Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

I was at a civil war event this past weekend.  Elaine and I were contracted to do some performances and to do a school day presentation for 600 students.  There was another musician there who was very talented, and could play a number of instruments.  However...

He pulls out an 1890s banjo, and says that it is one.  However he then says that this is the same as the banjos of the civil war era.  He then told the kids he would play in a civil war era style, and proceeded to play in a style that was part guitar style, part Scruggs. 

I talked to him afterwards saying that his 1890s banjo was nothing like a civil war era banjo.  He asked me what was different.  I started ticking off the differences and he was starting to get defensive.  I then told him that there might have been fretted banjos, but if there were they were the exception, not the rule.  He refused to believe me. He said that fretted banjos were around from the 1840 and insisted that Sweeney played a fretted banjo.  I just walked away.  There was no sense in going any farther. 

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Comment by John Masciale on September 28, 2015 at 3:09pm

Dan'l,  I think you mean Bobby Horton.  I've met him and discussed music with him.  He never pretended to have a completely authentic sound.  Certainly the banjo playing has nothing to do with a civil war sound.  His violins and guitars are period instruments, even if his keyboards and banjos are not.  However, I give Bobby a lot of respect for the research he does into the music.  I don't think I have ever found him playing music outside of the era, and he has more than a dozen CDs.  I can't say that for the musician I encountered this past weekend.  Let's just say that I believe the guy has a vivid imagination.

Comment by Al Smitley on September 28, 2015 at 3:36pm

It's hard to know how to approach such performers.  I went to a local library program when they had a CW reenactor.  I noticed that he had a "lemon peel" base ball on the table, the kind that we use for the 1860s game.  During his presentation, he talked about Abner Doubleday and said that he did not invent the game of baseball but was responsible for "codifying" it.  I emailed this person the next day (rather than approach him during his presentation) and explained that Abner Doubleday had absolutely nothing to do with baseball and tried to give him references in that direction.  I tried to plan my approach so as not to offend him yet felt an obligation to attempt to halt the continued inaccuracy in his presentation.  His response, I felt, was defensive as well.  I have little confidence that he changed his future presentations.  And, by the way, Dan'l, this guy was a Santa-and-a-half.

Comment by John Masciale on September 29, 2015 at 9:30am

This gentleman recently published an album on Abraham Lincoln.  From the way he dresses I would say he has no interest in doing any kind of accurate living history presentation.  Some of the bands I know that are "old timey" might not dress the best but they research and play period music for dances.  Not this guy, who was playing several post period pieces of music.  I'm not saying he didn't do any research at all, there were some elements of accuracy to what he said, but in certain areas he was way off the mark.  Of course, we tend to be purists.  I'd much rather hear the music played on period instruments and in a period style.


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