If you are playing in D, tuning the bass string to A is useful. There are a couple of songs where I will move the string up to A, it can really simplify playing. However, I normally leave the string at G, I find that there is much more versatility to the instrument with that tuning. There are a number of songs where I really like thunking that bass note.
The idea is to have a correct relative tuning. gCGBD, dGDF#A, and eAEG#B are all equivalent. I play all of the converse/rice/buckley stuff using Briggs tuning, and I know that I am not alone in doing this. If you are playing on your own, it doesn't really matter. Where this becomes an issue is when you are playing with other people. Some people prefer the higher string tension of the A/E tuning, and some like the lower bass of the G/D tuning. I find that when I play with other instruments, for the most part the G/D (Briggs) tuning is the more useful of the two.
If you have perfect pitch, this is likely to drive you crazy. I have very good relative pitch, and it took me a while to get past the expectation that the dots on the page meant a certain pitch, rather than a relationship between pitches.
Jim, we all mostly use the Briggs tuning for all the material, for simplicity's sake, I assume, so go ahead and use it even though you're playing from other tutors. Like John said, it's a correct relative tuning, so don't worry about the actual pitch. (That was the American way in the 19th century, true story).
As far as "only using dGDF#A" as you said, there are tunes that will force you to use "high bass," or dADF#A, because of the left-hand fingering, like "Rattlesnake Jig" in the Green Converse, and others. Point is, you should get used to using both tunings. (The low bass is probably more often used.)
The Weidlich-Converse tab book is from the Yellow, not the Green Converse. They are both from 1865 but they're two different books. The "Rattlesnake Jig" found in each book are different tunes. The Rattlesnake Jig in the Yellow Converse is an instrumental version of "Hoop De Do'n Do," a popular minstrel air. (The colorized cover of the Weidlich Minstrel tab compilation is from the sheet music for this song.) The Rattlesnake Jig in the Green Converse is a tricky little high-bass banjo tune, presumabably written by Converse himself.
And re: misprints in the Weidlich books, you're definitely gonna find them.
Jim Thorn said:
I looked more closely at Joseph Weidlich's books, and I see that he doesn't indicate the fourth string should be raised for Rattlesnake Jig. Is this an error?
Furthermore, there is no indication at all which songs in the green Converse should be played in high bass, and which should be played in low bass. In his transcription of Briggs' Banjo Instructor, only "Pitch Burgundy Plaster" and "This Side of Jordan" are to be played in high bass. Did Joe Weidlich or his printer mislabel a few songs as low bass that should be played in high bass?
Carl, thank you. This is good to know, about the Weidlich Converse tab book being of the Converse Yellow (not Green) book.
The whole high/low bass thing and the tunings/keys really took me a long time to wrap my head around. It helped when i started playing with a fiddler and they pointed out how/when I was changing keys yet not changing tunings. Also stumbling on tunes where I really needed to raise the bass string- made me stop and realize that I was also changing keys when I did that. Sometimes, what might seem obvious to some requires hands-on learning for others (like me).