Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

A Minstrel-era song (about 1840) attributed to Joel Sweeney. Played on a replica 1845 banjo -- gut-strings, no frets, 12 5/8" goat skin head -- built from a Bell & Son kit.

Views: 216

Comment by Bell Banjos on October 2, 2012 at 10:12pm

You did a wonderful job on finishing her, Dan. Beautiful. I forget, are they gut or Nylgut? Sounds really great.

Comment by Bell Banjos on October 2, 2012 at 10:18pm
Oh ya, gut. Wow what a great sound, and great playing.
Comment by Paul Draper on October 3, 2012 at 8:11am
Sounds great Dan. And nice to have an audience... I like the photo of the kid with the mohawk dancing to your playing.
Comment by Jeff on October 3, 2012 at 8:13am
Great Job Dan... I love the picture of the boy with the mohawk... Looks like your banjo playing inspired his feet to start tapping...
Comment by Mark Weems on October 3, 2012 at 8:59am
Wonderful dedication of time, Dan. Give me a holler next time your in Burlington. We are trying to organize a monthly early banjo session here in Durham - love to have ya!
Comment by Strumelia on October 3, 2012 at 11:45am

Wow this is terrific!   Look at how you have that huge group of kids just riveted!- that a real feat.

Very nice playing, too!

I'm curious to know whether and/or how much detail you went into with the class in terms of the history of the music and the era, slavery, etc.  Obviously, you omitted the racially offensive lyric line in the song.

But did you describe the era at all in terms of that subject?

Comment by Dan Gibson on October 3, 2012 at 10:22pm

Thank you all for the kind words.  This was a little experiment (and ego trip, of course).


The pictures are mostly from public library summer reading programs and two elementary school gigs usually grades K-5 -- including the one with the vulture. School programs are usually 5-6 45-minutes sets one or two grade levels at a time (50-200 students at a time). Library audiences range in age from just past newborn and their parents and siblings to great-grandparents, all in the same room.

Strumelia, I use the early banjo and its music as almost "show and tell."  I don't go too deep into the history of it with younger grades (say K-2) other than to talk briefly about its African roots and demonstrate how much different it looks and sounds compared to a "modern" banjo.  Grades 3-6 hear more history, but I try not to "lecture," that's not my job. It's still a work in progress as I become more comfortable with the subject. (I am more candid with adult audiences.) Of course, by the end of the school year, all the kids are much different than they were when school started -- 3rd graders in May are more like 4th graders were in September and proud of it, etc. I adjust my approach accordingly. 


I make no claim to be historically, dead-on accurate (whatever that is) in the performance of any of the mid-19th century stuff except for doing my best with stroke style.  I pick songs that are pretty "clean" to begin with, or that clean up easily and tell a story. Fortunately, there a lot of those from that era. I never sing in dialect and never say "gwine." Since I seldom see the same kids twice, I only need two or three songs and two or three tunes to survive, so I don't have a huge early banjo performance repertoire.  Interestingly, the kids usually say they like the early banjo better than the modern one. I've been asked for an encore on the Bell Boucher more than once.

I've used up enough words.  Hope that was helpful.

Comment by Strumelia on October 3, 2012 at 11:10pm

Yes, thank you for the details, very enjoyable to hear about your approach.   :) 

Comment by Bell Banjos on October 4, 2012 at 9:05am

I'll bet you when some kids get about 14 years old and have an acoustic guitar in their lap, they're going to think about a man at their school who made some infectious music and they'll remember his fingers were moving down and his thumb was moving up. When their guitar playing friends are 'wanking' chords, the kids that remember you will think about those beautiful, clear and complete melodies, and some will end up with a minstrel banjo.

Comment by Al Smitley on October 4, 2012 at 12:30pm

Could be that some of the younger kids will be positively affected, but I keep thinking about a program that I did at the library where I worked.  It was on the Erie Canal and included songs.  The reference librarian for the evening later told me that a teenager came down the steps to the lower level.  He was greeted by a friend, saying, "I thought you were going to the program for extra credit."  His reply was, "Oh, it was just of bunch of old people, singing." .... Geez!  That was 11 years ago!

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