Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

As many of you know, I have been exploring the music of Virginia and North Carolina in both the colonial era and the early american period in order to determine its influence on early banjo music. So here is a question. Jigs, and by that I mean an actual 6/8 time signature, compromise about a third of the tunes in my colonial music collections. But by the time we get to the banjo books/tutors, this is what we find. Preceptor has 7 jigs out of 46 pieces; Briggs has 4 out of 70; Rice has none, Buckley only 3 out of 130, Green Converse has 8 out of 83. Overall this represents only 5-6 % of the total repertoire, which is pretty insignificant. Now we have documentation that banjo's were being played alongside fiddles as early as the 1790's, and it would be easy to conjecture that banjo rhythms (reels are indeed much easier overall to play than jigs) effected the dropout of this time signature - but that would be assuming that the Briggs like bum ditty structure also found in clawhammer, as opposed to a more melodic style, was the prevalent form of the period, which we can't necessarily conclude from evidence, only conjecture. Perhaps it was indeed the prevalent form and this spelled the Jig's demise. Or perhaps the 6/8 time signature simply passed out of fashion like the minuet? But considering the large Irish immigration after the 1840's and the many Irish who were on the Minstrel stage, it is curious that they did not make a comeback - unless the Irish, chomping at the bits to become "American" just preferred not to play them. But jigs are certainly perfectly playable using Early Banjo Style and are fun, although sometimes challenging to play. Any thoughts on the matter?

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Mark: You and your research would probably know more than anyone but I share your inquisitiveness.  Jigs, that is 6/8 time, seemed to hold on in the north.  We used them a lot to play dances and the old-timers who learned their tunes from those before (rather than I who learned more from records/cassettes) were still using them.  I used to think that jigs lost favor in the southern regions because of the banjo, just as you surmise.  But, you are right, I have found, since picking up the early banjo style, that 6/8 time seems to work well on banjo after all, making me think that my theory from years ago has no validity.  I wonder, also, what happened to 9/8 slip jigs.  You can find a lot of them in Ryan's but I rarely, if ever, have heard them outside of Irish sessions.  No insights here, just climbing on board!

Good topic. Being that much of the Early Banjo material was linked to vocal songs, perhaps there is proportionally fewer things vocally adapted to the jig style?  Maybe compare the proportion to the Ethiopian Glee Book also.

Good point, I'll take a look. I've also found out that in the colonial period Reels were group dances whereas the Jigs were solo or duo dances. But John Diamond and Master Juba were known to dance to actual jigs, however, there are none in Sweeny's early repertoire, so maybe it was to fiddle?

I took a course in collage (last century) called History of Jazz. One of the topics was the African influence on European music. I remember the instructor saying that African polyrhythms accounted for the shift and the larger African population in the South accounted for the difference in Northern and Southern stylistic differences. I wish I could remember more, or had saved some of the notes.

Well, more generally, there's a lot of mutation from jig to march.  Double-jigs (BUM-da-da Bum-da-da) despite being based on triple-time, group those three-note phrases in such a way that they can pretty easily be rendered in "square" time, either 2/4 or 4/4 and a number of Irish jigs seem to have gone down that road.  I wonder (and I certainly don't know) if that may be why a lot of jig melodies seemed to vanish over time.  More specifically, I wonder if the basic melodies may have been re-cast in a "square" meter, thus losing their identity as jigs.  Does that fit at all with your observations, or are you describing a different process that involved the melodies being lost in any form?  If the latter, than obviously my speculation wouldn't fit the observed pattern.

I've been collecting topical songs from 1820-1861, some of which were published in sheet music (and thus, for the most part, had original melodies), some published in various genres of songbooks, and others as songsheets.  In the latter two the verses were usually to be sung to specific melodies, supposedly familiar to most of that period.

For what it may be worth, of 137 different melodies used, here is the breakdown:

2/4 - 43   (31%)

4/4 - 41   (30%)

6/8 - 38   (28%)

3/4 - 12   ( 9%)

9/8 -  2    ( 1%)

3/8 -  1    ( 1%)

Perhaps it is significant that most of the publishing companies were in the north east(?)

I'll expand on that a bit, to include 58 instrumental pieces with topical titles between 1820-1861.....

         Songs(137)   Instrumentals(58)         Total(195)

2/4       43 (31%)                32 (55%)             75 (38%)

4/4       41 (30%)                 9  (16%)             50 (26%)

6/8       38 (28%)                10 (17%)             48 (25%)

3/4       12 ( 9%)                   4 ( 7%)              16 ( 8%)

3/8        1 ( 1%)                    3 ( 5%)                4 ( 2%)

9/8        2 ( 1%)                    0                        2 ( 1%)

I've been enjoying lots of them in the Kerr's book. There are many, the B sections never get too twisty. Converse seems to be the guy to pull them out, and has some in the "Old Cremona Songster" if anybody has checked that out.....very cool, but certainly different from the other books.

It is such an old dance form....dating way back. I'll be watching for more of your music you are digging out from this time Mark.

I used to play all kinds of old time music at parties and bars. It seemed everyone could dance or make up a dance to our reels, hornpipes, waltzes etc... but there were only about 6 gals in the whole thumb area of Michigan who could do a jig. When folks would TRY to jig, they'd look like a drunken marionette or something.

Bob - yes! I find that if I'm not concentrating hard on a 6/8 time, I can easily slip into some more squared off version.

Interesting data, Al. It looks like as far as songs go, they were pretty much just as popular as the reels. While as instrumentals and in the actual banjo books, they take a back seat. So maybe we cannot say that they fell out of fashion exactly. It could also be that most banjo players, in the folk tradition at least, were more comfortable, or simply more drawn to, playing simple forms of rhythmic accompaniment to the fiddle tunes and this contributed over time to their being reduced to such a small roll. I mean, I can take a complete beginner banjo student and have them playing the reel Old Jonny Boker in a month or two. But to get them up to the point where they can play the jig Haste To the Wedding for instance, would require a much more advanced skill set that many might not have had the time or the inclination for. Certainly, as you and Tim point out, they continued in popularity in the fiddle music of the period.

Perhaps worth mentioning regarding the difference in the ratio in songs as compared to the ratio in instrumentals (in my admittedly limited sample) is that most all the instrumentals, I presume, were composed at the time and for publication, whereas the melodies for songs, at least those used for verses in song books and song sheets were already-established melodies, presumably remaining familiar to people of the period, but which may have been composed at earlier times by those such as Robert Burns and others, though some such as "Oh! Susanna" were "parodied" within the same year that the original was published.  I guess what I'm saying is generally that the melodies for songs probably tended to predate the melodies for instrumentals.

The same sort of shift happened in the18th and early 19th centuries to the 3/2 hornpipe. These kind of time signatures do seem to have held over in Hymnals.

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