes, these phrasings/pauses are there because it is a song.

I think it's too easy to sweep aside the fact that so many of these pieces are SONGS, and approach them as fancy music exercises.  There's a danger of flattening them all into a sort of sameness.  No to mention they get played way faster than anyone can sing them (or dance to them), and over time it just becomes the standard way to play them.  This happens a lot in oldtime music as well.



Tim Twiss said:

One thing I just noticed in the original sheet music were the fermatas at the end of each vocal phrase. I have never done that, nor heard anyone do that. That is something I will experiment with as I do it this week.

These are phrasing things overlooked, much like Jim Along Josey.

These pauses at the end of vocal phrases are something very common to unaccompanied traditional Appalachain ballad singing...indeed it's found in the Anglo 'roots' of those same singing traditions and ballads/songs as well.  The pauses were not simply inserted as a place to catch the breath, but were rather an important part of the structure, cadence & syncopation, and overall dynamics of the piece.  They add a delicious and dramatic anticipatory or pondering element that gets lost when one pushes on through tunes as instrumental gymnastics.  Personally, I would much rather hear Jim Along Josie including the vocals and that fascinating pause- so much richer!  (love the way you do it Tim, by the way).

I want to work on my ability to sing and play some simple minstrel songs.  I find it very hard to sing and play at the same time, so even attempting something at the most basic beginner level would be more a 'tune of the month' for me.  I'm a middling singer and a mostly novice stroke player, but to put both together is really really hard for me.  It's far outside my comfort level and i need to work on it and worry less about how much I stumble.  If I could sing and play Black Cat White Cat even at an excruciatingly rank beginner level, it would mean way more to me than being able to plow a complex jig or cotillion without tripping up.  That's just my own personal goals of course, everyone is different. 

Call and response narrative is another vocal-based structure that is apt to fall by the wayside when playing popular old songs songs strictly as tunes.  For example, I've always heard a call and response flavor to Goin Ober the Mountain and felt it strongly 'suggested' alternating verse and then a pretty melody echo.. yet played as an instrumental it seems to lose any need for alternating anything at all.

(an aside: anyone besides me ever hear a weird connection between Goin Ober the Mountain and Dueling Banjos intro?...how about someone injecting the Deliverance phrase in the middle of performing Goin Ober, just to see if the audience is paying attention?  I can envision it at Antietam!)   ;D



Tim Twiss said:

One thing I just noticed in the original sheet music were the fermatas at the end of each vocal phrase. I have never done that, nor heard anyone do that.

Do you try to play the lines while you sing i.e. written arrangements?

2 acceptable alternatives are a complete doubling of the melody on the banjo, or simple comping with the chord. I think most players use a combination of all these.  

I haven't played much banjo lately...usually only to figure out the best keys for some music that's not in the minstrel genre.  But, when I have "tried" to sing a song with banjo, I plunked around on the chords.

I should say that maybe one thing that led me to that was Bob Flesher's rendition of "Oh, I'se So Wicked" on the "Minstrel Banjo Style" CD.  I actually like the accompaniment behind the singing as much as the instrumental breaks.  Admittedly, it's not appropriate for everything but I loved that driving undercurrent!

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