Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

Thinking more and more about these interpretive and subtle differences between "stroke" and "clawhammer". Labels force us to think about it one way or another, and maybe that is not always the best thing. There is however something different between interpretive styles that is difficult to discern, at least in words. I feel it is in the groove of the backbeat, brought out by the "ditty". The way the strings are struck enables the groove to move in different ways. As I interpret the early books and the description of executing the right hand, "down" means more of a direction toward the head of the banjo. "Down" can also the direction of the floor, creating a different angle and motion of the hand. The same tune played both ways has a slightly different effect. Pure "stroke" grooves in a different way. Compound this with the fact that most of the Briggs' tunes play well both ways. Many of them serve as accompaniments to vocal tunes of the day.

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That makes sense. And most clawers and pickers know 'of' him at least. It sounds good. He WAS the man, wasn't he?

Well, if we're going to revisit the old "what shall we call our style" discussion, I'll profess to preferring to call it Minstrel style.  The genre certainly was the dominant vehicle for banjoists in the mid-19th century, if not the only one (dances, campfires). Second, the term has actually been in use for quite a while now--I recall a friend describing "minstrel style" to me back in the 80's (I didn't comprehend.)  And to the potentially offensive or off-putting aspects of minstrelsy-- well, minstrelsy is freakly little business--let's go ahead and put it up front and talk to people about the bad and the good--although few people care about such things nowadays.  Just my two cents.

The thread is moving sideways a bit, which is fine. My original point was to examine the motion of the right hand to see how it affects the rhythmic lilt of a performance, i.e. a motion straight "down" towards the head of the banjo-sort of a "binary motion" of up and down, or drawing the hand more towards the floor, simulating a mild strumming motion...especially on the back beats.   

Let me see if I can muddy the waters further... I think the term "clawhammer" is only a loose term to distinguish from all forms of up-picking (2 finger or 3 finger).  The essential ingredient of "clawhammer" is the down-stroke, with the back of the fingernail striking the string or strings.  Under the "clawhammer" heading there are many different styles: Round Peak, Galax, melodic, etc. etc. - each is different, and it seems to me individual players play these styles a bit differently.  But the one thing that links all of these "clawhammer" styles is the back of the fingernail hitting the string or strings.  Sometimes the down stroke will be toward the floor, sometimes it will be toward the head of the banjo (giving the appearance of "grabbing" the strings, and sometimes producing a thudding sound on the head).  I've seen Old-Time clawhammerers playing both ways.  In going from Old-Time playing (southern Appalachian) to Early Banjo, I found the transition mostly "natural", except (so far) in pieces that require a thumb-lead (which "normally" is not done in southern clawhammer styles), and pieces where you play two thumbs in a row (on two beats) on different strings (like in Kentucky Juba, for one).  

I was playing for a little crowd a while back. The people were REALLY insterested in my Boucher before I even started playing it. A lady was scooching her chair closer and said, "What do you call that? It's a banjo, right?" At this point I thought that if I said it's a minstrel banjo maybe that wouldn't be the perfect answer. I said, "Well, it's a replica of a banjo from before Civil War times and they played minstrel music on them in the minstrel shows and the soldiers played them too a couple decades later. The lady was fascinated with the 6 wingnuts. Her husband was in the back talking to another guy, "Bing Crosby did a minstrel act." I had to jump on that fast. I said, "There are songs you've heard like the Stephen Foster songs, and a lot you haven't. Let me play you one. All the sudden somebody yelled out, "Play the lumbering song!!" (a song I used to sing and play on my clawhammer banjo) Then a buddy walked in, smiling, and yelled "Dandy Jim, Terry,...the OLD version." and he was laughing. Everything was going haywire. I pulled a board up under my feet like I do sometimes outside, started stomping and went into Circus Jig. No more questions after that. Afterwards I heard somebody say, "It's a goatskin for God's sake, it's a Civil War minstrel Bing Crosby banjo." The lady from earlier came up and said, "It's just a banjo, isn't it? Because everything that came after it was different. My husband's got a "Toner" banjo. But it doesn't have that little string. A "Ding" went off in my head. I said, "Yup it's one of the first 5 string banjos."  A few months later she showed up where I was playing at the fairgrounds. She came up and said, "I just had to hear that banjo again."  Maybe we should all stand up and say, "This is a banjo."

I started calling it Minstrel Era banjo.  That defines the when, and avoids the how.

Pre-Minstrel era ...   :-)


I think I'll just start calling it "hot banjo."

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