Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo


August 3, 2011


Firstly, thank you Bob for welcoming me into this forum. I am not yet a strong banjo player, though I think I have aptitude for this instrument. Time will tell. I've been learning mostly the string band and solo old time styles of banjo common among "Old Time" players. It has been, without a doubt, the most exciting musical experience for me in quite a long time. That I've gone almost 20 years without knowing much about the banjo or it's history is a bit embarrassing to admit, and it's true.


I studied some classical for a quite a few years before I was married. The music "spoke" to me but other distractions prevented me from continuing along that path. The banjo speaks to me a way unlike most instruments that I've chanced to experience. Particularly the more modal, droning, melodies found among the old time repertoire of string band/dance music. Most recently I've been exposed to the Hammons family. Just wonderful. 


I'm here more as an amateur scholar rather than an enthusiast of the minstrel sound. It hasn't spoken to me as  yet, though I suspect the voices of this music are lurking about ready to catch me. Just a suspicion of mine. The banjo just keeps surprising me. I went to a performance by bluegrass picker and historian Bill Evans. He played music spanning from early minstrel tunes through his primary language of bluegrass. I found the minstrel tunes and much of the classical banjo playing quite interesting. I had already begun my re-education about banjo history and as such have come to know that black people, the earliest Africans in this country, played a significant role in helping to develop and establish the banjo as a "new" musical voice in America.


I have always been interested in the history of music, and to perhaps a great extent, the "essence" of a culture's musical voice.  There is a clear American voice that has come to dominate music in the 20th century. I have engaged in countless discussions with fans of 20th century music - particularly Jazz enthusiasts - who seem unable to contribute to discussions about music before 1900 (or even 1920!).

My question has always been, "What factors contribute the particular sounds of American music?" Myself, a product of a British-Caribbean culture, a folk drummer versed primarily in the religious music of Haiti, and the secular music of Trinidad, Guyana, and Jamaica, and a child of 1970s New York City, comes to the world of Minstrel Banjo playing as an Inuit might comes to the river Congo. I'm clueless! And it's exciting, for sure!


Questions I hope to explore through recommended literature and time spent working on selected tunes include: what influence have early black banjo players had on the development of the minstrel style; what influence have minstrel musicians had on shaping the music that preceded ragtime and jazz; what knowledge did minstrel musicians have of black musicians and how were these black musicians regarded; are there any transcriptions of black minstrel repertoire available for review; what was the purpose of minstrel banjo music - dancing, accompanying verse, listening, etc.; what was the historical relationship between rural stringband music and urban minstrel performances and which direction did the music generally move - rural to urban or the other way around; and perhaps most importantly for me, are the notated syncopated rhythms meant to be performed "as written" or were these mere suggestions to be navigated and approached on a player-by-player basis?


I am primarily interested in how African music has influenced what, today, we call American popular music. In this interest, there is room for the influences of the myriad cultures which rightfully deserve equal attention. Yet, I suspect (because I don't know) that much has been written about Europe's influence on Minstrelsy and little is written about the role of African music and it's affect on the transformation of music in the 18th and 19th centuries.


I look forward to learning from all of you and, if time permits, developing an awareness of how Minstrel music "works" so that I can experience some of the magic that has brought to you the music and kept you at it for all these years.


I want learn about the history of the word nigger in the context of it's use by Minstrel composers and performers. For some reason, I'm always drawn to old time songs with the word "nigger" in the title.


I wish more black musicians, both old time and non-old time enthusiasts, could join this discussion. I'll do my part to invite them to learn from the rich body of information I believe awaits me through our discussions.


Kind regards to all,


The Black Minstrel Sleuth

(aka, Guy)



Views: 79

Comment by Guy de Chalus on August 4, 2011 at 12:20am
Ewwww, some typos. I'm tired and need new glasses ASAP! But the sentiments seem to represent me well. More later.
Comment by Guy de Chalus on August 4, 2011 at 12:21am

Arggghhh,, "what influences have"  NOT "what influence have" (Just awful. I'll work on this for future posts.)



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