Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

L. M. Gottschalk's "The Banjo" on a banjo

For more information go to www.palouserivermusic.com. This is a performance by Paul Ely Smith on fretless gourd banjo of his "back-engineered" ver...

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Comment by Greg Adams on July 16, 2010 at 2:19pm
I was very impressed with what Paul Smith accomplished here.
Comment by Rob MacKillop on July 16, 2010 at 3:29pm
Shall I be the Devil's Advocate? I'm not so sure about that - smacks of the classical guitar mentality - 'look what complex music I can play on the guitar/banjo'. It sounds better on the piano, in my extremely humble opinion, where it should have stayed.

Paul's playing, on the other hand, is amazing!

Sorry, Paul, but there's something not quite right about it. But I'm probably alone in my opinion.
Comment by Trapdoor2 on July 16, 2010 at 3:36pm
Cool! Paul's first LP was a huge influence on me back in the mid '80's. His version of "Ragtime Nightengale" (Lamb, arranged for 5-string openback by Paul) simply jumped all over me. I caught up with him a few years ago via a websearch and we exchanged a few emails, etc. Nice guy, he sent me a copy of his second LP "Ellipsis". I like the piano version, it will be interesting to hear Pauls arrangement!
Comment by Trapdoor2 on July 16, 2010 at 5:56pm
Ok, now I've heard it!

Um, I'm partially with you there Rob. It sounds overcomplex...but there is a core of history coming out of all that, that I really like. Paul has done the "reverse engineering" to discover the "banjo" in a period piano piece and I enjoy hearing it. Gottshalk was an 'entertainer' and in my mind his pieces have that rough and rowdy flavor of New Orleans...which comes out in this performance.

What a right hand Paul has! He has a bass-string technique that is very personal. I bet you could have played this piece for me blindfolded and I could have identified the player.

Ok, who else would be playing Gottshalk? ;-) Still, that snappy bass is a give-away to my ears.
Comment by Jim Dalton on July 18, 2010 at 11:43am
I heard Paul play this live about 15 years ago. Excellent playing but...

I'm with Rob on this -- I haven't changed my opinion in 15 years. What's the purpose of imitating a piano that's imitating the banjo?

Transcription is a tricky business with some pitfalls. I recall a paper from a Society of American Music conference in the early '90s (it was still called the Sonneck Society, I believe) in which someone proposed that we need a new edition of the Foster songs with guitar because Foster's original guitar versions of the songs had different intros and accompaniments than the piano versions. Having played hundreds guitar and piano versions of 19th c. American songs, I can confidently state that piano and guitar are two different things and that a guitar version should not sound like an imitation of the piano version of the same song. The performer was capable but they sounded all wrong.

Back to this one: Smith details his thoughts about this and his transcription process in an article published in Current Musicology in 1992. He believes that Gottschalk's piano transcription is a more accurate rendering of mid-19th c. banjo style than the tutors -- though I get the impression that he hadn't examined them that closely (if at all) -- he seems to have gleaned more information from secondary sources.

Now, I'll admit that Gottschalk had a remarkable ear but HE WAS WRITING PIANO MUSIC. This transcription seems to focus too much on replicating the piano's way of dealing with banjo style figuration, a dubious achievement at best. Sure it's flashy and impressive but it doesn't seem like banjo music to me.

The "main theme" of Gottschalk's The Banjo seems to be a version of the tune called Old Johnny Boker in the Briggs book published about a year later but certainly representing earlier repertoire. I am not saying that the tutors give definitive versions of the pieces -- certainly the best players would have improvised variations and flourishes of their own -- but I would hesitate to treat a piano version as MORE representative than banjo versions!

There are also a number of instances of "historical presentism" in the article. He cites research done in West Africa in the mid-20th c. as if the techniques represented by 20th c. African players would have influenced the players that Gottschalk heard in the 1850s. It's inaccurate to assume that African music stayed static for over 150 years while our music grew and changed.

I hate to pick his article apart but it really does have some problems.

I think we need to assess the nature of what we can glean from the Gottschalk piece and other piano or guitar "imitations" of the banjo but I think Smith's article misses the point and that "miss" influenced his arrangement.
Comment by Tim Twiss on July 18, 2010 at 6:12pm
I don't know if anybody recalls Greg and I doing the same thing to Winner's piano song "The Banjo". I would never play it as a "Keeper" piece, but it was a worthwhile exercise to see how a pianist's concept of a "banjoness" translates back. Repeated notes (ala thumbstring), rhythm and general phrasing were pretty good. The files (videos) are still buried in here, including our scores. I thought Paul's tune was pretty cool. Some parts worked better than others, but he seemed to "go for it" as they say. Low end seemed a little tough.
Comment by Tim Twiss on July 18, 2010 at 8:44pm
I can't remember if we posted the original, or either of our arrangements. I also seem a little lost retreiving them if they are on the site. It was a cool project, but passed by rather unnoticed.
Comment by Strumelia on September 11, 2013 at 9:02am

Wow, interesting thread!  Thanks Mara and Paul for bringing it back again.

First, Paul you are a terrific player and musician.  To qualify- I am no music scholar and will never be able to play half as well as you, so not sure I should even comment on this.  You did a great job bringing this challenging composition to life.

That said, I saw the thread pop up due to Mara's comment, and I watched the video before I read any of the comments, not knowing anything about any of it.  My uninformed impression was that here was a modern jazz improvisation of a piano version of Oh Susannah.   lol!  Those clomping-along piano chord runs remind me so much of how pianists play for contra dances!  I think it's a typical style for pianos playing for dances.

And I never would have guessed when this was written- it's so 'modern jazzy' !  Maybe the black turtleneck had something to do with this impression though...my own twisted mental associations.  ;D

I enjoyed listening, and reading about this, and I learned a few things too.

Comment by Strumelia on September 11, 2013 at 9:25pm

Paul- sorry about the turtleneck confusion... thought maybe you were part of the Beat Generation.  ;D

It really is funny that this piece is indeed full of musical genre 'cliches'...ironic because they were not even cliches yet back then!

I guess maybe the 'jazzy sound' I'm hearing is the syncopated swing-y stuff going on, and the kinda wild improvisational quality to it.  Also when the little "Oh I come from 'ouisiana"...snippet from Oh Susannah pops in there at 3:00min, like they do in jazz.  It wouldn't have surprised me to hear the classic snatch from Rhapsody in Blue at some point after that.  -But all this was before I read anything about the piece- I thought you were just inventing the whole thing on the fly in a flurry of creative genius caught on video!   :)

Comment by Mara Eagle on September 12, 2013 at 10:44am

I'd never heard Gottschalk before, and found "The Banjo" played as a quartet piece on youtube. Not great acoustics-- but at least I can hear the basic structural elements that you're recreating. Its a very contemporary project taking into account all the filters that have brought you to this "state" (if I may use some artist printmaking terminology!). I always struggle with the illogical musical mentality that I have which is very anal and preservationist, and which for me always contradicts the spirit of 'folk' music. For instnace I often find myself memorizing phrases of songs which were originally improvised. I like this piece of music here that you've done because its hyper historically aware and true on many levels, and yet it also acknowledges your contemporaneity.  

I want to add one more piece of praise--- I really appreciate the integration of the 'cora' picking as you called it, because it recalls Uncle Dave Macon's and Gus Cannon's playing in the way that they interrupt their right hand techniques to add texture. Both of those players are so cleverly improvisational and to me endlessly entertaining. (You just need to ditch the turtle neck, get some overalls and add some irrational yelling into this.... I'm telling ya-- you'll be right there!)

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